We’re kicking off our Top 10 with…
10 – UNCLE FRANK
Writer-director Alan Ball’s return to the big screen, after thirteen years of largely being buried in television projects, was released around the same time as Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, which also dealt with complicated family relations in the backwater Southern states of America – and, no surprise, Uncle Frank completely blew Howard’s failed Oscar contender out of the water.
An emotional, good-hearted and ultimately uplifting generational drama, concerning a gay professor reluctantly returning to his South Carolina home for the funeral of his bigoted father, Ball’s script allowed for profound drama to seep through the cracks of material that in lesser hands could have been as pandering as Hillbilly Elegy was. Instead, he allows nearly every single character to have their moment of glory that also sets them up as compassionate – or not so much – human beings who are more than their designated stereotypes, and as a result you cared about every single one of them, even when you didn’t always agree with them.
In a career-best turn, Paul Bettany commands the screen with charisma and relatable doubt as the titular relative, matched only by Sophia Lillis as his young niece who is building quite the post-It career for herself, and Peter Macdissi as his fun and loyal lover who manages to accompany them on the trip home. By the end, you’ll be weeping for them because not only are the performances so strong, but because the characters they’re playing have been given a lot of room to just be their loveable selves that you really do want things to end well for them.
It’s an incredibly sweet bear-hug of a movie that deserves as much love and acceptance as it gives…
9 – CALM WITH HORSES
So many gangster flicks focus so much on the heads of crime families that they often side-line the brutish enforcers who carry out their violent demands without question. Filmmaker Nick Rowland’s debut feature is immediately different from the pack by not only having one such person as the main character, but by also exploring the psychological toll of being so blindly loyal to bad people that it starts chipping away at their own humanity.
A powerful character study with a touch of Coen Brothers-esque dialogue, the film also sets an astonishing high bar for lead actor Cosmo Jarvis, who in a performance worthy of Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront makes you root for this broken, dim man to break free of his metaphorical chains and decide for himself what kind of man he wants to be. Strong support from Barry Keoghan and Niamh Algar reinforces Jarvis’ magnetic drive for sullen, gritty drama (a style of acting he also brought to this year’s Nocturnal), and the script by Joe Murtagh lends a gentler and more compassionate alternative to the classic, bloody gangster flick.
It’s a film with tough-to-stomach acts of violence, but even harder to witness is the inhumane treatment of the lead character by his rough, unloving masters. The script, direction and performances leave you uncomfortable as you witness him being treated like a glorified attack dog, being fed drugs to keep his blood boiling and self-awareness to a minimum, and you can feel the inner pain that his true family – his ex, Algar, and their young autistic son – are going through in their futile attempts to bring him back to their side. In the middle of this intense tug-of-war is simply a man who wants to do good but does not have the willpower to think for himself, which makes for a truly emotional arc that’ll leave you in quite the state by the time it reaches it heavy conclusion.
The spirit of Brando is strong with this one, from Cosmo Jarvis’ On The Waterfront level performance to the kind of gangster movie that Brando helped popularise…
8 – THE INVISIBLE MAN
From the ashes of Universal’s failed Dark Universe rises a new take on a classic movie monster that achieves everything that the failed Tom Cruise Mummy reboot couldn’t, including a timely update of the dynamics surrounding the central beast that make it an exceptionally unnerving viewing experience.
Writer-director Leigh Whannell makes the simplest change in perspective which ends up putting things in a whole new light: by having it be about the abused girlfriend of a genius scientist, who happens to find a way to turn his body invisible (in a way that actually seems plausible in a realistic world), things suddenly become a whole lot more sinister because you already know what this guy is capable of when it comes to his ferocious control issues. You greatly fear for Elisabeth Moss in this movie because, her excellent performance aside, she’s been through the ringer quite a few times already, and her attempts to get people to believe what is happening only further push the power of gaslighting by others which, in many respects, is just as dangerous.
Whannell’s film is smart in its correlations with victim-blaming and siding with the abuser, both of which are horrifying enough to experience, but to have these themes played out in a film that’s already terrifying with some great shocks and suspenseful filmmaking, it makes for some seriously disturbing entertainment. Between this and Upgrade, Whannell has really affirmed himself as a strong filmmaker to keep an eye on, as he slowly carves his name into the annals of genre cinema with tight, clever and hugely satisfying payoffs to compelling set-ups.
The good news is, Whannell will be returning to monster movie filmmaking soon with a new version of The Wolf Man with Ryan Gosling set to star – based on this movie alone, we’re already excited to see how that one turns out…
7 – SAINT MAUD
This year saw the introduction of a brand-new movie monster that’s just as terrifying as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and even The Invisible Man. Although, at first, Maud – a young nurse steeped in her newfound Christianity – might not seem so threatening, as soon as you see the disturbing lengths she’ll go to in order to preserve her Lord’s good name in herself and others, you’ll fully understand why she’s someone to be feared.
In Rose Glass’ moody and stylistic debut feature, a brilliant Morfydd Clark portrays a troubled soul who at first seeks to do good and repent for past fatal flaws, but whose obsession with saving the soul of Jennifer Ehle’s cynical terminal patient eventually clouds her mind with warped ideas about the true power of heavenly spirits. There are an alarming amount of people in the world who use their religion as an excuse to spout some of the most insane and hurtful comments you can imagine, and Maud is a representation of what could happen if someone takes their religious fanaticism way too far, especially when they’re already so psychologically unbalanced.
Largely pinning its effectiveness on some moody cinematography – although there are a couple of jump-scares, both of them well-earned – Glass manages to also show a sensitive side to the horror, by having you also pity the person Maud has become as we learn a little bit more about what she was like beforehand. We don’t get much information, but it’s clear in Glass’ careful script that Maud – if that is even her real name – is someone who comes from a very different but equally disturbed background, and in her quest to become something better she has still somehow gone down an even worse path, to a point where her damaged psyche is on the verge of doing something unforgiveable.
It keeps you on edge throughout, with some of the year’s most chilling shots that’ll stay ingrained in your mind for ages afterwards, haunting your prayers endlessly…
6 – WOLFWALKERS
Cartoon Saloon has slowly been creeping up behind the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks the last few years, but now the Irish animation studio can claim to have a film that has bested both rival companies in a single year with a film that’s leagues ahead of the competition.
Their fourth feature is one that could easily be mistaken for being part of Disney’s Renaissance period of the early 90s, from its absolutely beautiful 2D animation to its well-written characters who offer lively insights into the fantastical world of shape-shifting wolf packs and their Puritan hunters. Children and adults alike can easily get sucked into this gorgeous realm, laughing at the right moments, crying at the right moments, and most certainly feeling the magic and awe exactly whenever it wants us to, without cynicism or talking down to its audience.
Its plot certainly rings a few bells – it’s a similar formula used for Pocahontas, Avatar and, most fittingly, Dances with Wolves – but there’s enough elements here to make even the more familiar elements seen fresh and new once more. Honestly, with the level of stunning animation on display here, you’ll forget about the fact that it’s a familiar formula because you’re just having such a joyous time in this family-friendly but never condescending film that is destined to become a classic for all.
One thing’s for sure: never bet against Cartoon Saloon to deliver something as excellent as its much better known rivals…