As the year ends, cinema fans who might have been expecting that meaningful movies would be suffocated by overblown CGI-rattling blockbusters looking to batter the industry into some sort of profitable shape in the wake of the bottom line losses suffered by studios in the wake of the pandemic, can breathe a small but welcome sigh of relief. There were plenty of intriguing and innovative films this year on both the mainstream and art circuits that proved that the cinema is still a vital and necessary art form and that not everyone is jumping into the superhero franchise sandbox just yet. Here are three of the year’s best for you to catch up with over the holidays and which will hopefully stay with you for some time after.
THE ARTHOUSE ESSENTIAL
El Conde — Netflix
Chilean director Pablo Larráin has a righteous axe to grind with the nefarious former dictator of his homeland, Augusto Pinochet, and here he gives full reign to the darkest and most bleakly humoured revenge he could imagine on the dictator responsible for the deaths and torture of thousands.
In a world that’s sort of like the one we think we know, but not quite — Pinochet is still alive, living in seclusion on the frozen southern tip of South America. He’s also a vampire who began life as a royalist soldier in the French Revolution before finding his true role, the one that satisfies his bloodlust the most as the tyrannical, Western-backed leader of Chile. Now suffering from the indignities of watching his former fiefdom and the world besmirching his reputation, and feeling dissatisfied with the vampiric routines that have sustained him for 250 years, the sulking general has decided to forego his recommended daily blood allowance in the hope that he’ll be able to get old — forego eternal life and put an end to his wallowing self-pity.
Determined to get his affairs in order before he shuffles off this mortal coil, Augusto summons his obsequious, incompetent children to his lair and reveals that he’s stashed away a tidy sum in corrupt earnings that should sustain them for the rest of their lives. With that sorted, he’s ready to welcome death but things take a surprising turn when a virginal nun one of his children has enlisted to exorcise his demons arrives and the general begins to fall for her.
Shot in gloriously lush black and white by cinematographer Ed Lachman the film gradually moves from black comedy to phantasmagoric horror and smartly gives one of history’s most terrible characters the kind of dissection and reputational evisceration he deserves. Larráin’s targets are wide-ranging — from Pinochet and his legacy to the culpability of the Chilean bourgeoisie and Western anticommunist cheerleaders such as Margaret Thatcher — who makes an offscreen appearance as the narrator of the film.
In its mix of dark political satire with genre tropes, the film offers a unique method of trying to come to terms with the unimaginable horror of the reality of Pinochet and his legacy in a memorably imaginative narrative that’s entertaining, quietly funny and ultimately unnerving.
THE STONE COLD CLASSIC
Past Lives — Rent or buy from Apple TV +
Theatre director Celine Song makes her feature film debut with a film as carefully controlled and quietly emotionally resonant as the best US short stories. Beginning with an image of a Korean woman sitting between a Korean man and an American man at a bar in New York and the offscreen voices of other bar patrons wondering what the relationship between these three oddly matched characters might be, the film travels back in time to begin to answer those questions.
Nora and Hae Sung are school friends in South Korea whose relationship seems about to take a romantic turn when fate intervenes and Nora and her family emigrate to Canada. Years later Nora pursues her dreams of becoming a playwright by moving to New York where she reconnects virtually with her childhood crush Hae Sung who is finishing his military service and preparing to go off to college to study engineering.
Once again, just when it seems as if there might be a chance of the two friends making a romantic connection, life gets in the way and Nora finds herself at an upstate writing retreat where she meets, falls for and ultimately marries fellow writer Arthur. By the time Hae Sung finally arrives in America to see Nora, there’s a strong sense that whatever we and our expectations might want to happen between them, will never be and that this is just as it should be.
With a strong sense of the ways in which our life paths can diverge from the directions we expect them too and a solidly adult attitude to love and relationships, Song’s film is a quietly bubbling gem that offers plenty to ponder without wallowing in sentimentality or engaging in easy-target melodrama.
THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
A Thousand and One — Rent or buy from Apple TV +
AV Rockwell’s directorial debut marks her as a new cinematic voice to watch, with this emotionally powerful and subtly political drama that while it may initially seem to tread some well-worn ground, soon proves itself to be a uniquely crafted tale of single African American motherhood, family bonds and the injustices of systematised inequality on the gentrifying streets of Harlem.
Teyana Taylor makes the leap from pop music stardom to dramatic actress with admirable skill in the role of single-minded hairdresser Inez who essentially kidnaps her son Terry out of foster care and sets off to a small but hopefully better new life in Harlem. Her arrival coincides with the 1990s city betterment push by mayor Rudi Giuliani and middle class speculators rapidly expanding into former black and Latino neighbourhoods.
Following the trials and tribulations of Inez and Terry over the course of a turbulent 11-year period for working class New Yorkers, the film explores the uncomfortable realities of what basic survival in the city entails and the sacrifices Inez has to make to ensure her son has more opportunities than she ever did.