We’re halfway through January and it already feels like an age since 2019. So, sitting down to add a few of my thoughts to this edition of our top 5 films was a chance to reflect on some of the best experiences of the last year, some even taking my top spots of the decade. For me, this list helped to remind me why seeing films remains one of the most important things we can do. They educate us, entertain us, and overall I’d say that they can make us better people, too.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a film I enjoyed writing about afterwards as much, or even more, than I did the feature. Footprints of Iannucci’s earlier works from The Death of Stalin to The Thick of It are trodden all over this glorious, manic, splattered canvas of a film.
True to form, his comedy is here stylised like a play and its payoff is brilliant: the specificity of the jokes and their fantastic execution is what makes them work so well. It resembles an Oscar Wilde farce in many ways, largely owing to its director’s comedic input.
The framing is so dynamic — each shot is focused in on close-ups of the characters’ faces. Space is a malleable thing, played with, pulled backwards and forwards. Not only that, but Iannucci isn’t afraid to play with form. On two occasions, a story told from one character’s point of view and then another is transformed into a diegetic projection on the wall.
I absolutely loved a sequence where David and his friends were drunk in London and decide to see a play, shot entirely as if it’s a Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy silent comedy. The camera speeds up and music plays over the dialogue. Intertitles come in and there are all the slapstick pratfalls you could cram into a minute of film. Honestly, just thinking about it brings a huge smile to my face.
Despite his difficult childhood, the character David fills gaps in people’s lives with love and care. The film might be accused of saccharine treatment of a novel that intended to expose the conditions of the London working class, but at the end of the day, Iannucci has achieved something others haven’t been able to. Through the most absurd comedy, he has brought hope into focus, fixating on the endless capacity to see good in the world.
4. Jojo Rabbit
I recently heard two people discussing their conflicting views on Jojo Rabbit, which has just found its way to an international release, on a radio segment. One made the point that the comedy was too offensive and that the jokes didn’t land. But the other, whom I’m inclined to agree with, suggested that the treatment of the entire subject is less parody than burlesque. The difference is that it makes no attempt to be serious and can only be seen as entertainment.
Within the film, comedy and tragedy are balanced on a knife’s edge (a literal knife — Jojo has to carry one at all times), and Jojo eventually realises the futility of war and the importance of love, not hate. The film ends with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Let everything happen to you / Beauty and terror / Just keep going / No feeling is final,” to sum up the sentiment. A man who’s created some of the funniest cinema in recent years and who has become a household name for escapist action reveals himself not only as a satirist but as a thinker, a sensitive observer and as someone who keeps things in perspective at all times.
It might lack the pedal-to-the-metal pacing of other Waititi films, but he isn’t afraid of humour. There’s a tendency in the festival circuit to err towards the serious and gloomy. But he’s written a crazy, fantastical film which is a perfect antidote to the darkness we see every day. For that reason I think Jojo Rabbit will take off commercially as well as critically: it’s not elitist. In fact, it blows raspberries at the biggest elitists in history and winks at the audience, letting you know it’s OK to leave the serious stuff out and have a bit of fun.
3. The Farewell
“That’s the difference between the East and the West. You think one’s life belongs to oneself. No sense of a whole. Family. We are there to bear the emotional burden for Nai Nai.”
This quote is the film’s thesis, wrapped up in a charged moment between an uncle, a father and a daughter. The reason for the whole elaborate charade and an exploration of ethical lying: protecting someone from a worse fate by bearing the burden together. Director Lulu Wang has created something many Asian filmmakers might shy away from: telling the truth and agonising over honesty.
Awkwafina’s performance couldn’t have been more natural if she’d trained all her life — or lived the experience and knew it intuitively. She gave the character Billi emotional depth, a refreshing honesty and vulnerability not often ascribed to women her age in cinema. It’s hard to believe she’s 30, portraying as she does a young woman who regresses into a childlike state when confronted with her Nai Nai’s mortality. Unable to process complex emotions, she’s criticised for letting her emotions get the better of her and is initially excluded from proceedings as the family get together.
I won’t pretend this film isn’t close to home, but that’s why I think it resonated so much with me. It revealed an important discourse about the lengths the family will go to to suppress emotion, save face, and ultimately keep carrying on, refusing to confront painful emotions. Does that mean generations of scarred, emotionally inarticulate individuals? Or can — should — the cycle be broken?
Waves is a film that leaves you thinking: I need to be better. I want to bring less hate and more love into the world. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s absolutely true.
Telling the story of a family over the course of a devastating and dividing few months, Waves is unlike anything else. Keenly aware of the shortcomings of articulation, I can only allude to the intensity of the visual and aural experience, where visual and audio senses merge and envelop you not only into a narrative, but into a completely different way of seeing things. Director Trey Edward Shults steers a course through a family loss of tragic proportions, only to remedy it in a discrete, but interconnected, narrative.
It’s profoundly moody and engulfing, the waves of the Florida coast crashing around characters, echoing their sound through bedrooms at night. Combined with this sensory rush, the music is captivating: classical arpeggios fuse with hip hop, creating a unique blend of sound effects and melody. It stands in for the gaps when individuals can’t articulate or express themselves. Everything I’ve heard about Waves seems to be misleading. The fact is that it’s excellent and the sensory experience is second to none.
1. For Sama
For Sama is the story of the Syrian uprising and civil war, told through the point of view of Waad al Kateab. Her motivation for making the film is her daughter, Sama — a beautiful wide-eyed girl who has been born at such a tumultuous time. ‘Forgive me for bringing you into this world,’ pleads her mother: it’s this intimacy and reflection on life that leads the way for the rest of the film.
From the outset, she addresses her young daughter, as if the film and its campaign are all a love letter to her. This tenderness is bittersweet combined with Waad’s very serious statement: ‘I’m leaving this footage to you, in case I don’t survive.’ The idea of a mother leaving a legacy for such a young child in the event of her death is heartbreaking, but it’s exactly what we need to see, in order to understand the civil war as a historical fact, as an international crisis, and as a reality for so many.
Using footage gathered from 5 years on the ground in war-torn Syria, Waad al Kateab and filmmaker Edward Watts have brought together a narrative of civilian life under the Syrian regime, which is at once heartbreaking and eye-opening, so much so that I’ve been preoccupied with this film for the whole year.