The Ten Best Films I First Watched In Lockdown: Part One
As I’m sure has been the case with many people, I spent a lot of my time in lockdown watching films. Some of these were films that I had already seen, but the majority were new to me. While I enjoyed most of the films that I watched, some of them particularly stood out to me and reignited my love of cinema.
As well as having plenty of time to watch films while stuck in the house, I also had plenty of time to write. In order to build some kind of routine and keep myself relatively sane, I decided to write about my ten favourite films that I watched for the first time while in lockdown!
The first new film I watched in lockdown was Spike Lee’s 2018 feature BlacKkKlansman. I didn’t know much about it other than the fact that it’s somewhat of a black comedy involving people infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. The only other Spike Lee film I’d seen before was 1989’s Do the Right Thing, which I really enjoyed. BlacKkKlansman had a similar tone - balancing themes of racial tension in America with moments of satirical comedy and relatable characters put into morally challenging situations in circumstances beyond their control.
John David Washington and Adam Driver’s performances as two undercover cops in Colorado attempting to ingratiate themselves into the Klan are fantastically believable (the film is based on the real-life memoir of Ron Stallworth, who is played by Washington) as well as entertaining. The scenes with Driver’s Jewish character being interrogated about his ethnicity are nail-bitingly tense, and the more light-hearted moments (such as this scene, which dazzles with ‘70s energy and introduced me to this classic soul track) are the perfect refresher.
The theme of oppressive systems is also particularly relevant under the Trump administration and the rise of the alt-right. Stallworth and his love interest Patrice’s differing views on the role of the police force are thought-provoking, and although the film never directly answers these questions raised, the viewer is invited to ponder this themselves. Because of this, and a final scene (made up entirely of real-life footage) that brings the film’s themes entirely out of the abstract and into reality, BlacKkKlansman is definitely one that will keep you thinking about our society long after the credits have rolled.
EDIT: The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, which happened only weeks after I watched this film, have only increased its relevance.
Mid90s is a film that I had been meaning to watch for a while. I’m a sucker for a coming of age story, and (despite being objectively terrible at it) enjoy skateboarding every now and then. Mid90s is the first feature film written and directed by Jonah Hill, and while it isn’t a teen comedy like Superbad (Hill’s breakout role in the ‘00s), some of the humour is definitely there, although is balanced by some quite harrowing drama. Despite the fact that I was born in the mid ‘90s, rather than a teenager like most of the characters, a strong sense of nostalgia was evoked masterfully in the shots and the soundtrack choices. The direction by Hill is impressive, and does a fantastic job of showing time and place (deprived ‘90s LA) through thirteen-year-old protagonist Steve’s eyes - as Stevie gains life experience, we begin to see gradually that the older group of skaters that he idolises and give his life meaning have struggles just as dark as his own.
There are some genuinely uncomfortable scenes in this film, some clearly intentional and others (particularly one notable scene halfway through the film which was painful enough to watch stuck at home alone, and must have been unbearable for cinema audiences) less clearly so. The complete lack of moralising around the characters’ actions by writer/director Hill was refreshing at times, and maddeningly frustrating at others. When the credits rolled after only an hour and twenty minutes, I was immediately questioning ideas such as a storyteller’s role - are they there to simply document a series of events and let the audience make up their own judgements, or should they present their own moral message?
Mid90s was certainly thought-provoking, as well as pacy and entertaining. Lucas Hedges’ short bouts of screen time as Stevie’s psychologically damaged, abusive older brother - at once victim and tormentor - were the highlight of the film for me: superbly acted, and the most effective way that Hill managed to reveal complexity of character in the film.
You Were Never Really Here (2018)
Like Mid90s, this was another short one at less than 90 minutes (this is always a draw for me as I have a pretty short attention span, even in lockdown with little else to do!). You Were Never Really Here grabs you by the throat from the start - with disturbing visual and auditory flashbacks of abuse and trauma from protagonist Joe’s past. The flashbacks are fleeting enough to be nondescript, yet arresting enough to paint a visceral picture of the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder. A father’s angry yell. A mother’s pleas. A child hiding under a table. Blood. Dead bodies in a storage container. These images flicker across the screen each time a plot event forces Joe (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix) to recall them. There is no need for detail or description in dialogue - director Lynne Ramsay expertly uses these images to let the viewer piece together the events of the past in their own mind.
The plot is a fairly straightforward thriller/noir story - Joe is a contract killer haunted by his own past who is hired to rescue the teenage daughter of a politician from a human trafficking ring. You Were Never Really Here brings new life to this well-trodden template with a fantastically muted performance from Phoenix and beautiful (if that is the right word to describe such violent scenes and miserable locations) direction from Ramsay. A highlight of the film takes place at a tranquil lake made even more idyllic by the fact that the rest of the film revels so much in the ugliness of the world and its people. The plot is sparse - a conspiracy is referred to but not really explained - allowing the character of Joe and the sheer sensory experience of the film to shine through. With the addition of an incredible soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood, this one really flew by.
Brassed Off (1996)
Set in the fictional northern mining town of Grimley, Brassed Off tells the story of a colliery brass band suffering the economic and social effects of privatisation and pit closures. The story takes place ten years after the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, and the morale and solidarity of that time have all but dissipated.
With great performances from Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald, and Pete Postlethwaite, and an engaging script from writer and director Mark Herman, Brassed Off strikes a great balance between effectively depicting the hopelessness and depression of the time and place and using humour and sentimentality to tell one of the unlikeliest and least conventional “feel-good” stories I have seen.
The messages of solidarity, perseverance, and teamwork against overwhelming odds really struck a chord with me at this time - and the romance subplot between McGregor’s and Fitzgerald’s characters brings the film appeal to those unfamiliar with the political situation that provides the backdrop to the story.
First Reformed (2017)
Written and directed by Paul Schrader (most famous for writing 1976’s Taxi Driver, one of my favourite screenplays), First Reformed is one of the most thematically rich films I have seen in a long time. Essentially a character study of a depressed alcoholic vicar in a small church in New York State, the film also explores religion, environmentalism, politics, and existentialism, and manages to be insightful about each of these topics as well as linking them back to the protagonist’s own character development - it really is no mean feat to balance all of these elements effectively!
The central theme of First Reformed is the eternal struggle - and balance - between hope and despair. The protagonist - brilliantly played by Ethan Hawke - sets out the film’s message early on, in a conversation with an environmentalist who is morally torn about bringing a child into a world under so much threat:
“I can't know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”
Not only is First Reformed a masterclass in how to balance theme, action, and character in a script (as an aspiring screenwriter I will definitely be returning to this one to study it!), it is strikingly relevant in today’s world (pandemic or no pandemic) and certainly gave me some moral and philosophical questions to chew on.
Check out Part Two of The Ten Best Films I First Watched in Lockdown, to come soon!