1. Niezwykla podróz Baltazara Kobera / The Tribulations of Balthazar Kober (Wojciech Has, 1988)
Cinema has the magical power to take the viewer to (mental / subconscious) places so fascinatingly peculiar that no destination on Earth can imitate, let alone substitute. The swan song by acclaimed director Wojciech Has sends you on a spiritually introspective, larger-than-life adventure which feels like a lucid, enlightening fever dream you continually wake from only to sink deeper into its soft, comforting embrace. Set in plague-stricken 16th century Germany inhabited by soulless priests, Jewish Cabalists, members of a secret brotherhood, and sparkling spirits of the dead, this gothic, Orphic odyssey meanders between heaven and hell, reality and fantasy, introducing an unlikely hero whose growth from a stuttering simpleton into a love-seeking rookie philosopher is assisted by Archangel Gabriel and the Devil himself. On top of that, you are treated to painterly visuals that make the viewing experience all the more immersive and mesmerizing, as the ensemble cast of both Polish and French actors dig into their roles with relish.
2. The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
“That's half the point of the game, the bending.”
Dirk Bogarde delivers a scene-stealing performance – the thrilling blend of shrewdness and resignation – as an enigmatic and sinister manservant, Barrett, in an icy cold and deeply intense psychological drama of Hitchcockian suspense and claustrophobic setting. And his colleagues – James Fox, Sarah Miles and Wendy Craig – whose characters are stuck in a complex and twisted relationship quadrangle are magically (not to mention superbly!) attuned to peculiarities of his devilishly controlling role. Joseph Losey directs with laser precision and keen eye for visual composition which plays a significant part in an intriguing study of social class deconstruction, sexual politics and continuous imbalance of power, subtly and largely imbued with queer subtext. Playing tricks on the viewer’s imagination by relying on suggestion rather than explicitness, he creates a singular film that is in equal measures baffling and disquieting.
3. Kavafis / Cavafy (Yannis Smaragdis, 1996)
“Let me submit to art...”
Imbued with a great sense of mystery, photographed with a keen painter’s eye (by Nikos Smaragdis), and embroidered with the finest musical threads woven by none other than the acclaimed composer Vangelis, Cavafy transcends the constraints of the biopic/period piece sub-genre, and pulls the viewer into the mind of Greek poet Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (Constantine Peter Cavafy, 1863-1933). Transforming his erotic desires into a dense, all-pervasive atmosphere of heightened lyricism, this delicately sensual and evocatively dreamlike tone poem of a drama stands out as one of the most sophisticated cinematic portrayals of a (real life) gay character. Smaragdis lets his protagonist speak only in melancholic voice-overs, through his own verses, and leaves him completely silent whenever he interacts with his friends, family, lovers and one-night stands, which in return solidifies the strength of audio-visual stimuli.
4. Závrat / Vertigo (Karel Kachyňa, 1963)
A simple story of a young girl’s first crush is transmuted into a fascinating, hard-to-describe experience by virtue of purely cinematic magic which stems largely from the breathtakingly beautiful B&W imagery. The frame composition speaks in a surreal language so mellifluously poetic, that you can’t help but listen to the intoxicating music that fills the air, as its fingers strum the strings of your soul-harp...
5. The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944)
An elegant blend of romantic melodrama and gothic horror laced with subtle humor, The Uninvited is grounded in engaging performances, stunning art direction, and nuanced interplay of light and shadows. I felt as if I visited the Fitzgerald siblings’ beautiful seaside mansion and experienced those eerie supernatural encounters firsthand.
6. Minagoroshi no Reika / I, the Executioner (Tai Katō, 1968)
Bursting with great examples of space manipulation within a frame, I, the Executioner hits the viewer with its relentless bleakness right from the get-go, depicting – as discreet as possible – an act of sexual violence culminating in a ‘brutal fucking murder’, to quote Grace Zabriskie’s character in Inland Empire, during the very prologue. Gradually, we learn that a misogynist perpetrator walks the path of vengeance, and is after a quintet of high middle class women whose last Mahjong gathering is marked with a darkly perverse secret which may be linked to a 16-yo boy’s suicide... Exploring the theme of ‘divine’ justice against the backdrop of moral decline or rather, ambiguity, Katō puts the viewer in heavy shoes of his mysterious, ever-frowning antihero (Makoto Satō, fearsomely superb) and consequently intensifies the feeling of uneasiness elicited through the frequent use of disorienting low angles and claustrophobic close-ups, equally fascinating and awe-inspiring. Out of shadows and set props, he creates inescapable cages for both his characters and the audience, with occasional intrusions of humor providing little to no relief from the dense, suffocating, even nihilist atmosphere of heightened psychological tension.
7. The Long, Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958)
“I wish I was Ben Quick.”
Orson Welles munches on the scenery with great gusto as the pater familias of a wealthy Mississippian family in a sumptuously photographed romantic melodrama that must’ve inspired a plethora of soap operas. However, the star of this ostensibly outdated, yet tremendously entertaining flick is highly objectified Paul Newman as ambitious young drifter Ben Quick, with the sparkling chemistry or rather, heightened sexual tension between Joanne Woodward and him lighting up the screen whenever they’re sharing the scene.
9. Отклонение (Гриша Островски & Тодор Стоянов, 1967) / Detour (Grisha Ostrovski & Todor Stoyanov, 1967)
I must admit that I’m not too familiar with Bulgarian cinema, but after watching ‘Detour’, I can assume that plenty of hidden gems are to be found there. In their feature debut, Ostrovski & Stoyanov provide a ‘simple’ recipe for an enjoyable film with considerable artistic value:
- a timeless and universal love / memory-reviving story laced with social(ist) commentary (kudos to poet Blaga Dimitrova who did a splendid job as a first-time screenwriter),
- two charismatic leads portraying well-defined protagonists (who once renounced personal happiness in the name of progress),
- austerely beautiful B&W cinematography à la Nouvelle Vague,
- smoky jazz score to accentuate (great) wordless sequences,
- formally playful intersection of the (enthusiastic) past and (melancholic) present.
Add to that a pinch of road-movie elements, with pedantic chefs in full control, and you’ll certainly wish to try another specialty from their kitchen.
10. L’été / Summer (Marcel Hanoun, 1968)
“Only one exists.”
Largely composed of attractive mid-shots and close-ups showing stunningly beautiful Graziella Buci (in her only film credit) smoking, drinking tea, typewriting, running around the countryside, and lying naked on her bad or in a floral dress on the grass, L’été is one of the most formally challenging pieces of the French New Wave cinema. Set sometime after May 68, it plays out like a whimsical meta-monodrama and tracks the protagonist’s introspective thoughts frequently interrupted by poetic / political / philosophical quotes, and delicately accompanied by crème de la crème of classical music. Hanoun’s masterclass editing is only matched by his painter’s eye for frame composition, although at times, his uncompromising experimentation tends to turn fascination into frustration.
1. Mad God (Phil Tippett, 2021)
A hyper-bizarre stop-motion masterpiece, Mad God plunges you into a nightmare so labyrinthine, that you desperately keep looking for the exit long after it ended. Inhabited by grotesque creatures that often defy any attempt to be described, this sumptuously dark, relentlessly pessimistic and gorgeously morbid fantasy feels like a wayward love child of Lovecraft and Beksiński baptized in excretions of Eraserhead baby mixed with Minotaur’s blood, and thrown into a nuclear wasteland. Dialogue-free and utterly unpredictable, it provides you with a deeply visceral and hellishly transcendental viewing experience, allowing Phil Tippett entry into the Pantheon of greatest cine-alchemists.
2. Antlers (Scott Cooper, 2021)
Rooted in an indigenous folk tale, Scott Cooper’s inaugural, yet impressive venture into horror marks a potent, incessantly suspenseful blend of grim, brutal creature feature and engaging, emotionally harrowing drama of densely sinister atmosphere, boasting taut screenplay, focused direction, bleakly beautiful visuals, hauntingly evocative score, and outstanding performances, particularly from young, perfectly cast Jeremy T. Thomas whose fragile shoulders prove to be a sturdy foundation for a demanding role. On top of that, the autumnal setting of a small town towered by fog-veiled mountains becomes a character in its own right, and plays a major part not only in providing the audience with a strong sense of (deeply depressing) place, but also in immersing them completely in the story... The film resonated with me on so many levels, that mentioning something along the lines of ‘minor quibble’ would seem like an utter disregard for an intensely fulfilling sensation it left me with after the lights in the cinema theater came back on.
3. The Spine of Night (Philip Gelatt & Morgan Galen King, 2021)
(read my review HERE)
Assisted by her daring star, Agathe Rousselle (demonstrating awe-inspiring versatility in her magnetically uninhibited big-screen debut), Julia Ducornau creates one of the most authentic and enigmatic (anti)heroines in both recent and remote memory, directing her technically taut and emotionally disturbing film with firm hand, burning passion, and sharp sense of dark humor. Part off-kilter body horror, part feminist parable and part twisted family drama (which introduces another engagingly f*cked-up character brilliantly portrayed by Vincent Lindon), Titane abolishes the boundary between pleasure and pain, assaulting you with its visceral, no-holds-barred power contained in oft-strikingly bizarre imagery which reconfigures the notions of beauty. It made me laugh, squirm, confusingly stare at it, and almost cry during the epilogue, which sums up as one of the most impressive cinematic experiences of the year.
5. Dýrið / Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson, 2021)
(read my review HERE)
6. The Suicide Squad (James Gunn, 2021)
If someone had told me that I would get attached to a domesticated CGI rat called Sebastian, as well as to a man-eating anthropomorphic shark that may be a descendant of an ancient god, I would’ve probably called them crazy. But, hey, it’s a James Gunn’s film, and he has already proved that the characters who exist only in a digital space can be just as sympathetic as the flesh & blood ones. After a couple of colorful features for the Marvel studios, he applies the ‘superhero outcasts’ formula to the so-called DC Extended Universe, and delivers a highly entertaining over-the-top actioner that appears like a live-action equivalent of a delirious, rule-of-cool cartoon. Skillfully laced with cheeky humor, and slyly imbued with anti-imperialist sentiment, The Suicide Squad bursts with bloody, high-octane energy and eventually explodes into a surreal madness of kaiju proportions that is most probably inspired by 1956 tokusatsu offering Warning from Space. Gunn is given a pretty good amount of not only long greens, but creative freedom as well, and he employs it with a childlike glee that happens to be dangerously infectious.
7. The Night House (David Bruckner, 2021)
Rebecca Hall shoulders the movie with great confidence and conviction as edgy, depressive, grief-stricken widow Beth whose mourning after a recently deceased husband gets increasingly stained with fear and anger, as dark secrets from her loved one’s past begin to surface. The haunted house which her struggling heroine inhabits may not be built on the sturdiest of foundation, yet it’s the best work by Collins & Piotrowski duo (Siren, Super Dark Times), and David Bruckner (The Ritual) maintains it with proper care, delivering some hair-raising scares unlike most of recent horror offerings. In establishing an eerily unnerving atmosphere, he relies heavily on the power of suggestion (and optical illusions) rather than jump scares, and in doing so, he manages to induce goosebumps through the very thought that nothing is out there...
8. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)
Oscar Isaac commands the viewer’s attention with his magnetically subdued performance in Paul Schrader’s subtly menacing spiritual sequel to First Reformed. Although his character – going under the moniker of William Tell – isn’t particularly sympathetic (even less so when we’re introduced to ghosts of his past), he is extremely cool in an ‘old-school movie bastard’ way that pulls you out of your comfort zone, yet you can’t help rooting for him, as you follow him on his path of redemption. Partnered with nonchalantly superb Tiffany Haddish as instantly amiable gambling financier La Linda – a spark of light in the glum, sullen universe of The Card Counter, and stellar Tye Sheridan whose troubled and extremely vulnerable Cirk (pronounced as Kirk) shares the common enemy with Tell, Isaac confidently leads this odd trio throughout the film, often conveying the burden carried by his slick antihero only through micro-expressions of his eyes. And veteran Paul Schrader directs his austere, smoothly paced drama (leaning towards revenge thriller) with an unwavering hand, painting the decline of the American society in the background of William Tell’s bleak, melancholic, decidedly rigid portrait, once again assisted by Alexander Dynan behind the camera.
9. The Blazing World (Carlson Young, 2021)
I’m a sucker for ‘a troubled woman falling down the rabbit hole’ type of stories, and when the stand-in for the White Rabbit is a creepy, mysterious man whose name reads ‘Denial’ backwards and is played by the legendary Udo Kier, you can already color me impressed. In her (promising) directorial feature debut, Carlson Young stars as a depressed twentysomething, Margaret, whose reality begins to dissolve under the pressure of a shocking childhood trauma – the loss of an identical twin sister, until she is whisked away into an alternate dimension, with the aforementioned Lained as her only guide. This strange new universe – a simulacrum of a troubled mind, no doubt – betrays a variety of possible influences, ranging from German expressionism and Bava/Argento-inspired lighting to Dave McKean-like riddles and Tarsem’s sense of fantasy twisted by del Toro-esque grotesque, and yet, it feels unique in its fairy-dust-sprinkled surreality. Even when you recognize a very Lynchian night club in the prelude to the phantasmagorical adventure, as well as an homage to the iconic ‘elevator of blood’ sequence from The Shining in the film’s finale, you find it hard to resist the imaginative way these pastiches are stitched together into an ambitious, aurally and visually arresting – if flawed – piece of post-modern cinema. And wasn’t it Bergman who said:
“I believe we’re all part of a great hodgepodge, so we take from each other, and I’ve always been completely uninhibited in that regard. If I see something good, I steal it and make it my own.”
10. Carro rei / King Car (Renata Pinheiro, 2021)
We had a killer car in Christine, car accident fetishists in Crash, a surreal girl-to-car transformation in 1999 anime Adolescence of Utena, and this year, a young woman gets pregnant by a car in Titane, whereas King Car introduces a talking automobile that falls in love with a daring performance artist and starts a social revolution! Exploring the dynamics within the human-technology-nature triangle from an eco-socialist-feminist angle, Renata Pinheiro creates a quirky modern fairy tale whose thematic richness is both its forte and major drawback. Her characters fall into one of two categories – archetypes and eccentrics, with the latter being more memorable thanks to a family idiot turned mad scientist turned complete lunatic, Zé Macaco (Matheus Nachtergaele giving a bizarre, ‘Denis Lavant by way of Jack Black’ performance). The story takes some unexpected turns and keeps you involved by its sheer weirdness or rather, magic-realist treatment, yet there’s a little something left to be desired which is to a certain degree compensated by stylish imagery.