Mark Dee Smith offers a selection of some of the best films of the year
10Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond)
A period piece set during the video nasties scare of the 1980s where an insurgent Thatcherism sought to scapegoat slipstream media as part of their Victorian values offensive.
First-time director Bailey-Bond cannily blends social commentary with the tropes and ambiance of the then-despised genre pieces facing the chop. But it’s the stultifying sexism of the era, as pervasive as the cigarette smoke, that commands our attention.
For horror to really strike home it has to have roots in reality, and for all the blood and guts on the cutting room floor, it’s the actual violence of the rebirthed Tories that chills.
9Spencer (Pablo Larraín)
The Spencer in question is Diana, Princess of Wales and the film follows a day-in-the-life of the doomed royal. The day is Christmas 1991 and the collpase of her marriage and its attendant blowback are taking effect.
This psychological drama is closer in spirit and delivery to Jospeh Losey’s The Servant than any Downton Abbey fare, and is as much a study of bulimia as it is of privilege and the state.
Most famous for creating Peaky Blinders, screenwriter Stephen Knight has proper form with Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises with this sort of shrewd exposition. But it’s Kristen Stewart’s mesmerising performance as the People’s Princess that secures this triumph.
A necessary corrective to the ideological bilge of HBO’s The Crown whose voodoo appears to have shaped some sections of the British left.
Available on most streaming services and still in some cinemas.
8Titane (Julia Ducournau)
In which Julia Ducournau collects not just this year’s Palme d'Or but also the baton of thought-provoking body horror from David Cronemberg with this full-on, head-on mutant road movie.
An extreme film that scrutinises ideas of gender, identity, the fetishisation of flesh and the organic composition of families with the breakneck bravura usually associated with Mad Max. Director Ducournau is keen to reassure audiences that this film is ultimately a love story. This isn’t shock for shock’s sake, that’s for sure.
In cinemas now.
7Pig (Michael Sarnoski)
There’s far more to this Nicolas Cage porcine buddy movie than meets the eye.
Behind the conventions of avenging backwoodsman taking on the city slickers, we find a sharp and calibrated dissection of urban gentrification and the neoliberal self. The permanently high-wire Cage plays low-key here and that’s how the film achieves and undercuts its own foodie mythology.
It’s performances like this that Cage will be remembered for long after the memes are forgotten.
6Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
As confessional as car journeys get, this stately Japanese masterpiece is a meditation on love, loss and the role of story-telling in a secular age. By way of Haruki Murakam and Chekhov and the motif of a-tale-within-a-tale, it is ensemble work at its most naked with the dilemmas of communication rendered with a sheer control and precision. But it’s the film’s subterranean class currents that compel the narrative.
Films with this level of innovation and scope are only coming out of Asia at the moment. The car, incidentally, is a red Saab Turbo 900.
Available on BFI Player and still in cinemas.
5The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
A hugely satisfying synthesis of the classical and revisionist Western, this is Jane Campion’s first feature in a decade. Set in 1925 Montana, it’s a film about the emotional transitions of two grief-laden families. Their journeys uproot their own self-certainties as well as some myths of the Old West. More generally, this echoes the shift from the rural to the urban.
Although John Ford’s lens is never far away, its unpicking of toxic masculinity couldn’t be more contemporary. And Campion’s toying with audience expectations in the third act is supreme filmmaking.
It’s also Benedict Cumberbatch’s strongest, most developed performance. In fact, I didn’t know he had it in him.
4Gagarine (Fanny Liatard & Jérémy Trouilh)
Part coming-of-age drama, part sci-fi fable, Gagarine is set in a soon-to-demolished housing project in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine.
The film’s 16-year-old protagonist and its location share the same commemorative name of Yuri Garagin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first to travel into outer space. Our hero Yuri’s quest is to save the block and get the girl.
Eschewing social realism for the magical sort, the film explores modern-day ideas of community and a multi-ethnic working class through the prism of post-war optimism; a tome when European Communist parties had some clout and presence. Gagarine is the most fun film on this list.
3Azor (Andreas Fontana)
In its creeping intensity and paranoia, Azor recalls the classic political thrillers of the 70s particularly those of Alan J. Pakula.
Set in 1980s Argentina, a period of far-right oppression and wholesale corruption, we follow a couple of Swiss private bankers as they try to fathom the mysterious “disappearance” of an enigmatic former colleague.
A grubby claustrophobia creeps in as high finance enters the Heart of Darkness and the haute bourgeoisie finds accommodation where it must. Filthy lucre, indeed.
2Dune (Denis Villeneuve)
A barnstorming space opera that proves contemporary cinema can be spectacular, immersive and still bring the concept of combined and uneven development to a mass audience.
It is hard to imagine Frank Herbert’s panoramic allegory of myth, history and scarce resources receiving a more mannered and accomplished treatment. Special consideration has to be given to Hans Zimmer and how his score is so fully integrated with the overall sound design. It’s a brave composer that takes the bagpipes into space.
This is the one film on this list that MUST be seen in the cinema but it is now also available on BluRay and streaming services. Roll on, Dune Part II.
1The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
Writer/director Paul Schrader has been telling tales of masculinity and redemption for nearly half a century. This is a film solidly located in war crimes; that’s the War on Terror.
The protagonist’s careful self-treatment for PSTD begins to unravel as the fallout from Abu Ghraib hits his Vegas cocoon. The Card Counter’s skewering of class relations in the prosecution of war and its aftermath recalls Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and far from being a sideshow, is its core.
A far from perfect film - the budgetary constraints are visible – I was gripped throughout. Oscar Isaac’s tent-pole performance as the eponymous card counter (a type of professional gambler) brings to mind, aptly enough, the young De Niro and sweeps away all the shortcomings.
Nothing packs the punch of a real film about real things.
Awaiting Blu-ray, DVD and streaming release.
Documentary of the year: Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Ahmir Khalib Thompson AKA Questlove)
How’s this for contradiction? A New York open-air music festival greenlit by a white Republican Mayor and stewarded by the Black Panthers.
Organised as a sop for black urban discontent that had set the rest of the US ablaze in the preceding years, the event combined a magisterial celebration of music and a snapshot of political consciousness suspended between the poles of DIY capitalism and wider emancipatory straggle.
I can think of no other film that highlights the dual nature of religiosity within black politics as simultaneously a spur and a fetter. But boy, the music: Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Sly & the Family Stone are the standouts. There are no lowlights.
Honourable mentions: The Green Knight, Last Night in Soho, Zola, The Velvet Underground and A Cop Movie.
Before you go...
Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!