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)

MLP

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)

MLP

  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. 

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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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Rowan Atkinson | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Cathy Brennan

Whether playing a Christmas gift wrapper in Love Actually, or enjoying a spring break in Cannes, Rowan Atkinson is a man for all seasons. However, the British comedy star shocked MILF appreciators in 2015 when he divorced from his glamorous wife Sunetra Sastry to be with Louise Ford, a woman 28 years his junior. In his autobiography, Stephen Fry said that Sastry, who worked as a make-up artist on the second season of Blackadder (1986), was one of only two women he was attracted to. The actor, who describes himself as “pretty damned gay”, wrote that “he [was] quite seriously considering asking her out on a date” until Atkinson swooped in. Three years after the divorce, perhaps in a bid to earn some quick cash after a costly separation, Atkinson assailed the public with a third film as the clumsy agent Johnny English, a Bond parody who encapsulates Britain’s uncertain place in the 21st century better than 007 himself.

The first Johnny English film was a likeable comedy that filled the gap for British spy fare in the post-Brosnan, pre-Craig period of the Bond franchise in 2003. Johnny English was released on April 11th, less than a month after US and British forces invaded Iraq under the flimsy pretence of searching for WMDs, a quest whose basis was rooted in bad intelligence. Against this geopolitical backdrop, the figure of Atkinson’s Johnny English as a bumbling British secret agent functions as a coy yet sinister bit of propaganda by way of endearing self-deprecation. The French villain played by John Malkovich would also inject the film with a dose of Euroscepticism, supplementing Boris Johnson’s own work as a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s. Malkovich’s plan to turn Britain into a giant prison would seem to foreshadow Johnson’s own pledge to create 10,000 new prison places shortly after taking office as Prime Minister in 2019. The true threat to the British people has always come from those who lead us, as opposed to some foreign interlopers.

In 2011, Johnny English truly went global with the sequel Johnny English: Reborn. The production values were greater this time, with an extended action sequence shot on location in Macau and Hong Kong. Atkinson’s Mr. Bean has long been popular in Asian territories and the new globetrotting Johnny English was likely an attempt to appeal to this wider audience. Nevertheless, the film was terrible, actively making English an unlikeable cretin through his mistreatment of a protégé played by an emerging Daniel Kaluuya. Yet, there remained a hint of prophecy to the film since English’s fictional agency MI7 is shown to be embracing Toshiba as a corporate partner.

This, at last, brings us to Johnny English Strikes Again in 2018, a film so bland and uninspired, one cannot help but entertain the post-divorce cash grab theory. Post-Referendum Johnny English was far cheaper, largely confined to the British Isles, and deploying some slapdash green screen backdrops that would make a mid-00s CBBC show blush. The villain here is a Silicon Valley tech bro (played by the unremarkable Jake Lacy) who dupes Emma Thompson’s Prime Minister (Theresa May was still desperately clutching the keys to Downing Street at this point) into transferring Britain’s digital infrastructure onto his American servers. Lacy’s speeches about data passed me by until the end of November this year, when the new head of MI6 Richard Moore announced that the secretive agency would be working with tech companies in a bid to keep up with Russia and China. According to Moore, “MI6 cannot develop the tools it needs in-house to counter hybrid physical and virtual threats.” Suddenly those Toshiba signs in Johnny English: Reborn have a bit more bite to them.

The career of Johnny English may at first glance seem an inconsequential footnote in the UK’s history. He’s not singularly iconic like Mr. Bean, and he’s forever in the shadow of James Bond as a parody.  Yet, like the flecks of faecal matter one invariably finds in a cup of water collected from the River Thames, Johnny English remains a vital part of the culture in the Great British petri dish, telling us something about who we are as a country, and where we may be headed.

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Martine McCutcheon | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Anna Devereux

Love, Actually is full of epic, logic-defying, and often bizarre love stories. But only one of them changes the fate of a nation: that of Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister and his tea lady, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). No one but Natalie does so much and yet so little.

McCutcheon, who plays Natalie, belongs to a distinct breed of barely famous British celebs: you are aware of her but you’re not sure why. Before Love, Actually, she had shot to TV stardom as the ill-fated Tiffany Mitchell on EastEnders, until her departure in 1998 to pursue a pop career. This was similarly doomed: after a few hit singles, her career petered out and finally ended with the musical theatre cover album Musicality (2002). It reached 55 in the charts and caused her contract to be cut. 

But EastEnders had made an impression: Richard Curtis saw McCutcheon as so important to the execution of Love, Actually that the part of Natalie was written for her. While her character is mainly a prop for the men around her, reduced to fat jokes, chocolate biscuits, and saying “piss it”, McCutcheon’s presence in the film is prominent enough that my parents won’t even watch it. Year after year I can depend on one of them speeding out of the living room as Heathrow Airport arrivals loom on the screen: “Oh Jesus, is that the one with Martine McCutcheon again?”

So as research for this piece, I texted my mum to ask why she and my dad hate McCutcheon:

“Lol I wouldn’t say I hate her. Just a bit irritating really. She reminds me of the woman in the pizza ads. Your dad says she’s a complete gobshite but he can’t really say why.” So then why is Natalie, who essentially spends the film hanging about waiting to be kissed by various members of the G8, so memorable and divisive?

In contrast to her co-stars’ theatre school trained performances, Natalie is a more realistic model of an every-day Londoner: semi-Cockney accent, foul-mouthed, knows the back entrance to the school, loves a biscuit, has a mean – and unseen – boyfriend, lives in Wandsworth (the Dodgy End). When the Prime Minister meets Natalie’s entire family on their way out the door to the school Nativity, we’re presented with a loud, imposing group with no notion of the embarrassment they cause: “Eight is a lot of legs, David,” quips her mum about the hassle of making an octopus costume for a child. Natalie’s awkward, unpretentious version of London is a familiar one.

And it is under her unpretentious influence that the Prime Minister is able to access a level of authenticity and integrity so stirring that his “David Beckham’s right foot” speech has been poached by at least one British Prime Minister. This influence makes Natalie one of the major connectors across the plot of the film. Thanks to her, the Prime Minister tells the Americans where to stick it, endeavours in an impressive bout of canvassing in Wandsworth, reunites with his sister (Emma Thompson’s Karen) in her hour of need, and provides a surprise headline act for the local school’s Nativity play.

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Kris Marshall | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Shelby Cooke

In Richard Curtis’s Christmas classic, Love, Actually (2003), the notion of love is presented as something so fleeting and superficial that it’s no surprise Curtis and his stories get the reputation of being infuriatingly slapdash. The characters in this misogynistic romantic-comedy equate sex appeal, idealised romantic pining and unhealthy obsessions with love, setting a rather toxic, and unrealistic, precedent for any viewer watching. Not only does Love, Actually spend two hours using fat jokes, homophobic masculinity and sexual harassment to spread the holiday cheer, but it also drives its story on cultural and gender stereotypes, perpetuating outdated clichés — even for the early 2000s — with one unlikeable plotline after another. While Curtis’ characters are all riddled with misjudged representations, it’s Colin Frissell’s (Kris Marshall) narrative that personifies the fundamental issues with this film. 

Colin, an average, laddish, English twenty-something, is fed up with being rejected by “stuck up” English women, who aren’t “cool” or “game for a laugh” (while not taking into consideration that it’s, perhaps, his sexist pick up lines and unattractive personality that is not getting him any dates). He decides the best course of action is to go to America where American girls would “seriously dig me with my cute British accent.” As Colin’s story progresses, he does, in fact, go to America, and in his first 24 hours in snowy Wisconsin, he has what is assumed to be wild sex with four stunning but dumb American women.

Now, the issue with Colin’s storyline isn’t necessarily romanticising moving to a new country and falling in love with a foreign stranger (we’ve all been there). But rather, the problem lies more with Curtis’s fetishisation of cultural stereotypes, a theme that recurs throughout his romantic comedies. Before Love, Actually, Curtis created cinema’s unrealistical Englishman with Hugh Grant’s Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), while making Andie MacDowell’s American Carrie an insufferable social climber. Similarly, Hugh Grant’s William is the innocent bystander in Julia Roberts’ vain celebrity in Notting Hill (1999). Colin’s arc is just another addition to Curtis’s cinematic vendetta towards English/American relationships.  

Compared to Love, Actually’s other male leads, Marshall lacks the suave, gentlemanly attractiveness seen in the likes of Hugh Grant, Colin Firth or Andrew Lincoln. Rather, Colin is referred to as “a lonely, ugly arsehole” by his friend, highlighting his homely physique and ordinary disposition. Yet, his inflated ego gives him the confidence to think that his standard-issue, unimpressive accent will be enough to make him “Colin, the God of Sex.”  

Marshall’s character is designed to counteract the very cliché of the sophisticated Englishness he is attempting to seduce women with. Curtis, in a film with a plethora of Mr Darcys’, gives Marshall the role of the Englishman in New York — or, in this case, Milwaukee — playing to the absurdity of the stereotype associated with traditional Englishness for Americans. The joke works because Marshall isn’t Grant; he isn’t the dashing, posh Englishman. He’s just a plain and boring guy. 

But where Curtis loses the joke is by having Colin’s non-existent English charm actually work. What Curtis projects instead is a much more chauvinistic insult on American women, treating them as bimbos who sleep with any ill-attractive man just because he speaks in a certain way. 

After Colin is taken to an all-American bar, he meets Stacey (Ivana Miličević), a brunette beauty queen who talks like an off-brand Paris Hilton and has nothing much behind her eyes. She immediately notices Colin’s accent (and strangely refers to it as English rather than the generic British title Americans typically give to people from the UK and Ireland — so are they stupid or not, Richard?) and calls over her friend to investigate this new specimen. Stacey’s friend Jeannie (January Jones) is introduced through a full-body pan that showcases her perfect assets and is presented like Hollywood’s girl next door with her platinum blonde hair, tight clothing and flirtatious demure. During the epilogue, we are introduced to yet another lacklustre American woman, Carla (played by Denise Richards, known culturally for being a sex symbol and party girl), who Colin brings back to London simply to be his mates new playboy bunny. As more American women show up in Colin’s sphere, it’s clear the beauty outweighs the brains between them all, typecasting all the women into a sexist category and furthering the idea that these women don’t deserve an ounce of respect.  

The way Curtis represents a nation of women creates the connotation that American women are willing to jump into bed without any considerations of the man. It sustains this false cultural stereotype that Colin creates of America and their women, imprinting an image of American women as vain, shallow and sexually willing for the Englishmen watching. The women Curtis cast have the talent and popularity for character lines like Linney or Knightley, with Richards being a cultural icon from her role as a Bond girl and Jones’s soon-to-be Emmy-nominated turn as Betty Draper in Mad Men. But, instead, Curtis opts to use them as side pieces that have no development or agency in their own right.     

By pigeon-holing entire identities and nationalities into these overused conventions, Curtis is perpetuating fetishes between England and America, insinuating that all American women are easy, daft bombshells, ready to pleasure any Englishmen with a charming turn of phrase. Through his characters, Curtis creates a rather hostile relationship between America and Britain, giving Britishness a higher morality and, quite frankly, education than any of the Americans present (see also Billy Bob Thornton’s rapist President compared to Grant’s virtuous Prime Minister, covered in Isaac Parkinson’s essay for this very volume).  

Curtis’s film lacks any sort of nuance or depth, failing to actually articulate the reality of modern transatlantic relationships. Instead, Curtis opts for self-indulgent tropes that would make any culturally conscious global citizen cringe with embarrassment.    

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Frances de la Tour | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Laura Venning

Poor Lesbian Lover (uncredited). You’ll only find her if you scroll right down to the bottom of the Internet Movie Database’s cast list, sandwiched between Richard Curtis’ cameo as Trombone Player (uncredited), and Rebecca Frayn as Joanna – Daniel’s Dead Wife (uncredited). And unlike those two roles, Lesbian Lover (uncredited) didn’t make it to the final cut; she’s confined to the deleted scenes on scratched DVDs and YouTube uploads in stunning 340p.

In a sequence that lasts no longer than two minutes total, Anne Reid’s stern headmistress arrives home from work clutching a Waitrose bag and has a brief conversation with her Lesbian Lover (uncredited), who’s clearly undergoing chemotherapy. Cut to a scene that we can assume was never intended to immediately follow this showing the couple in bed together and the headmistress’ look of concern and resignation as her partner coughs painfully. Suddenly Emma Thompson is standing on stage in a school hall offering her condolences on behalf of the parents, acknowledging that “Geraldine was a wonderful and wicked woman” as the headmistress looks on.

As abrupt as its conclusion is, it’s a rather lovely sequence that’s a great deal more human than plenty of the scenes which made it into the final cut. Even in such a brief scene, Frances de la Tour gives Geraldine the kind of naughtiness of an eccentric favourite aunt, draped in burgundy and laughing at her partner telling off a child for writing an essay about farts and her fondness for fancy sausages, while the headmistress chuckling at her own pompousness is charming. In a film guilty of sexist wish fulfilment (Kris Marshall’s jaunt to America) and trumpeting about Britain’s greatness under New Labour, it’s as tender and real as anything by Mike Leigh (albeit posher), and the couple’s queerness is incidental but offers a wealth of emotional undercurrents. 

Inevitably, the ‘Love Actually is Problematic, Actually’ discourse rears its head every year with this deleted storyline reappearing as evidence that Richard Curtis did once intend to take a tentative step outside the realm of heteronormativity. Why Were The Two Most Diverse Storylines Cut From Love Actually? cries this Grazia article from December 2020, referring to this sequence and a brief scene between a couple in Africa (the country isn’t specified) who have endured famine. It is certainly rather funny that not only did one of the only two gay characters die, she didn’t even get to do so in the final cut, and fictional lesbians do have a well-documented tendancy to end up dead or alone.

But the fuss over Love Actually’s shortage of gays (though I would argue that Keira Knightley clutching banoffee pie and wearing a newsboy cap is gay culture) feels like yet another entry in pop culture’s tedious adulation or condemnation of media based on its adherence to “good representation.” This often seems to mean inoffensive, well-behaved characters from a perceived minority group, devoid of an inner life. Us queers were clearly supposed to fall down and give thanks to our conglomerate overlords for their benevolence when The Rise of Skywalker (2019) included a same-sex kiss between unnamed characters, Beauty and the Beast (2017)’s LeFou danced with a man for a millisecond and, infamously, co-director Joe Russo appears as a gay man in a group therapy scene in Avengers: Endgame (2019).

Representation is not unimportant. It’s vital, both as a reaffirmation of identity and fostering of empathy. But I’m not heartbroken because Geraldine, aka Lesbian Lover (uncredited), wasn’t loved quite enough. Queer people are used to reinterpreting stories and finding unlikely commonality in all kinds of media. For example, Laura Linney’s euphoria but then denial of her own desire might read as queer (she certainly clocks that Andrew Lincoln might be pining over Chiwetel). Then of course, there is a sincere affection between Bill Nighy’s rockstar and Gregor Fisher’s manager that borders on homoerotic, as jokey as it is. 
The short, sad story of Geraldine and the headmistress is affecting, and Love Actually would be a better film for its inclusion (and the removal of some other storylines). But reading queerness on screen is much more than 1:1 representation. It’s more complex, more subtle, more rewarding and usually more fun. Expand horizons, search beyond whatever’s slopped onto our plates, and look after each other and our community. Happy Christmas.

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Colin Firth | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Ben Flanagan

It starts for Jamie (Colin Firth), as it does for all liberals, with a cucking. Returning home from the glorious, Beatles-covered union of Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor to check on his sick girlfriend (Sienna Guillory), Jamie discovers that she’s Beullered him – and is in fact schtupping his brother (Dan Fredenburgh). 

Definitively emasculated, Jamie absconds to his cottage in unspecified France to write his novel, where he will engage in a lost-in-translation relationship with a Portuguese peasant, Aurélia. He drives her home each day after she cleans his house, and in return he never needs to bother understanding what she is saying and can fall in love with what passes, to him, as her exoticism. 

Firth’s stiff upper lip performance (his only note, but the note that made him a star) brings to mind PG Wodehouse’s not-so-accidental collaboration with the Nazis during World War 2. Much as Jamie cuts himself off from the London society that populates Love, Actually, Wodehouse was in a self-imposed isolation in France in 1941 when the Nazi army rolled in and interned him. On his release, Wodehouse was transported to Berlin, where he would see out much of the war delivering radio broadcasts that characterised the British in a less than favourable light. Wodehouse, that cataloguer of jodhpurs, immaculate lawns, and English breakfast cuisine, was revealed by this act to have hated his own culture: ‘before the war I had always been modestly proud of being an Englishman, but now that I have been some months resident in this bin or repository of Englishmen I am not so sure…’ Though the content of Jamie’s novel is never described, one imagines that it would be a similar screed against the hypocrisies that make up Britain, and his own personality. Thank goodness a gust of wind sends his manuscript into the water. 

His return to Wandsworth (the dodgy end) is the most telling moment. Arms stuffed with Christmas presents, the door to his family home swings open to reveal his entire network of aunts, cousins and grandparents in baroque staging: sherry glasses aloft, balding heads shining, badly applied lipstick, excited children in M&S gingham, his brother’s face meekly poking from behind an auntie. Confronted by what Lacan would call the real, Jamie flees as though Stella Dallas from the scene of the original sin. Back to Europe, his only option is to conquer the unconquerable: his British exceptionalism has an entire Portuguese village follow him through the streets on his way to propose to Aurélia. 

The spirit of Jamie lives on, through the tutting ‘FBPE’ commenters who backed a people’s vote as an escape route from Brexit. The acronym stands for ‘Follow Back, Pro-European Union’. You have seen these types: they might have a European Union flag draped in their window, or a ‘QC’ in their Twitter handle. The FBPE brigade sees the EU as the only glimmer of freedom against the rising tides of fascism. Sensible deregulation, they seek. Never mind Greece. Never mind that the EU’s border force, Frontex, is contributing to the humanitarian crisis on the Poland/Belarus border at this very minute. ‘I am not British, I am European,’ FBPE will say, without considering what that could mean beyond owning Farage. But look at the comic punchline to the Jamie and Aurélia plotline. To complete the transaction of property and attain his new wife/cleaner, Jamie must snog the fat sister and the father! The European will always seem wild and exotic to the Brit, and until we can get over that fact, we will all continue to be cucked by our kin.

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Andrew Lincoln | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Sam Moore

There are a few scenes that come to mind when thinking about Love, Actually in a vacuum, and they all revolve around music: Bill Nighy singing an abysmal Christmas-themed cover of Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’; Hugh Grant dancing around Number 10 Downing Street to the Spice Girls; Emma Thompson quietly weeping as ‘Both Sides Now’ plays. But maybe the most (in)famous of all of them might be the coup of the Andrew Lincoln/Keira Knightley plot, as he stands outside her house, using cue cards and a lie about carollers in order to confess his love to the woman who’s just married his – supposed – best friend.

The afternoon before I sat down to write this, a friend told me about a standup set she saw at a music festival; Lulu Popplewell, the actress that plays Emma Thompson’s daughter – the lobster in the nativity – mentioned in an offhand interview comment, that the gender politics of the film had aged badly, and as a result, she received a torrent of abuse on social media. Of course, she’s right – and getting attacked for this is pretty telling in itself – and one of the things that captures how the “romance” of this not-so-romantic comedy has aged, is seen in Lincoln, and his eye-rolling declaration of love.

Andrew Lincoln is essentially a Nice Guy in Love, Actually; best man at his friend’s wedding, a companion and confidant to his new bride (who he just happens to be in love with), right until he isn’t, and he decides that he has to reveal the truth to her. But only after she finds some of the wedding footage that he’s shot, in all of its voyeuristic glory, the eye of his camera following her around like she’s a Hitchcock blonde about to meet an untimely end. Because the more you sit and think about Love, Actually, and the more time passes from its initial release, the more its sweetness turns bitter, and it becomes clear that Lincoln’s Nice Guy isn’t very Nice.

But what’s interesting here is that, rather than simply being a Bad Guy, what he really is is a kind of cinematic ground zero, the point from which a new brand of toxic Nice Guy has emerged on screen. In the decades(!) since Love Actually came out, the entitlement and insecurity of Nice Guys has been laid bare; the longer a sitcom goes on, the more its male leads become exaggerated versions of this idea: from Leonard in The Big Bang Theory to the most famous example of the trope, Ross in Friends (1994-2004).

The new approach to the Nice Guy isn’t just to acknowledge that they aren’t that nice, that their Niceness is toxic, but to bring that toxicity front and centre. Netflix’s You – a show that works primarily because Penn Badgley’s Joe is charming and charismatic, and that you want to fuck him – spends its first season showing how the Nice Guy functions as a mask for sinister intentions. And then there’s Promising Young Woman (2020), the divisive rape “revenge” movie that took a bunch of Nice Guy Actors and showed that their Nice Guys were toxic, violent, and unrepentant. And none of them would exist without Andrew Lincoln in Love, Actually. These guys share the same notions of romance; public, grand, things that a woman basically can’t say no to (out of embarrassment, out of fear), and as these guys are revealed to be at once more knowingly toxic, and more outwardly violent, the slippery slope from Lincoln to Goldberg becomes crystal clear, and the reality of what these women aren’t always able to say no to becomes impossible to ignore.

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Billy-Bob Thornton | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Isaac Parkinson

As something of an interloper to Love, Actually’s quaint British melodrama, Billy Bob Thornton’s President provides transatlantic opposition for Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister David. In a presciently theatrical press conference, David’s old-fashioned sincerity and Blair-coded crusading patriotism collide with American bravado in line with the implicitly jingoistic spirit of the Christmas Season. As this rogue presence of Americanness, it should be considered how Thornton as a performer embodies an image of Britain’s bullies, both on screen and in the public eye, to enable the desired moral polarisation between him and Grant.

Introduced with the national anthem, accompanied by flags on his car and greeted by demands for photos from journalists, we understand his identity as that of both celebrity and patriot. His character is credited only as “the US President,” reducing his nameless presence to a pure symbol to be projected onto. Similarly, the celebrity of Thornton’s personal life was apparent before he could talk. Born into notoriety as a child of exceptional excess, Thornton claims to have been the fattest baby in Clark County, Arkansas, weighing 30 pounds at only seven months old. His proclivity to make headlines continued beyond his era of infant rotundity. In particular, the intensity of his romantic life provided constant fodder for tabloids to generate material.

He has been married 6 times, gaining the most public attention during number 5 of 6. Angelina Jolie, 20 years his junior, was an equally famous, tabloid-reliable star, guaranteeing the couple to be objects of intrigue. Stories of bizarre actions from the couple have become the stuff of celebrity culture canon. For instance, the two began wearing matching necklaces containing vials of each other’s blood. Thornton noted the extreme hyperbole of coverage, snowballing to headlines suggesting “we were vampires and we lived in a dungeon.”

Then there was the now infamous MTV interview for the 2000 premiere of Gone in 60 Seconds, in which the couple are openly sexual in a fashion rarely seen at a red carpet function. Asked a leading question on what the “most exciting thing” they’ve done in a car is, Thornton cuts right to the chase while Jolie continues to kiss/bite/lick him as he speaks, saying “You want me to be honest? We fucked in the car. On the way here.” 

Thornton stated that his marriage to Jolie was in part tested by their conflicting professional commitments (in spite of their vampiric blood vial connection), specifically noting his role in Monster’s Ball (2001) opposite Halle Berry: “If you are a thousand miles from home on a film set simulating sex with a beautiful woman, it’s even tougher.” 

A similar threat to monogamy presented by a work excursion is evident in Love, Actually, as Thornton’s president is largely defined by his playboy “when-the-cat’s-away” attitude. He mocks David for the PM’s assertion that he’s “not sure that politics and dating really go together.” “Really? I’ve never found that,” POTUS answers, hinting towards a frequency of romantic attachment akin to Thornton himself. His attitude of arrogant political posturing over an unnamed policy is only a secondary crime to his objectification of and crude sexual advances towards Natalie, the subject of David’s chaste affection. Upon first seeing her, Mr. President refers to her as a “pretty little son of a bitch” and asks David “did you see those pipes?” While I genuinely don’t know what “pipes” means in this context, his comments continue into some form of sexual advance for which Natalie later apologises. “He’s the President of the United States,” she says, reinforcing how his perceived status and celebrity is inexorably linked to sexual pressure. David’s eventual public consummation of a similarly disturbing dynamic is therefore framed as a triumph through a swell of confidence to overcome his timid British properness. Without Thornton’s machismo to contend with, this triumph holds less significance.

One of few entirely unsympathetic characters in Curtis’ tapestry, his hollow shell of projected American greed operates as a shield to re-contextualise David’s actions. The Prime Minister’s story inexplicably plays with power dynamics which, in a post-Clinton politician-as-celebrity media landscape, would have seemed to be off-limits. However, by relation to the exaggeratedly aggressive American masculine ideal of political and carnal power, his decision to pursue romance with a staff member is allowed the freedom to be seen as equally sweet and sincere as its surrounding stories. 

Similarly, in sanitising David’s image through this dichotomy, the Blair-era image of a Prime Minister is absolved of responsibility for any 2003-contextual collaborative foreign policy action. In spite of the looming spectre of the Iraq invasion, their discussion of ‘policy’ remains abstract, allowing for a reinforcement of a share of power where the UK is only innocently subservient. David’s rejection of the President’s theoretical greed can be implicitly read as a rejection of their military coalition. However, again this takes a back seat to the more urgent issue of being allowed to act on his romantic attraction. The casting of Thornton weaponises his similarly controversial and seemingly over-active romantic life and public image to reinforce this concept of the insatiable American man, and by extension the righteous British man. It’s one rule for the Hughs and another for the Billy Bobs.

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