The Ten Best Films I First Watched in Lockdown: Part Two
Welcome to Part Two of The Ten Best Films I first Watched in Lockdown! If you haven't caught up with the first one, Part One is here. If you have, read on!
Before Sunrise (1995)
Okay, this one is kind of cheating! Before Sunrise is the first installment of a trilogy, and I’ll be talking about the two sequels as well here. The trilogy was written and directed by Richard Linklater, who has made films as diverse as School of Rock (which is, for my money, the best family comedy to be put to screen) and Boyhood. I decided to watch Before Sunrise shortly after being impressed by Ethan Hawke’s role in First Reformed (Hawke also stars in Boyhood as the protagonist’s father, and does a great job of it), and becoming intrigued by this low-budget film starring a young Hawke and recommended on film forums as a cult classic.
Essentially a “boy meets girl” story, Before Sunrise is almost free of any of the standard romantic drama cliches - and when it does use them, the film and its characters react with self-aware, knowing embarrassment. One of the only dialogue-free moments is this scene, where young American tourist Jesse (Hawke) and Parisian student Celine (Julie Delpy) sum up the simultaneous beauty and insecurity of vulnerable human connection with nothing more than fantastically-acted facial expressions and body language. The entirety of the rest of the film is simply the two of them walking around Vienna getting to know each other through conversation, and if that sounds dull, I can promise that the acting, script and onscreen chemistry are all brilliant enough to keep you hooked.
The real magic of Before Sunrise is that the script is relatively free of conflict - apart from one central problem of the characters only having one night together before they must part ways, any obstacles to their romance are purely down to the fact that they are both human (the two sequels introduce more practical obstacles as the characters have aged and found other commitments, although the magic remains in both films). Jesse and Celine are likeable enough that I enjoyed spending an hour and a half just listening to them talk, and they are normal enough for any of us to relate to - although the film does a magnificent job of showing us that even the most normal of us have hang-ups that limit our ability to truly connect in a meaningful way with each other. Before Sunrise is a perfect depiction of two good people who want the same thing (and the audience wants them to succeed), with almost no other obstacles than chance and mundane, everyday hang-ups.
Sequel Before Sunset catches up with the characters nine years later, and Before Midnight nine years after that. In each subsequent film, the characters lose a little of their youthful idealism and have it replaced with regrets, compromises and sacrifice. However, they are still just as good company as they were in the first film, and the fact that each film takes place in a different gorgeous European location (Vienna, then Paris, then Greece) makes the visuals mesmerising whatever hardships the couple is facing. As a meditation on the constant internal struggle between romanticism and cynicism that almost every human experiences, this trilogy is the best I have seen.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 film Blade Runner 2049 - the sequel to classic sci-fi Blade Runner - is one of the best sequels I’ve seen, a fact that is made more impressive by the fact that it was released a whole thirty-five years after its predecessor, and brought to life by a different director (although Ridley Scott stayed on as executive producer). I hadn’t seen Arrival, Villeneuve’s previous film, when I saw 2049, although I had heard great things about it.
Arrival certainly lived up to my expectations and cemented the fact that Villeneuve was the perfect choice to take on the mantle of director for the Blade Runner sequel. Like 2049, Arrival is the ideal blend of stunning CGI, imaginative cinematography, and smart script (written by Eric Heisserer) that so many sci-fi films fail to pull off. The best science fiction brings humanity face-to-face with the unknown (in this, and many other cases, an alien species with vastly different technology and language) in a way that makes us confront who we are as a species, and consider our place in the universe. Whether that’s in the form of a straightforward battle-for-survival story such as Spielberg’s War of the Worlds or something altogether more abstract and cerebral such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most memorable entries into the genre (and arguably, any genre), transcend the genre itself and invite the viewer to consider the core beliefs that make up our lives and societies.
Arrival is no exception. Featuring brilliant performances from Amy Adams - who plays a linguistics professor tasked with attempting to communicate with an alien race with no recognisable patterns of speech - and Jeremy Renner, the film tackles big themes such as communication, loss, and the passage of time in a way that is both unique and reminiscent of recent big-brained spectacles like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar or Alex Garland’s Annihilation. To give too much of the plot away would spoil the experience, but if you’re a fan of thoughtful sci-fi with incredibly inventive visual design (the aliens and their ships are sure to go down as design classics, like the xenomorphs in Ridley Scott’s Alien), then this is essential viewing.
Finding Dory (2016)
Like almost every other person of my generation, I grew up as a kid watching Pixar films. I was the perfect age to enjoy the classic ‘00s run of films from the animation studio such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and, of course, Finding Nemo. My main memory of watching Finding Nemo in the cinema as an eight-year-old is of the visuals - the underwater world was stunning and engrossing, especially on the big screen. Thirteen years later, when the sequel came out, I was dividing my time between studying for a degree, drinking cider, and sleeping, so I never found time or reason to go and see a family film in the cinema.
Skip forward to 2020, stuck in isolation with a huge online library of films available. I was tired, pretty fed up, and was browsing the selection of offerings. I vaguely considered a gritty noir, a classic horror film, and an artsy French flick that seemed from the trailer to be mostly about people staring moodily out of Parisian apartment windows, but nothing was inspiring me. Where better to turn for a nostalgic mood-boost than good old Pixar?
Straight away, it was clear that the animation had not only kept the charm and creativity of the original, but enhanced the immersion with animation technology that had hugely advanced in the thirteen years since its predecessor. The ocean seemed deeper and more vivid, the textures of gleaming fish scales and swaying strands of coral more realistic, and the faces of the ocean-dwelling characters even more expressive.
If the film were simply a straightforward retread of the original’s themes, the visuals alone wouldn’t make Finding Dory engaging, especially to a now-adult, rather than an excited eight-year-old. Thankfully, Pixar at its best knows exactly how to tell a story that is relatable to audiences of all ages and circumstances, and this film was no exception. Keeping the core emotional themes of its predecessor (family, loss, memory) yet enriching them, while adding new perspectives on the characters, makes Finding Dory the perfect sequel.
The Lighthouse (2019)
“Two men sit around in a lighthouse”. This was all I knew about this film, other than the fact it was directed by Robert Eggers, who brought us one of my favourite modern horror films - 2015’s The Witch. The Lighthouse is a psychological horror/drama film about the detrimental effects of isolation on the psyche, watched in an attempt to distract myself from the detrimental effects of isolation on the psyche. Certainly not as effective a lighthearted distraction as Finding Dory or The Incredibles 2 (sorry superheroes, you didn’t quite make this list!), which I had watched the day before!
Thankfully, I love a good psychological horror, and The Lighthouse was one of the most inventive I’ve seen. Shot entirely in black-and-white and in 1:19:1 ratio (a non-widescreen ratio that has been mostly abandoned, as has monochrome), the visuals are as claustrophobic as the events of the plot. The lighthouse itself that the two men are confined to is gothic and imposing, as are the disturbing visions experienced by Robert Pattinson’s young protagonist. Opposite Pattinson is his boss/mentor/friend/enemy - a miserable old doom-mongering alcoholic played by Willem Dafoe. As the two men experience mundane yet back-breaking manual labour, conversations (all spoken in 19th Century dialect, and apparently as accurate as the Old English spoken in The Witch) that move unpredictably yet believably from tense to friendly to vicious and back again, and threats in the form of ominous seabirds and terrifying storms, we see the men become consumed by the spectres of alcoholism, paranoia, and madness. The visuals are far more artsy than those of your standard horror or drama film, and the often-confusing dialogue may turn away fans of more conventional horror flicks, but I found this film brilliantly memorable, and Pattinson and Dafoe both put in the best performances I have seen from them.
By the end of the film (although I won’t spoil specifics), all has devolved into a carnage of fury, frustration, and horror that would make Freud feel a little seasick. The final shots are as striking and disturbing as in any film I’ve seen and will stay with me for a long time. The Lighthouse truly cements Robert Eggers as a modern master of slow-burn, head-fuck horror (comparable to Ari Aster, whose films Hereditary and Midsommar strike a similar tone yet with more accessible presentation) and Pattinson and Dafoe as first-class actors.
The Elephant Man (1980)
Director David Lynch is best known for surrealism and unsettling darkness - films like Blue Velvet and series like Twin Peaks have deservedly become cultural phenomena and made Lynch’s distinctive filmmaking style iconic. While his second feature film The Elephant Man is far more grounded and conventional than his later works (not to mention the pure surrealism of its predecessor Eraserhead, which I still haven’t got around to seeing yet!), you can still see elements of Lynch’s unique and inimitable style in every frame.
The visuals - from dingy Victorian backstreets drenched in shadow to grand theatres - are stunning, and the performances from John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins are outstanding. The film tells the true story of Joseph Merrick (known in the film as John Merrick), a severely deformed young man who was rescued by surgeon Frederick Treves from a Victorian freak show in the East End of London.
The story is heartbreaking, and Hurt’s performance (in heavy prosthetics) is iconic - bringing to life a kind and humble man made an outcast through the cruelty of circumstance and the misunderstandings of the society that he was born into. The film isn’t always an easy watch - over the course of two hours we see Merrick kept in a cage, ruthlessly exploited by a greedy “owner”, consistently belittled and ridiculed, and brutally assaulted by a drunken mob. However, moments of human connection punctuate the misery and bring a sense of hope and the message that education, compassion, and understanding can help us grow as humans and as a society - a message that is as relevant as it has ever been.
Honourable Mention: Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a film that I had heard much about but never actually seen. I decided to watch it after hearing that The Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” featured prominently in it, and was pleasantly surprised to hear tracks by My Bloody Valentine and Air when I got around to seeing it!
The plot is very simple: Bill Murray plays a middle-aged, washed-up, somewhat depressed American actor who is stuck in Tokyo without friends or family. The specifics of his marriage to his wife are only touched on, but you get the impression that their relationship isn’t the most passionate any more - and besides, she’s on the other side of the world. Scarlett Johansson plays a young college graduate stuck in the same city and trapped in - you guessed it - an unfulfilling marriage. After a chance meeting, they begin to find friends (or more? The ambiguity of their connection is interesting to watch) in each other, and a connection seemingly missing from the rest of their lives.
While a lot of films follow the older-man-meets-younger-woman trope (in cases other than this one, I imagine the fact that the directors and lead roles tend to be older men has something to do with this), the setting and direction make this film stand out. Trapped in a city so foreign as to be almost alien, Murray and Johansson’s deep spiritual loneliness and feelings of lack of belonging are brought to the fore and expressed visually through gorgeous shots that range from chaotic, neon-lit streets to serene ornamental gardens. However, the Tokyo setting also provided some frustrations - the juxtaposition between the hyper-capitalist modern celebrity culture depicted and the peaceful historical traditions of Zen Buddhism could certainly have been explored further, and I feel a chance was somewhat missed here.
On top of this, the setting was at times somewhat lazily used as a shorthand for alienating weirdness. The fact that the Japanese characters are mostly trying to be kind and welcoming to Murray makes his overt distaste for them and their differences seem annoying and rude, and I’m not certain that that was the film’s intention. Despite the fact that Lost in Translation essentially depicts (and invites us to relate to) entitled American tourists dismissing the culture of their hosts, the sheer chemistry between Murray and Johansson is beautifully believable and makes the film worth a watch despite the moral shortcomings of both the characters and the film itself. This film narrowly missed out on my Top Ten not only because of these flaws, but because Charlie Kaufman’s 2015 stop-motion animated film Anomalisa explored a very similar storyline and theme in a more inventive and thoughtful way (although as it is a very bleak film about extreme loneliness, it may be a little too close to home for many people in isolation at this time!).