1. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
While hunting for hidden gems and peculiar, weirdly shaped pieces of cinema, I have missed a plethora of ‘critic-proof’ classics, partly because of a very dense, even intimidating aura of veneration surrounding them. So, when I learned that Lawrence of Arabia was to be aired on a cable channel (which, thankfully, doesn’t run a single commercial during a film), I seized the opportunity to watch it. And I don’t regret staying up to 3 am – it is a synonym of grandeur.
2. The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924)
Once upon a time, when Hollywood spectacles were works of fine art, William Cameron Menzies designed some of the most stunning sets ever seen in a silent film. Inspired by Art Deco and oriental architecture, they defined magnificent space for an immersive, larger-than-life fantasy whose visual magic was further enhanced by Mitchell Leisen’s lavish costumes, and Arthur Edeson’s often dreamlike cinematography.
3. Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)
Overflowing with charm and radiating warmth every time Audrey Hepburn graces the screen with her presence, this is a perfect spring Sunday afternoon film (and guess what, tomorrow is Sunday).
4. Murderers’ Row (Henry Levin, 1966)
Armed with wit and charm, as well as with a few nifty gadgets, Dean Martin snoops around French Riviera as a womanizing I.C.E. agent, Matt Helm, in a brilliantly funny spy-fi comedy which bursts with saturated colors and deliberately tacky one-liners. On his top secret mission of saving brilliant Dr. Solaris from a big baddie, Julian Wall (Karl Malden, playing his role with gleeful malevolence), he is joined by the good doc’s daughter – a feisty lass, Suzie (Ann-Margret, lighting up the screen with some killer dance moves). And yes, the rivaling team also has a femme fatale in its ranks – a seemingly cold and absolutely ravishing blonde, Coco Duquette (Carmilla Sparv, elevating her sex appeal with an enigmatic smile). Right from the groovy pop-art title sequence to a sequel announcement in the epilogue marked by an exciting ‘boat & hovercraft’ chase scene, Murderers’ Row is pulp cinema at its best.
5. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1978)
The loneliest and most unlikely friendship in the world (or at least in New York slums of the 70’s) marries naïveté to cynicism, as dreams fail to come true for both of the outcast heroes brought to bleak life by admirably committed performances from John Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
1. Sententia (Dmitry Rudakov, 2020)
Kafkaesque absurdity, Lynchian uncanniness, and above all, formal rigor that would make Bresson quiver with fear densely intertwine and symbiotically merge into Dmitry Rudakov’s masterful, painfully poignant, brutally honest and heartachingly beautiful directorial debut which chronicles the last days of Russian poet, journalist, writer and GULAG survivor Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov (1907-1982), as well as two of his most devoted admirers’ endeavors in the preservation of the author’s bequest. In less than ten deliberately paced scenes, each helmed with admirable precision, unflinching confidence and heightened sensibility, Rudakov translates Shalamov’s pain of 17 years spent in forced-labor camps into a minimalist tour de force that is in equal measures poetic, cerebral, soulful and visceral. Its heavy atmosphere of Stalinist despair and impending death, particularly dense during the final twenty minutes of ominous silence, rises from the complementary fusion of the gorgeously austere 16mm cinematography (Alexey Filippov) and disquieting humming reminiscent of the muffled wailing of the winds (Stepan Sevastyanov) which keeps the psychological tension constant. Also praiseworthy is Alexandr Ryazantsev’s largely physical performance, his shriveled and battered body reflecting the protagonist’s seriously deteriorated state of mind... Sententia is easily one of the best Russian films of the last two decades and a strong contender for No. 1 of my 2021 annual list.
2. Servants (Ivan Ostrochovský, 2020)
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of Ivan Ostrochovský’s second narrative feature, virtually each shot renders you speechless, taking your breath away in the process. Superbly framed in boxy black and white of Bressonian austerity, Servants is catapulted with great force into the Pantheon of the most beautiful Eastern European films. Equally powerful as its sublimely ascetic cinematography (by Juraj Chlpik) is Cristian Lolea and Miroslav Toth’s stark, ominously brooding score of industrial drones and phantasmal chants that subtly break the quietude, and intensify the sense of dystopian paranoia and nihilist dread of the historical setting. Sullen soundscapes also weave a web of mystery around the grim, fragmented and deliberately open-ended story which blends a borderline-surreal coming-of-age drama with steely cold neo-noir, chronicling the tension between two authoritarian entities – the strict communist regime embodied in villainous Dr Ivan (Vlad Ivanov, exuding spine-tingling menace) and sneaky Catholic Church facing a deep divide within its ranks. Struggling for both their bodies and souls in such a toxic environment are Juraj and Michal (the promising first-time performances by Samuel Skyva and Samuel Polakovic) – a couple of theological seminary students whose youthful idealism gets violently crucified.
3. The Wanting Mare (Nicholas Ashe Bateman, 2020)
(read my review HERE)
4. The Visitor (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää, 2008)
As if possessed by the spirits of Tarkovsky and Klimov, Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää frames virtually every shot of his debut with meticulous care and an experienced artist’s eye, delivering a film of immense lyrical power which easily overshadows his following efforts, They Have Escaped and Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. Told or rather, shown from the perspective of its mute protagonist – an unnamed boy living with his mother on a ramshackle farm – The Visitor is a visually immersive, densely atmospheric tone poem draped in a dark veil of mystery...
5. Swoon (Måns Mårlind & Björn Stein, 2019)
A delightfully quirky and lightly surreal romantic drama in the vein of Amélie is the last film you would expect to come from ‘Bergmanland’ and yet, here it is! Set in 1940 and based on the history of the Gröna Lund amusement park located on Djurgården Island in Stockholm, Swoon chronicles a charming story of forbidden love stronger than nazism and war. Introducing the language of flowers, embodying a swarm of belly butterflies and depicting a dream-duel with rose-firing guns, inter alia, it is directed as if in the state of euphoric infatuation, and photographed like a hyper-stylized fairy tale pulsating with many colors and neon lights, as its grand, sweeping music score heightens the emotional impact. Mårlind & Stein take a great deal of artistic liberty to include the period-befitting covers of singles by Abba, Bon Jovi and Beyoncé in a few unexpected anachronistic twists, and their playfulness seems to be infectious, as reflected in certain costume designs by Margrét Einarsdóttir. Swoon is pure magic and I’m head over heels for it.
6. I Am Lying Now (Paweł Borowski, 2019)
Art imitates li(f)e imitates art... or maybe there’s no imitation at all in Paweł Borowski’s second feature which proves that artifice is a skill filmmakers should fully and firmly embrace. His weirdo meta-thriller of a Rashomon-esque structure and satirical proportions is set in a beautiful retro-futuristic dystopia where vintage fourwheelers pass and park next to Brutalist buildings, and the grooviness of the 60’s and 70’s modernism is evoked in both costume and interior designs. (Kubrick would’ve certainly approved that hotel hallway defined by curved, neon-lit walls.) A creative editing makes way for some cool optical illusions complementing Borowski’s formal trickery, as the viewer follows a taser-armed white rabbit down the hole of sex, lies and compromising video discs surrounding a film production in the hands of a mysterious puppet master (a nod to Lynch?). Add to that an exquisite cinematography, refined art direction, unobtrusive, yet effective electro-score with the 80’s vibes, and a menacing quiz/talk-show host who looks like a cross between Maleficent and Tilda Swinton, and you got yourself an entertaining and aesthetically chic reflection on the nature of cinema and reality.
7. The Man Who Knew 75 Languages (Anne Magnussen & Paweł Dębski, 2016)
“Without a native language, people are like motherless children.”
An elegant blend of rotoscoped animation (characters) and live-action (backgrounds), The Man Who Knew 75 Languages tells the story of the German publisher, poet and linguistic prodigy Georg Sauerwein (1831-1904), and his affectionate relationship with his protégé, princess Elisabeth of Wied (1843-1916), who would marry King Carol I (1839-1914) and become the Queen of Romania. Part biopic and part ‘fairy tale’, the film strikes a subtle balance between information and poetry / facts and fiction, introducing the viewer to an extraordinary man vilified in his own time, and revered as a pacifist and humanitarian today. Even though his awe-inspiring polyglottic knowledge couldn’t be fully explored within the limited time-frame of 65 minutes, we hear Robert Günschmann – voice-actor who ‘resurrects’ Sauerwein – using German, English, French, Italian, Norwegian, Lithuanian and Sorbian (spoken by a West Slavic minority, Sorbs, who live in Lusatia region of eastern Germany). Günschmann and the rest of the largely non-professional cast play their roles in a low key register, complementing the modest beauty of visuals, and the serene tone of the music score. The result is a charmingly unpretentious feature that never outstays its welcome.
8. Night in Paradise (Hoon-jung Park, 2020)
The mainstream cinema of South Korea never cease to amaze! In the latest feature penned, directed and produced by the screenwriter of I Saw the Devil, an engaging crime drama is interwoven with an icy cold revenge thriller and blood-soaked action into a tragic, not to mention nihilist gangster epic laced with bits of wry humor, concealed romance and fleeting moments of poetry. Relentlessly plunging the viewer into a grim underworld or rather, parallel reality of organized crime and corrupted police officials, it focuses on a wronged mobster, Tae-Gu (Tae-goo Eom, lending a composed bad-boy charm to the sympathetic anti-hero), and a young, terminally ill woman, Jae-Yeon (Yeo-bin Jeon, brilliantly channeling, as well as externalizing suppressed rage of her character), brought together in a game of manipulation and backstabbing played by sharks in branded suits. Although it’s tropey as almost any given genre film in recent memory, it is so well crafted that you probably won’t mind a cliché here and there...
9. The Inferno Index (Cosmotropia de Xam & Lapis Exilis, 2021)
It’s not everyday you see a Serbian soprano (Marijana Mladenov) portraying Witch who converts a young woman (Mira Kohli) to the dark side in a German underground flick which makes great use of heavy filters, on-body projections, flickering and footage played backwards. Falling somewhere between a goth-horror music video, pseudo-occult fever dream, ritualistic performance and meta-cinematic experiment, The Inferno Index boldly eschews conventional story-telling in favor of luridly spellbinding hyper-psychedelic visuals and moodily propulsive electronica veiled in haunting chants. A labor of demonic love, this experiential phantasmagoria was conceived and brought to life by a team of only six people, four of whom worked both behind and in front of the camera.
10. Zach Snyder’s Justice League (Zach Snyder, 2021) / Mortal Kombat (Simon McQuoid, 2021)
Zach Snyder’s cut of a 2017 box office bomb is twice as grandiloquent as what you’d expect from a 4-hour-long superhero epic, brimming with VFX eye-candy and gravity-defying battles, while giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘over-the-top’. Enchantingly silly, it is never boring, and it even manages to be solemn and poignant amidst all that grand-scale destruction and slow-mo show offs, although the director’s grief stemming from the most unthinkable personal loss is not as deeply felt as intended. The murky color palette gives the proceedings a ‘faux-gotique meets poetic cinema on steroids’ vibe which works like a charm, and the ensemble cast lends some gravitas to their pulpy characters, each given just enough screen time.
(And another thing that won’t pass unnoticed is a pectoral muscle contest between Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill...)
One year after the first successful animated adaptation (though I must admit that I kind of liked the Saturday morning cartoon-like series from the mid-90’s), the long-running fighting game franchise once again hits the screen in all of its R-rated g(l)ory as a high-profile, technically taut B-actioner that introduces the viewers to the world(s) of Mortal Kombat and hints at the possibility of a sequel (fingers crossed, because I’d love to see Sindel and/or Kitana making their appearances). Neatly choreographed duels in which fighters exchange not only punches and kicks, but also their magical powers – here, the results of ‘awakened arcana’ – should satiate the fans, especially when they end on a Fatality note, with guts spilled or heads splashed... and that happens quite often.
The story couldn’t get any simpler – Earth is threatened by the dark, rule-breaking forces of Outworld and it’s up to a handful of ‘chosen ones’ guided by the god of thunder, Raiden, to save their homes, families and friends in a deadly, soon-to-begin tournament (think Bloodsport with the main villain being a perfidious, soul-stealing sorcerer whose henchmen include a four-armed giant and a bat-winged vampiress, among others). On the other hand, the Mortal Kombat universe – subjected to many changes over almost three decades of its existence – seems too vast for a two-hour movie, so the uninitiated may find it a bit confusing or overwhelming. Not all the characters are fully fleshed out (certain baddies serve only as cannon fodder), but they are faithful representations of their original versions, all thanks to the solid cast, beautiful costumes, trademark moves, and witty remarks. And the addition of a whole new protagonist – a former MMA champ, Cole Young – feels natural rather than forced, complementing the MK mythology in a way that suggests the film crew and game’s creators had a great collaboration which is also reflected in plethora of ‘Easter eggs’.
2. Patient Love (Manja Ristić & Aleksandar Lazar, 2021)
An alchemical, aesthetically refined blend of experimental animation and haunting music which, by the end, evokes Yoshihiro Kanno’s score for Angel’s Egg, Patient Love takes you on a ‘sensory journey through the subtle layers of psyche’, as noted in the official synopsis, attuning your inner universe to its disarmingly abstract dreamscapes of synaesthetic delights. In often symmetrical visual compositions of ethereal beauty, human hands transform into amorphous organisms whose spiritual energy is draped in a silky sonic veil. And that is called magic...
3. The Wormwood Star (Curtis Harrington, 1956)
Art meets occultism in a peculiar documentary on Marjorie Cameron (1922-1975) who is best recognized for her appearance in Kenneth Anger’s masterpiece Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
5. Darkness Falling Through Darkness (Péter Lichter, 2021)
In the latest collaboration between filmmaker Péter Lichter and musician Ádám Márton Horváth, spirits of the forest invoke ghosts of the past to join them in a hallucinatory stroll through a phantasmal space dreamed by the barren trees, and emerging from a thought-labyrinth...