With restrictions still in place, my cinema trips have regrettably reduced as I remain reliant on streaming services. Thankfully, there are more than a few gems on the interweb.
Of the limited pool, I whittled the list down to 10 of my personal favourites, excluding the much underrated Encounter, highly misunderstood The Matrix: Resurrections, and unfairly maligned Mortal Kombat reboot. Here are the rest:
10. The Night House (dir. David Bruckner)
You were right. There is nothing. Nothing is after you. You’re safe now. Those were the last words that Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) left behind in his cryptic suicide note to his wife Beth (Rebecca Hall). All of that means nothing to her, at first. But when she finds an inverse floor plan of their home, she becomes certain that the answers lie where she stands.
Escaping tropes of haunted house movies, The Night House has more to show than a predictable ghost story. This is instead a character-driven piece that delves into the widow’s psyche in the shadows of bereavement, anchored by Rebecca Hall’s stunning lead performance.
The clever use of negative space for its apparitions effective conjures fears of emptiness. Beyond building tension, this void embodies bleak depression brought on by silent grief. There are no creaking doors and dark basement, just the haunting disquiet of nothing.
9. Fear Street (dir. Leigh Janiak)
Slashers are back – in style. Director Leigh Janiak revives a tired genre with a refreshing trilogy, fuelled by a deadly curse on Shadyside. From a summer camp where Voorhees may lurk, to a witch lynching town back in 1666, Fear Street stages a gripping journey of the final girls against interestingly varied backdrops.
The R. L. Stine adaptation is more than its source. Where the films succeed is in paying tribute to the horror genre’s pioneers with not just references, but reverence. The story is nostalgic, yet layered with modern sentiments, lending depth to what could otherwise have been a forgettable killfest. (full review)
8. Rurouni Kenshin: Final Chapter (dir. Keishi Ohtomo)
There are few animes I love as much as Samurai X, a perfect amalgamation of historical fiction and swordfight action that accompanied much of my childhood. Perhaps it is nostalgia that has me putting these Rurouni Kenshin films on a pedestal, but a rewatch of the incredible stunt work tells me otherwise.
Takeru Satoh is simply astonishing as Himura Kenshin. Beyond his dexterity in swordplay and hand-to-hand combat, there is plenty of heart in his performance. He evokes genuine sympathy in his difficult journey towards redemption, such that is easy to feel and root for the charismatic hero despite blood on his hands. (full review)
7. Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)
When Irene (Tessa Thompson) meets her childhood friend, she cannot quite recognise her. Clare (Ruth Negga), a light-skinned black woman, now passes as white. Soon, the pair becomes increasingly involved in each other’s lives, looking into the alternate reality that they could have had.
Under the near-perfect direction of Rebecca Hall, Passing powerfully examines the complexities of passing, atop the privilege afforded to the lighter-skinned and uneasy pressures of being black in a prejudiced society. The purposeful cinematic choices are just as commendable as the story. Between The Night House and this, Hall is finally earning the recognition that she deserves. (full review)
6. Night in Paradise (dir. Park Hoon-jung)
Night in Paradise chronicles the fate of hitman Tae-goo (Uhm Tae-goo), whose sister and niece were murdered after he declined to join a rival gang. There is very little hope in the larger tragedy to come, with heartache certain to follow his path of vengeance.
The South Korean production is an incredibly bleak and brutal film, where bloodshed seems unnecessarily excessive at times. But anchored by its grounded characters, the cautionary tale on the vicious nature of revenge turns out both effective and moving. (full review)
5. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
A troubling portrait of toxic masculinity, The Power of the Dog centres on a vicious rancher, who relishes his perceived superiority and the mental torment of others whom he sees as beneath him. Only later do we see his hidden insecurities that might have been the cause, hinting at an unseen cycle of abuse.
Steering clear of guns and adventures, the western instead introduces a conflict that is much more subtle and personal, yet no less dangerous. Against the desolate wilderness, a fatal game gradually unfolds in the impactful slowburn, tense in all its minutes. (full review)
4. Malignant (dir. James Wan)
At long last, James Wan has returned from Atlantis and back into the arms of his first love: horror. This time, he is not just done with underwater mayhem, but haunted houses. Taking notes from Basketcase and It’s Alive, the macabre opening of his latest venture now begins in a hospital, where a child monster has been born to kill.
Then, the film takes another turn. Malignant proves to be a wholly original story that is best experienced without spoilers. The unpredictable truth behind the beast shocks in the best way possible, presenting a masterwork that is perfect for genre fans. (full review)
3. The Lost Daughter (dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal)
While on vacation in a Greek coastal town, Leda (Olivia Colman) befriends Nina (Dakota Johnson). The latter young mother soon reveals cracks in her calm demeanour when her 3-year-old toddler Elena goes momentarily missing on the beach. The incident shakes Leda too as she sees how Nina’s struggles are mirrored in her own troubled past.
The Lost Daughter delves deep into the ideals that society places on women, who are often expected to fall naturally into motherhood out of maternal instincts. Not all see the exhaustion for those unable to find that very instinct and give up the life they had before.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s emotive directorial debut captures this rarely talked-about ambivalence. In their brilliant potrayal across time, both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley bring out the emotional consequences of Leda’s difficult choices in parenthood. We feel every bit of her genuine love for her girls, and the guilt that comes with the admitted relief from her choice of estrangement.
2. Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)
P.S. Before someone screams at me, this was in fact released in 2021 where I live.
With The Place Beyond The Pines, director Derek Cianfrance proved himself an auteur who knows to draw out the heart of his story like few can. His co-writer Darius Marder too played a large part in drawing out those authentic emotions, as Sound of Metal shows.
Of brilliant technical design and sincere compassion, his vision could not have been accomplished without its leading man. Riz Ahmed hits every note intended as Ruben. As he suffers the onset of hearing loss that soon puts an end to his heavy metal career, we experience every bit of his despair and heartache, that gradually segues into hope as he rediscovers the world through new eyes. (full review)
1. Pig (dir. Michael Sarnoski)
Rob (Nicolas Cage) lives in the far wilderness, content in his solitary life with his truffle-hunting pig. But when strangers break into his home and steal his prized pig, his calmness dissipates. He returns to the city that he has left for ten years with rage, slipping back into a life that he long left behind.
Over the past few years, Nicolas Cage has starred in several strong genre-bending films, of which this might just be his best. Pig defies expectations of its premise, delivering an intriguing and thought-provoking picture of loss in many forms. We see how those who run away from difficult realities never really move on, but are instead stranded in a prison of their own making. (full review)
Thanks for reading till the end. As we wrap up 2021 for good, here’s hoping that we get to cancel this awful pandemic trilogy for good this year. Like always, let me know what great movies I’ve missed in the comments below. All movies allowed! x