Tom Jolliffe looks back at 15 recent films which you might have missed…
The last few years seems to have bought an upturn in interesting and engaging cinema. Even as conventional blockbuster fare, which can feel interchangeable, rules the roost, indie and world cinema is beginning to find a place and more acknowledgement. At the same time, the masses aren’t catching these films with quite the same regularity as the big tentpole releases. With that in mind, here are 15 films from the last four years that are well worth your time (and which you might have missed).
A woman who has recently suffered a trauma and psychological problems moves to an apartment building, attempting to rebuild her life. She’s woken at night by knocking, and can’t find the source. Soon knocking gives way to the sounds of screaming but no one will acknowledge it. This intense and brilliantly acted Swedish thriller draws on 60’s era Polanski and gravitates around Cecilia Molocco’s exceptional performances. If you want a gripping, intimate and tightly constructed antithesis to 3 hour blockbusters, look no further than this very excellent and sub-90 minute thriller. Currently on the BFI player too.
Pig was one of the great surprises of last year. Nicolas Cage has his prized truffle pig stolen and must get it back. On paper it teased the prospect of possibly being a kind of John Wick-esque film with Cage likely to go all out crazy. Those expecting a melding of Mandy and Wick might have been disappointed, though like Mandy, this really hasn’t got the attention it deserves. For one, it never goes down the Wick route and takes an unexpectedly philosophical route to conclusion. It also has Cage playing a role of such restraint and subtlety, that it will really surprise people. I think he was harshly overlooked during awards season, but this film hasn’t had the backing others had. A clever, beautifully acted film with unexpected moments. Aside from a slightly jarring and oddly ‘Wick-esque’ underground fight club of chefs, this plays things pretty straight.
The Trip, a thoroughly enjoyable black comedy from Norway, proves that Netflix has a decent eye for World Cinema, but moreover proves further that Noomi Rapace is one of the most consistent and underrated actors around. Rapace just seems to be firing out great films at the moment, in no less than four languages too (Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and English). The Trip sees a husband and wife (a TV director and failing actress) on the downslope of a marriage heading to a remote cabin for a trip. Neither realises the other plans to kill them, and then throw in the unexpected arrival of criminals to further complicate matters. It’s violent, funny and touching in the right places. The cast are great, but Rapace is atypically magnetic. I could watch her taking her bins out. But that would be weird.
Calm With Horses
An enforcer for an Irish crime family is none too bright. Arm is a former amateur boxer (Cosmo Jarvis), retired having killed a rival in the ring. He now does the bidding of his friend (Barry Keoghan), whose uncle runs the criminal business. Arm has issues with his ex, and has difficulty getting to know his young, autistic son (who is prone to the same kind of violent outbursts as he). Calm With Horses has the crushing inevitability that Arm’s situation is going to come to a head, and it does so after he fails to kill someone he’s been tasked with offing. Arm isn’t bright but increasingly changes his outlook to be more responsible for his son, helping him get to a special school in cork. The film is gripping, tense, brutal, and punctuated by some very effective minor moments of action. Keoghan is very good, but in the center, with a young Brando-esque magnetic stoicism, is Cosmo Jarvis. It’s a superb performance. A real take notice announcement to the movie going public.
A simple premise crafted with ruthless efficiency and great pacing. John Hyams continues to show loads of creativity as a genre film-maker, in films that are somewhat overlooked. Alone sets up a basic cat and mouse chase with much of the film resting on the two excellent leads (Jules Willcox, chased by Marc Menchaca). In the vein of films like The Hitcher, it keeps the chase going with plenty of complications along the way, and enough ambiguity not to be elusive. A comfortingly slender 90 minutes means it never gets too indulgent for its premise, and Hyams keeps proceedings gripping. Willcox imbues her protagonist with so much depth and sincerity, which draws you into her plight.
A new wave of great Japanese cinema is upon us. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is up for four Oscars, benefiting from a door kicked open by Parasite (the Oscar winning Korean masterpiece from two years ago), but Shoplifters, a 2018 effort from Hirokazu Kore-eda was a touch too early to pick up such attention. Kore-eda’s penchant for slow burning, beautifully observed humanist cinema is in full force. He’s also a specialist in family dynamics in difficult situations and creating complex ideas. Shoplifters sees a family of misfits living in poverty (despite ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ both working, and collecting ‘grandmothers’ pension). There’s social commentary here too, but this family get by through shoplifting. The youngest son has been trained to work in unison with predominantly his dad. The family unit grows when they encounter a young girl, cold and hungry, and seemingly the victim of domestic abuse. She’s taken in and adopted (ie, effectively kidnapped) by the family and slowly drawn into the grifting existence. Wonderfully observed with dark caveats and unexpected twists, Shoplifters is light, jovial and funny one second, beautifully poignant in another, heart crushingly sad in others. It’s a wonderful film that more people will hopefully catch. It might be Kore-eda’s best work. The performances all around are sensational, but particularly impressive are the two youngest actors who are so authentic and natural.
Riders of Justice
This might be my favourite film from last year. It takes the well worn path of revenge genre, but in a way the Nordic regions excel at recently, and subverts it. The American equivalent might star a somewhat ambivalent Liam Neeson, running through the motions, but here, we have a thunderously stoic Mads Mikkelsen on top form. He imbues the character with so much depth. It’s as much about his own ability to recognise a need for therapy, for dealing with his grief properly, than about revenge. The story, with all its twists and turns (some very clever) about seeking this vengeance, is really secondary and Riders, unlike the Bronson mould this in many ways follows, is an anti-revenge film. In truth, some who caught this might have expected more violence, action and full blooded retribution. There’s still plenty (some minimalist and well constructed set pieces) but perhaps due to the sheer power of Mads as a performer, this is elevated to something else.
The ambiguity and confined sci-fi horror of Cube, heavily seasoned with social commentary, The Platform came out of the blue to audiences outside of Spain, aided in capturing its audience with a Netflix release. A platform that goes up and down 333 floors is the starting point for a simple game. Those at the top eat first, the platform lowers and lowers with every floor eating leftovers from above. Inevitably those on the bottom reaches are left with nothing. As a further kicker, your placing changes every week. Clever, grim, exciting and plenty of twists.
Okay, you might start thinking I’ve got a thing for Noomi. I probably do, but she’s great. Lamb, as atypically A24 in all its beautifully shot, ambiguous quirkiness as you can get, is another great platform for her talents. A childless couple (having lost a young daughter before) on a remote, struggling, farm, on the downslope of a marriage (again Noomi) are shocked when one of their sheep gives birth. As we slowly realise, the lamb is a kind of half breed human/lamb, the lineage of which becomes a little clear later. The couple treat Ava like their own. The film is more about a couple who have been unable to reconcile their grief and guilt, and the film was probably mismarketed as more of a horror film than it actually is. It’s really more in the psychological drama field, but it’s engrossing and stunningly shot. There’s enough here to draw one in to wanting a rewatch, and Noomi is brilliant once again.
A White, White Day
You’re also going to think I have a thing for films dealing with grief, particularly Nordic films. I kind of do. It’s the inherent repression and simmering build up to the regrettable that the Nordic cinemasters do better than anyone right now. Usually against the backdrop of expansive, cold and desolate rural spaces. A White, White Day has a recent widower struggling on his own and becoming increasingly obsessed with the notion his recently deceased wife had an affair. It’s like a dark, Icelandic, About Schmidt, minus the road tripping. Ingvar Sigurosson is sensational, a role of introspection and simmering anguish.
I’ve spoken before about the brilliance of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. It hit a year before Parasite. It picked up masses of acclaim and a fair amount of Western notice for an East Asian film, but nothing quite like Bong Joon-ho’s stratospherically successful film. Burning is a film almost wilfully determined to keep its audience at arms length with a lingering and slow film that begins one way, and shifts into something else entirely once Hae-Mi, a girl between a poor farm boy Jong-su and an affluent playboy, disappears. Jong-su having been somewhat indifferent to Hae-mi after their reconnection (and brief physical fling) finds himself jealous, but equally intrigued when she returns from travelling with Ben (Steven Yeun). When she goes missing, the film takes a further twist becoming a determined search as Jong-su becomes convinced Ben has murdered her. The genius of the film is that Chang-dong feeds so much to the audience with clues that all seem feasible, even in the vagueness of some. He does this whilst additionally throwing in contradictory moments, all whilst having us follow a protagonist whose obsessive behaviour is making him an unreliable narrator. This absolutely demands repeat viewing to unearth more subtleties, more clues, more set ups. So much of what Hae-mi says has some relevance to understanding her character. So much of what Ben says is deliberately evasive, or playfully elusive. He says things for effect sometimes which may or may not have truth. It’s just an exceptional work if you give it patience and attention, because even if you end feeling like it’s been laborious without payoff, you’ll suddenly find you can’t stop thinking about it, that it’s hooked you in.
Boss Level features reliable action man of the moment, Frank Grillo, teaming with Joe Carnahan. They’d also team again the same year with Copshop which is also great fun and worth a watch (but picked up a bit more attention seemingly). Grillo does groundhog day in a colourful riff on action films and video games with an array of quirky characters. It’s brimming with energy and scenery chomping pizzazz from all involved, while Grillo is suitably gruff and charming. Mel Gibson enjoys himself a lot in full bad guy mode, something he’s becoming very adept at now, and perhaps a sensible reinvention. Carnahan knows how to put together a fun film with great dialogue and bundles of energy. The individual elements have all been seen before, not least the groundhog day scenario, but this is very enjoyable and the set pieces are great (See also Copshop).
A video censor whose sister went missing several years ago believes she sees her sibling on a video nasty she’s been tasked with readying for the BBFC. She sets about trying to uncover the truth behind the tape, and about her sister, taking her down a dark, lurid, neon soaked path in this great homage to 80’s video nasties. Niamh Algar (also in Calm With Horses) is excellent. The film looks great and when it delves into full blown, Cronenberg-inspired horror, it really kicks off.
Speaking of Cronenberg, here comes Junior. Brandon, son of David, is crafting his own path and creating some great and intensely creative body horrors. Possessor picked up a decent amount of early buzz via festivals and eventually on release, but perhaps hit during a difficult period as far as finding mainstream big screen notice. The buzz has since subsided a little too sadly. An elite corporate assassin uses brain technology to take over the bodies of people to kill targets. Increasingly these immersions into another psyche have an effect on her, and on her newest assignment, her host begins fighting back. Possessor is as gruesome, odd and enthralling as you might expect from a Cronenberg. However even more key here is the performance by the eternally brilliant Andrea Riseborough.
Two friends on a hunting trip in the Highlands face unexpected disaster when one of them accidentally shoots and kills a child. They attempt to cover it up and then find themselves a little ingratiated with the local family the child was part of. They attract some suspicion and things take a further dark turn when the body is discovered. This is a stark, thrilling and gut-wrenchingly tense psychological horror. We see the effects on both men in the wake of the accident, and the decisions in hiding it that push them beyond redemption. When the boy is found and the family realise what has happened, the hunt truly begins. Jack Lowden and Martin McCann are great and the film is superbly shot (making great use of those iconic Highland landscapes). Director, Matt Palmer has a water tight grip on (the thrilling) proceedings. Calibre, despite a home on Netflix, is very overlooked.
What are your favourite overlooked films from the past few years? 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…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/