1. Vesper (Kristina Buožytė & Bruno Samper, 2022)
Vesper (a brilliant low-key performance from Raffiella Chapman) is a reserved, yet resourceful wunderkind biologist surviving ‘the new dark ages’ brought about by the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, all the while carrying about her paralyzed father. She seems to be the only glimmer of hope in the unspecified future, and a chance meeting with a secretive young woman (ethereal Rosy McEwen) from one of ‘citadels’ – domed cities for oligarchs – will prove that true...
Buožytė & Samper’s first feature film in ten years is a phenomenal tour de force of (post-apocalyptic) world building, brimming with details that introduce the viewer to new and largely hostile forms of flora, as well as to peculiar bio-tech gadgets, such as a partially organic drone that wouldn’t feel out of place in some of Cronenberg’s body horror offerings. Told in a hushed manner, and imbued with the quality of a dark fairy tale, the duo’s story – familiar, yet engaging – unfolds in an unhurried pace, with minimum exposition, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the bleakly beautiful imagery accompanied by a hauntingly atmospheric score. The desolate, beast-less vistas and rusting, octopus-like structures that permeate it make for a mighty impressive setting inhabited by humans, carnivorous plants, armor-shattering insects, genetically engineered ‘jugs’, and glowing bacteria that provide electricity. The mystery – essential to every work of art, according to the great Buñuel – is embodied by masked and silent scavengers dubbed ‘pilgrims’, as well as by skull-headed soldiers who enter the scene in the final act. In addition, the aura of otherworldliness is conveyed through the tight symbiosis between superb production design and equally attractive special effects that are never overused, with the focus being on Vesper’s wits, strengths, skills and emotional responses to the bleak surroundings, as she follows her scientific dreams.
Unlike Vanishing Waves – the first film Buožytė and Samper co-directed – which left me mostly cold, Vesper managed to pique my interest right from the get-go, and keep its grip to the poetic conclusion, so I will be looking forward to what the directors have in store next.
2. Stress-es tres-tres / Stress Is Three (Carlos Saura, 1968)
A perfect companion piece for Roman Polanski’s stunningly beautiful feature debut Knife in the Water (1962), Carlos Saura’s out-of-the-ordinary drama is, according to the author himself, ‘the study of the crisis in a seemingly developed society’ reflected through the prism of a strained marriage or rather, a love triangle that may only be the figment of the husband’s imagination. Impressively shot in stark B&W which adds to the increasing surreality of the subtly fractured story, ‘Stress Is Three’ weaves together simmering passions, undisclosed desires and fiery jealousies into a fine tapestry of psychological tension and modern alienation. Considering that it was conceived and brought to life under the Francoist dictatorship, the strength of its anticonformist attitude, as well as its somewhat experimental nature prone to deliberate ‘buffoonery’ make it all the more fascinating.
3. Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller, 2022)
Call it a hopelessly romantic modern fairy tale, quaint rumination on human condition, or visually dazzling ode to myths and storytelling, Miller’s latest offering is as weirdly magical as the pairing of Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in the leading roles, continually igniting one’s sense of wonder, while the two characters open their lonely and, as the title suggests, longing hearts to each other with sincerity so often shunned by our cynical, hateful times. The silver-screen viewing is a must, and a double bill with Tarsem Singh’s The Fall would be nice.
4. Taste of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961)
Predictability feels like a minor quibble in a gothic/psychological thriller which Christopher Lee (in the role of an ostensibly sinister physician) called ‘the best film Hammer ever made’, adding that Seth Holt was ‘one of the best directors Britain ever had’. Gorgeously lensed in black and white by Douglas Slocombe (who would collaborate with Joseph Losey on his masterpiece The Servant only two years later), helmed with an assured hand and sharp sense of pacing, and elevated by credible performances, as well as by a lavish score from Clifton Parker (of Curse of the Demon and The 39 Steps fame), Taste of Fear delivers both chills and thrills and even a surprise twist or two that can’t be foreseen early on. Its deep, pitch-black shadows compel you to stare into the ‘abysses’ of the thoughtfully composed frames, making you sensitive to the slightest of movements, as prolonged silences heighten the tension.
5. Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot, 2021)
Judging by three of his shorts available on YouTube, one being a shocking, yet compelling music video for French rapper Médine, revenge is the common denominator to the work of Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot whose sophomore feature comes across as one of the most refreshing, not to mention effortlessly directed genre mashups in recent memory. Opening as a crime-thriller that follows a super-cool antiheroic trio of mercenaries called ‘Bangui’s Hyenas’, Saloum takes a ghastly supernatural turn halfway through, introducing something more sinister than suggestive nightmares which haunt the charismatic group leader, Chaka (superb Yann Gael). This transition into a survival, folklore-inspired horror happens so smoothly that it gives Robert Rodriguez a good run for his money, and instills a sense of awe in the viewer, deliberately leaving the mystery of unique and vicious creatures – seen in broad daylight unlike many Western offerings – up to one’s own interpretation. On top of that, the film features some breathtaking ‘God’s eye’ views of deserts and inlets that enhance the strong aura of mysticism present from the very first shot, with Reksider’s evocative score of ethereal chants and tribal beats intensifying the local flavors.
6. Station Six Sahara (Seth Holt, 1962)
Toxic masculinity soaks the desert in Seth Holt’s unconventional drama set in an oil station somewhere in the Libyan part of Sahara. Five men who run the facility as they bicker amongst themselves are all played with much gravitas and gusto by Peter van Eyck (bossy Kramer), Ian Bannen (boorish Fletcher), Denholm Elliott (uptight Macey), Hansjörg Felmy (defiant Donitz) and Mario Adorf (taciturn Santos), each actor finely tuning his performance in accordance with the very nature of his character. The unexpected arrival of a femme fatale, Catherine (Caroll Baker whose magnetism seeps off the screen, particularly in that peach-eating scene) and her sleezeball ex-husband companion (Biff McGuire) heats up the sweaty atmosphere and stirs up a sandstorm of hormones, thus increasing the simmering tension. And a poker game sequence which foreshadows this change in the narrative dynamics is a masterclass in direction and micro-acting, heightened by Gerald Gibbs’s slick B&W cinematography.
7. Birdy (Alan Parker, 1984)
“I guess it’s kinda hard to be good at something nobody wants, huh?”
An off-kilter story of big, ‘Icarian’ dreams and an unlikely, yet tightly knit friendship, coming-of-age in the late 50’s Philly, and coping with a serious post-war trauma gets a visually handsome and aurally immersive treatment in Alan Parker’s tautly directed (melo)drama Birdy which stars Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, the former giving a poignant performance as the titular character – a quiet, avian-obsessed and highly sympathetic introvert whose real name is never revealed, and the latter being admirably restrained in the role of an impulsive, extrovert athlete, Al.
8. Adelheid (František Vláčil, 1970)
A cinematic equivalent of a stormy night spent in the company of a melancholic soul by the fireplace of a cozy cabin, František Vláčil’s first color film is a moody, bleakly beautiful post-war drama focused on an unlikely romance between a former Czech soldier, Viktor Chotovický, and Adelheid Heidenmann – the daughter of a Nazi baron. Set in a manor that initially belonged to a Jewish family, and was appropriated by Germans during the WWII, Adelheid comes across as a meditation on forgiveness and trust, in a somewhat mystifying atmosphere emerging from the ambiguity of the titular (anti?)heroine’s true feelings. The tension, both mental and sexual, between the two leading characters simmers at the very core of the narrative – co-written by novelist Vladimír Körner and director himself – that moves at a steady, unrushed pace, married to Zdeněk Liška’s solemn, choral-heavy score, and dressed in a stark palette of muddy and wintry colors dominating František Uldrich’s eye-pleasing cinematography.
9. Peppermint Frappé (Carlos Saura, 1967)
If Vertigo had been directed by Luis Buñuel (to whom Peppermint Frappé is unsurprisingly dedicated), the resulting film would’ve certainly felt like Saura’s first in a series of collaborations with actress Geraldine Chaplin – here, glowing in a dual blonde/brunette role. Often seen as an allegory (a bold one, at that!) of political, social and sexual repression of Franco’s regime, this quirky, subtly surreal psychological drama / character study is imbued with a blistering anti-chauvinist sentiment, as it explores an unhealthy obsession, fetishization of women, and the fickleness of power dynamics. Shockingly, it passed under the censors’ radar back in the dark days of Spanish history, marking the director’s first commercial success.
10. Hawk the Slayer (Terry Marcel, 1980)
11. A Casa Assassinada / The Murdered House (Paulo César Saraceni, 1971)
“Only with beauty we can destroy lies and hypocrisy... Beauty is eternal.”
Part fractured, borderline surreal soap-opera, and part theatrical tone poem of dense, melancholy-infused atmosphere, The Murdered House exposes the rot of traditional family values in a wickedly lyrical story of unrequited love, repressed desires, ‘disgraceful’ secrets, suicidal characters and incestuous affairs. Paulo César Saraceni directs it like Buñuel on sedatives (with a hint of Pasolini in his Teorema element?), so it takes some time to attune oneself to his bizarre wavelengths, and the patience is rewarded with a ‘grotesque truth’ coming to light in the tragicomic finale of farcical proportions and amped-up histrionics. The film’s only setting – a country mansion surrounded by a lush garden – appears like a well-concealed micro-paradise dewy with human imperfections, acting like a mentally troubled protagonist in its own right.
12. Witchcraft (Don Sharp, 1964)
Yvette Rees gives off some strong Barbara Steele vibes in the silent role of a witch who’s accidentally resurrected after a graveyard desecration due to the construction work. The eerie aura which surrounds her character, Vanessa Whitlock (buried alive 300 years in the past, so no wonder she bears a grudge), is often conveyed solely through highly expressive lighting that also brings shadows to life, establishing a haunting atmosphere. Sharper than Sharp’s solid direction of Harry Spalding’s pulpy script are the handsome B&W cinematography by Arthur Lavis, Carlo Martelli’s string-heavy, unnervingly lavish score, and a stand-out performance from Lon Chaney Jr. as the disgruntled leader of the modern-day coven of Vanessa’s followers.
13. Divina creatura / The Divine Nymph (Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, 1975)
Terence Stamp epitomizes dandyism in the role of a womanizing duke, Dani di Bagnasco, as DP Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard, Fellini Satyricon) masterfully captures the garishly colored decadence of the 1920’s in Italy, against the backdrop of emerging fascism. Further elevating the film’s hyper-elegant beauty is a Charlston-heavy score composed by Cesare A. Bixio, and interpreted by Ennio Morricone, though Griffi’s direction is neither smooth nor strong enough to keep you engaged in an aristocratic love triangle story for almost two hours. Out of three director’s features I’ve seen so far, his 1962 debut The Sea remains the most fascinating.
14. Bullet Train (David Leitch, 2022)
Ritchie meets Tarantino on ‘animephetamines’ in a highly enjoyable, neon-drenched romp which marries cartoonish, physics-defying violence to a twisty, fanciful story, perfectly aware of its silliness, and prone to introducing familiar faces in cameo roles. The titular setting may be limited, but Leitch delivers plenty of impressively choreographed action scenes, from sword fights to train accidents, creating characters who are almost as colorful as the garish visuals.
15. Mortal Kombat Legends: Snow Blind (Rick Morales, 2022)
Taking cues from Mad Max franchise, and every martial arts actioner in which an aged, experienced warrior trains a young, hot-headed successor-to-be, the third feature in Mortal Kombat Legends series pulls focus on Kenshi and Sub-Zero, and pits them against the Black Dragon gang led by Kano (self-promoted to tyrant king of a post-apocalyptic wasteland), as it provides the fans with gore galore, pulp shenanigans and solid animation. The story set in one of the alternative timelines in Mortal Kombat universe does a fine job in expanding the game’s twisted mythology, and is helmed with an assured hand by Rick Morales who has previously directed several of Warner Bros’ direct-to-video properties.