In an era when there is such a healthy abundance of film and TV, selecting your evening viewing should be luxuriously easy. However, we have such an overload of choice that sifting through the options can be exhausting. And then when you finally make a decision, it is with more apathy than eager anticipation. I have vowed to be more ambitious and adventurous with my movie and TV watching and thought I’d share my discoveries. I’ll be trying to avoid most mainstream pop culture in favour of reaching into the digital black hole on the hunt for some hidden gems. I won’t always be successful, and there will be plenty of occasions when I indulge in watercooler conversations re popular fare, but I’m going to do my best to be a more curious cinephile.
Call Me By Your Name (2017), Prince Charles Cinema *****
Luca Guadagnino’s celebrated film is all about discovery, so it is poetic that by watching, the audience is invited to discover the beacon of talent that is the youthful Timothée Chalamet. The gangly New Yorker (Mum is American, Dad is French) perfectly and maturely channels adolescent uncertainty, exploration, and internal struggle. Playing opposite him is the suitably statuesque Armie Hammer who seems to personify playful confidence. Where Chalamet’s Elio feels awkward in his own unfamiliar skin, Hammer’s Oliver is measured and deliberate.
Native Italian, Guadagnino, has sculpted a visually gorgeous and sensually charged story of self-discovery and learning to love – what many are calling a coming of age film. I loved the way it was filmed: with a single camera and a 35mm lens just a handful of miles from the director’s doorstep. It really feels like a passion project, a personal film made with friends to fill a long summer in rural Italy where time seems to stand still. The stories that have emerged through cast interviews of evenings spent eating spaghetti and screening old movies in Guadagnino’s home in Crema bring the audience closer to the process, warming us to the artists at the heart of this virtuosic film. You can really feel the shared affection for each other and the tale they tell in the faultlessly executed film, natural and honest from start to finish; never trying to be any bigger than its own simple, if slightly heart-breaking, story.
I want to spend lazy and indulgent summers in the brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg’s slow, peaceful Italian domain, overflowing with literature, reflection and discovery where every visitor is free to be their true selves, leaving guards and inhibitions – and the real world – far behind.
Swiss Army Man (2016), Amazon Prime *****
Despite its unprecedented weirdness (in my book, and I’ve seen The Chumscrubber), it made me simultaneously inexplicably happy and utterly confused. After seeing this laugh-out-loud-alone hilarious, somewhat ucomfortable and impossible to categorise film, I no longer despair for the future of original, ‘quirky’ and unique independent filmmaking.
With Swiss Army Man, the ‘Daniels’ have donated their own brand of bizarre to a world which didn’t know how much it needed it. The audience never knows what to expect. The only thing that is certain is that the surreal story is only going to accelerate in absurdity. Coursing with sometimes eyebrow-raising teenage humour, the existential angst of the wide-eyed Hank (Dano) is offset brilliantly by the deadpan Manny’s (Radcliffe) apparently sentient, and sexed-up, corpse. The aesthetic, from the production design to costumes and lighting, is exquisite and the soundtrack is perfection: whimsical and carefree. It was a pleasure to watch Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe revel in a most luxurious example of their craft.
The Levelling (2016) ****
Directed by Hope Dickson Leach, The Levelling is a finely crafted, dark and anxious drama with a magnetic performance from the lead, Ellie Kendrick. Restrained and deeply rooted in its rural context, there is a surface-level stoicism and robustness that disguises the fragility and emotional turmoil beneath. Ravaged by devastating floods and grief, family values smoulder at the film’s core, alas shrouded in the hopeless inevitability that life must go on.
Fargo (1996), Netflix ****
Frances McDormand is electric in this somewhat mental but much talked about Coen brothers classic. Their characters are refreshingly ordinary, but circumstance exposes the darkness beneath; perhaps the madness that resides in all of us, waiting for happenstance to light the touch paper. As with all Coen films, there is a lesson in storytelling, world-building and character-writing to be had.
Last Flag Flying (2017), Amazon Prime, ***
Steve Carell shows off his oft-underrated status as a ‘serious’ actor in this moving and modest roadtrip movie which is rich in character actors, all of whom are free to luxuriate in their bottomless reserves of experience. Gritty, cynical and apathetic, it’s a perhaps slightly overwritten film, but there is a lot to be learnt about the characters in their dialogue as they ask questions of themselves and their country, so it’s not all totally redundant.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) ****
I finally got around to watching the American classic after downloading it last summer and I found James Dean’s coming-of-age melodrama a real ride. Implausible though the heightened drama appears, it reverberates with high school stereotypes and if we look closely enough, we can probably all find ourselves in the film’s ensemble.
Anyone who has ever been a teenager will find something to relate to: fitting in at school, relationships with parents, general confusion about life, etc., and there are some exquisite performances to be enjoyed, not least that of 16-year-old Sal Mineo who won an Academy Award nomination for his agonised portrayal of the troubled misfit “Plato”.
I was obsessed with season 1 of Mr Robot (Amazon Prime) which introduced an ensemble of flawed characters and refreshing writing. Season 2 ramped up the complexity of the plot, but I was already having misgivings as to the value of extending the novel series. When season 3 appeared on the horizon, my anticipation of revisiting Mr Robot’s world was tempered by a weary reluctance. I’ve known it has been available for months, but I only got to episode 1 this month, and, “meh”. Yes, the gritty neo-noir aesthetic endures, and the writing is as meticulous as ever, but I’m no longer hooked.
What else did I watch?
Miss Stevens (2016), Netflix ***
The troubled high school drama student, Billy, who pursues an uncomfortable relationship with his young teacher in Miss Stevens, was marked by many as Timothée Chalamet’s breakout role. Though he stole the show with a measured and reflective performance, he didn’t get quite the recognition many thought he deserved. Fortune shone upon him though, and he did not have to wait much longer for the world to take notice.