Tom Jolliffe on the art of giving film recommendations…
You’ve got to see The Matrix! You have to! It’s 1999, and there’s a distinct transition between the recommender of The Matrix as being ahead of the curve, to a couple of months down the line when such a recommendation is lost in a cacophony of like minded individuals telling you to watch it. Once the secret is out to wider masses, that’s all she wrote. “Dude, you gotta see The Matrix!” “Buddy, I’ve seen it 10 times, what am I, a fucking martian??” More recently, if we switch very briefly to TV, almost everyone who has seen Squid Game, is now recommending it to the select few who haven’t. There comes a moment with some films or shows which take off to stratospheric levels of pop culture or cult appeal, where your recommendation becomes almost meaningless.
The art of film recommendation lies in an ability to carefully select something a little more underground, not quite mainstream and recommend it to a suitable recipient. A successful transaction of recommendation usually results in a message within a few days when the lucky recipient of your inimitable film knowledge, responds having experienced a transcendental cinematic epiphany. We recommend something we feel is a little secret. It’s as if we’ve unearthed a treasure, even if there might be reasonably significant cult audience for said film already.
As a regular rambler on film matters, I’m forever batting out recommendations on here. In journo mode you almost feel more assurance. You’re firing these nuggets out to a wider and unseen world, not necessarily needing to hear the results (though I do occasionally hear the results through DM slides, good and bad). The more risky game is among those you know. Friends, family and colleagues, but particularly those with some degree of cinephilia. To the more casual viewer, recommendations have to be significantly pop cultural to an extent, because otherwise it’ll go completely over someone’s head, or strike little interest in the folk who just want the mainstream stuff.
The beauty of receiving a good recommendation too, is that it can then become yours. In more recent times, the best recommendation I had was Possession, the cult psychological horror/drama from Andrzej Zulawski (thanks Mira). I’ve since adopted that as one of my own recommendations, given it’s a very distinct, unique film which is still alien to some film buffs. Other recommendations I tend to give include Sorcerer. That’s increasing in relevance, but remains somewhat underappreciated in William Friedkin’s CV, not attaining the wider appeal of The Exorcist or The French Connection. Likewise, The Conversation has often been overlooked in Coppola’s CV. These have some attention grabbing power given the recognisable auteurs behind them of course, whilst still being a little under the radar.
Obscure recommendations can make you ooze a particular cineaste smugness, but there’s a danger that such is the level of obscurity (which can occasionally mean a difficulty in picking it up, or streaming) that even your most ardent cinebuff pal, might carefully blank it over time. That said, I have a few staples. An almost unheard of (outside of his own fans) Rutger Hauer film, The Legend of The Holy Drinker is one such. It won a few prestigious awards, came with an established and revered director in Ermanno Olmi, but went by largely unnoticed on it’s original release outside of Europe. It’s a great little piece of fable cinema with one of Hauer’s best performances.
From this year my best recommendation would be Riders of Justice. It’s a highly acclaimed Danish thriller, bringing a fresh spin on revenge cinema, featuring a recognisable figurehead in Mads Mikkelsen. It’s superb, and yet a sadly small cinema release, and less visible streaming placement than it deserves, means many will miss it. Given my broad cinematic tastes I always have an assurance I can work my brain algorithms in matching certain genres, to particular willing fans. So I pitch Riders to lovers of revenge cinema. In the previous few years I’d be pitching a few horror films like Possessor, The Lighthouse and Mandy for their inherently unique quirks to appropriate lovers of those horror types. Possessor to my friends into body horror, Lighthouse to those who like art-house and folk horror, and Mandy to those who like psychedelically batshit fantasy horror.
I like to think my success rate for a well earned ‘that was fucking amazing’ is pretty good but it doesn’t always go right. Know your audience. I once recommended Swingers to a girlfriend’s sister more in tune with Will Ferrell type broad comedy, and it fell, much to my chagrin, like a lead balloon (sorry Brenda). She pointed out that Jon Favreau’s character is too much of a whiny little bitch… I think she might have changed my own mind on the film with that one statement. I made up with it thankfully, by recommending Leon: The Professional, as shockingly, she hadn’t seen it (I mean honestly, who hasn’t seen Leon?).
I suffered a recent recommendation faux-pas too. A friend had just caught up with Parasite and wanted to watch some more Korean cinema. I’m forever recommending Japanese and Korean cinema particularly. This can be a blessing, because not everyone is well accustomed to world cinema and there’s a treasure trove of exceptional films (Mother, Memories of Murder, Cure, Audition, Violent Cop, Burning, I’m forever recommending Burning now, The Wailing, Sonatine, Maborosi). It can also be a curse given some antipathy to subtitles. So my faux-pas: My friend Sonia had no such aversion to subtitles, so I recommended The Handmaiden. It’s in the vein of Rashomon (with multiple perspectives on the same story), it’s pure art-house, a beautiful work of art with great performances but it’s also…erm…quite explicit in places. Very spicy, despite a title which sounds somewhat quaint. So I gave it a very simple recommendation without perhaps stating the spice level. If you go to a curry house and order for a friend new to Indian cuisine, maybe warn them if they’re about to tuck into a vindaloo. I got the report back… “Oh my God!! I just watched this with my sister! So embarrassing.” I will never live that one down.
In fact in more recent years my recommendation habits seem to have skewed to World cinema past and present. It’s natural that film fans, even some of the more impassioned, are more directly drawn to films in the native tongue. My predominant film viewing remains British and American certainly. Increasingly, as I open more and more to world cinemas offerings and unique perspectives, I tend to find myself making more regular recommendations. Stalker, since beginning a love affair with Tarkovsky’s cerebral, experiential masterpiece, is a constant to the people I know with an artistic leaning. I recommend a raft of Bergman, more Tarkovsky, Wenders, Fellini, Bava and Argento. They’re legendary for a reason but occasionally undiscovered here. Alongside the aforementioned predilection to Japanese and Korean cinema, I also regularly peddle suggestions from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chinese and plenty across Europe (particularly Nordic cinema which I absolutely vibe with).
As a Brit I’m not without my nationalist cinematic pride either. Among an array of Brit classics, occasionally overlooked or forgotten, I often recommend Peeping Tom (that has a European flavour to its visuals), The Ipcress File (always fun to recommend to Bond/Bourne/Ethan Hunt aficionados as an antithesis view of espionage), Withnail and I (it’s rare my Brit buff friends don’t know it, but beyond these shores, it’s still a good recommendation for me to dish out). Most commonly though I’m forever recommending Mike Leigh’s Naked, which is still underground enough to carry some surprise.
The game continues in my quest to turn eyes to previously unseen cinematic delights. The less someone knows of a film you recommend, the more points you get if they enjoy it. Just don’t ask me the score system, I don’t know. What are the best and worst recommendations you’ve given? Did you mistakenly tell Sister Magdalena at the convent to watch The Human Centipede? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.