There’s a huge pressure on anyone who wants to talk or write seriously about film to pretend as if they’ve already seen every great film ever made, even as dozens more great, must-see films appear every year. It’s always been there, obviously, but it’s been magnified – like so many futile anxieties – in the age of social media, where showing off your esoteric knowledge of the medium can sometimes seem more like the film nerd version of an Instagram flex than a sincere celebration of film and its history. It creates a paralysing urgency around over a hundred years of art and it’s tempting to throw up your arms and give up. Where do you even start? Just let Disney make the choice for you and shovel whatever focus-tested crap they’re releasing next into your waiting mouth.
That pressure can be exhausting at times, but it’s an argument for logging off, not giving up. We already loved film when we started this blog and we’ve only fallen deeper and deeper in love over the past few years. It’s hard to overstate how much it has meant to us, how much it has enriched our lives to explore this beautiful art form, as practiced across the world over a century of human endeavour.
Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living and, despite all indications to the contrary, there is an abundance of it. That’s the joy of accepting you’ll never see every great film ever made: there will always be more great films that you’ll get to see for the first time.
In February, we’ll go through our favourite new releases of the year when we post the fourth annual Sundae Film Awards. But looking back on the year in film shouldn’t just mean looking back at what came out this year. 2019 is the year Ciara finally saw Alien, gasped and giggled through her first Jackie Chan movie and got into borrowing DVDs from the library, the year Dean found Tarkovsky on All4, had his heart exploded by Point Break and watched Lillian Gish basically invent screen acting in Way Down East. So here are some of the best films we saw in 2019 that didn’t come out in 2019.
It’s no big deal if you haven’t seen them, but we definitely recommend checking them out.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Dean: “Weimar Germany was fascinating and fertile ground for artistic experimentation, including in the still-young medium of film. Some of those experiments were in content and theme – as with Carl Theodore Dreyer’s groundbreaking gay romance Michael (1924) – but mostly it dealt with form. The German Expressionist movement rejected and resented the expectation that visual arts represent the world realistically, preferring to paint the world through the distorting lens of the psyche.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most influential films to come out of German Expressionism, a brilliant marriage of psychological realism and visual surrealism. It takes its characters’ motivations and feelings very seriously while representing the world through a heightened, twisted, gothic lens: the set design is more similar to theatre than film, with shadows often painted directly onto backgrounds. It’s a murder mystery with a satisfyingly unsatisfying conclusion and a terrific performance from Conrad Veidt as the sinister ‘somnambulist’ Cesare. The downer ending – allegedly forced on the writers by the producers – has been controversial since its release, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s what transforms Caligari from a simple but beautifully-told horror fairy tale into a true horror masterpiece, leaving the audience to sit uncomfortably with all its uncertainties long after it ends.”
Citizen Kane (1941)
Dean: “What can I say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t been said a million times before? Nothing, but it’s all worth repeating, because Citizen Kane really is that good and people still don’t watch it enough. I put off watching it for years, so long it became a running joke with my friends that the first thing I did every morning was decide not to watch Citizen Kane. I didn’t avoid it out of disinterest, but because its reputation made it seem like a massive undertaking that would require time blocked out to watch it completely uninterrupted with all my attention. How else could you possibly approach watching the Greatest Film Ever Made?
Well, you could just throw it up on your laptop one day as a lark and find out that it fucking rules. Every actor in Citizen Kane is having the time of their lives and their wry amusement in its many comic scenes is infectious. It was Orson Welles’ first film – as actor, director, co-writer and producer – after a groundbreaking career on stage. His inexperience left him unconstrained by convention and he made a truly innovative film largely by asking his crew to do things he didn’t realise were innovative. After all my humming and hawing, I had a whale of a time with Citizen Kane. Everyone should watch it, not because it’s the Greatest Film Ever Made, but because it’s a damn good time.”
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Ciara: “It’s hard to describe Diary of a Country Priest because it works precisely on the parts of the self that are indescribable. The story is very simple – a young priest in rural France struggles with his faith and dealing with his parishioners, one of whom has recently lost a child – and the filmmaking is simple, too, carefully stripping away all the excess and artifice that the medium builds up. But it’s simple because that’s how to approach transcendence.
It’s about faith and doubt, those twins inside the heart, and it does a great job at showing the diversity of doubt: the priest, who believes in God but does not feel close to him; the doctor, who does not believe; the mother, who hates God; the daughter, who wants to sin and sin and sin. But it’s also maybe the best film I’ve ever seen about loneliness. The priest is isolated and isolates himself further, subsisting on stale bread and bad wine. His loneliness fuels his depression, his depression fuels his mistreatment of himself, those both fuel his isolation, which fuels his loneliness.
If you’re Christian, Diary of a Country Priest is an incredible film that resonates in your deepest, darkest places. But if you’re not, there’s still so much beauty and grace in it, nowhere moreso than in Claude Laydu’s piercing, sad eyes.”
Dean: “I’ve loved heist movies as long as I can remember – I watched Ocean’s Eleven and Inside Man so many times in my youth that my DVDs wore out – and Rififi left me gobsmacked. It’s a classic of French film noir and one of the most perfect heist movies I’ve ever seen. Its central setpiece is a half-hour heist shot in almost total silence, comprising over a quarter of the film’s runtime. If you love long, detailed and gripping scenes of skilled people at work, like those in Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, it’s an absolute treat to watch.
But the rest of the film is great too. Almost all its characters are unvarnished assholes, with few hints of heart. The central relationship of the story, between burglar Tony and his ex-girlfriend Mado, is a gripping portrayal of abuse and lingering desire that unsettles even as it enthralls. The title song – written from the perspective of a gangster’s battered mistress – only deepens the discomfort with its upbeat melody. It’s just a marvelous bit of filmmaking from top to bottom.”
Fists in the Pocket (1965)
Dean: “I watched Fists in the Pockets because I saw its title and I was like ‘wow, what an awkward and unappealing title, I wonder what that’s about’. Well, it’s about a young epileptic man called Alessandro who decides to murder his similarly disabled siblings and blind mother, then himself, so his able-bodied eldest brother doesn’t have to provide for them anymore. It was condemned by some on release as eugenicist propaganda, but that’s one of the worst takes I’ve ever heard on any film, too stupid to even refute.
I’ve not found much evidence that Fists in the Pocket is held in high regard by many people, which is a shame, because I adored it. I love that it’s a gothic melodrama set in post-war Italy, with a crumbling country villa in place of the more traditional castle or manor house. I love Lou Castel’s performance as Alessandro, so instantly charismatic and compelling, even as he plays an unstable monster. But, most of all, I love Paola Pitagora as his sister Giulia, who develops at least two obsessive infatuations with her own brothers. I don’t pretend to think any industry is meritocratic, but it’s truly bizarre to me that she didn’t become an icon of European cinema. Watch it for her alone.”
Ciara: “I hate when old films are described as ‘modern’, as if history is a straight line of ever greater artistic achievement and the highest mantel to which an old film can aspire is to be like something that would be made now. But Kes is so modern that I assumed watching it that it was a period piece made decades after it was set.
Kes is about Billy, a working-class teenage boy in a mining town in Yorkshire who raises a kestrel that he finds, teaching himself falconry and training the bird. The characters speak in a Yorkshire dialect that isn’t always easy to understand – American executives reportedly said that it would be easier to understand Hungarian – but forms the backbone of the film’s dedication to vivid social realism. Kes is a great portrait of working-class lives, digging into regional specificity to access a broader story about class, poverty, and beauty.
But it’s also a great teen movie. Allison in The Breakfast Club famously says that when you grow up, your heart dies, and Kes is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about how adults are monsters. The grown-ups in Billy’s life bully and abuse him, and even those who try to sympathise never really try to understand. His only real consolation is his kestrel, a plot that in lesser hands would feel clumsy and childish, but here, is magnificent.”
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Ciara: “I’m not sure if anything can really prepare someone to watch Pink Flamingos, but – even knowing that Divine eats dog shit on-screen, even having seen the ‘kill everyone now!’ speech a dozen times – I was not prepared. Pink Flamingos is a mad, mad, mad thing: incredibly gross, incredibly weird, and very, very funny.
The contemporary culture wars are really odd in dozens of ways – I am baffled daily that The Last Jedi is apparently a political litmus test – but one of the saddest is how little room seems to be left for transgressive art. Years of What X Gets Right About Social Issues thinkpieces have apparently convinced huge swathes of the contemporary left that What X Gets Right is the main or sole lens through which we should view art.
Then there’s Pink Flamingos: transgressive art in the purest, most thrilling sense. There’s Divine eating shit. There’s Divine giving her son a blowjob. There’s the villains trapping women in their basement and selling their babies to lesbians. There’s a sex scene where a chicken is crushed to death. It’s awesome.
It’s rightly a classic of queer cinema, but Pink Flamingos doesn’t just push against the boundaries of hetero society: it pushes against all boundaries, forging something totally new and entirely its own. Nothing in Pink Flamingos is ‘normal’ when it could be fucking batshit, and it’s genuinely exhilarating.”
The Elephant Man (1980)
Ciara: “David Lynch is America’s master surrealist, and watching most of his films this year, I loved them at their weirdest and most experimental, at their most cinema-as-feeling. The Elephant Man is, on the surface, nothing like that: it’s a straightforward historical drama, starring John Hurt as John Merrick, a severely deformed man in Victorian London. It’s the Lynch movie you’d recommend to someone who doesn’t like Lynch.
But thinking about The Elephant Man as lacking something that’s in Lynch’s later work gets it all wrong. It’s the Lynch movie you’d recommend to everyone.
It’s incredibly beautiful: Freddie Francis’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, but the film’s ideas are beautiful, too. It’s a great film about the importance of seeing the humanity in others. Hurt’s lead performance is extraordinary – even under a bag and layers of still-excellent prosthetics, ‘I am not an animal! I am a human being!’ makes my heart ache – but Anthony Hopkins’s turn as the doctor who takes him away from the freakshow is fascinating. He goes from treating Merrick as a scientific curiosity to infantalising and pitying him. But he realises his failure and learns to see Merrick as a human being, becoming his greatest advocate and best friend.”
Ciara: “I have a notebook where I write down all the films I watch, and I usually write a quick line of what I thought. My note on Possession is basically ‘Holy shit!!!!!! Holy shit!!!!!’ over and over.
Watching Possession is an intense experience. It plays right on your nerves, never stopping to let you breathe. Isabelle Adjani gives a famously insane performance – if you know Possession for one thing, it’s the subway scene – but Sam Neill is just as intense opposite her, both turning in the kind of uncompromising, fearlessly huge performances that are so easy to dismiss but so difficult to make work. Adjani and Neill, writes Kim Newman, ‘attack their roles with a kind of stylised hysteria rare outside Japanese theatre.’
Possession would be worth watching for those performances alone, but there’s nothing I don’t love about it. Most interesting is the emotional realism that lives right alongside its stylisation. It mines its horror as much from marital breakdown as from the sinister supernatural. After all, the title has multiple meanings.”
The Terminator (1984)
Dean: “I watched the first three Terminator films in reverse order: Rise of the Machines on DVD when it came out, Judgment Day in the cinema on its anniversary, and The Terminator this year. I like Terminator 2 a lot and I often think of Paul Thomas Anderson dropping out of film school because a professor said anyone who wanted to make a film like T2 shouldn’t be there. But it’s crazy to me that anyone thinks any of the sequels are better than the first. It makes me wonder what they even like about movies.
The Terminator is a slasher masterpiece in sci-fi drag: it’s a time travel movie that ponders the ethics of abortion, but it’s fundamentally about a big, scary, violent man who just won’t stop trying to kill the other characters. Arnie and Linda Hamilton are brilliant throughout, obviously, but I want to single out a particular scene because it’s a real showcase for the comparatively undersung Michael Biehn. The third-act encounter between Sarah and Kyle, during which they conceive the future saviour of humanity, is one of my favourite sex scenes in cinema. It’s so layered for something that could easily just be tablesetting for the plot. The characters’ vulnerability and desperation is so affecting that you really believe this fumbling between basic strangers could actually mean something profound to them. That’s probably an odd thing to focus on in, y’know, The Terminator, but it’s stuck with me all year.”
Ciara: “There’s something just better about westerns, I can’t explain it. A great western is a special thing. And Unforgiven is a great western.
Unforgiven was Clint Eastwood’s last western. (So far!) So many westerns feel like they’re about the end of things, but Unforgiven feels that way even more so: Eastwood plays a widowed pig farmer who used to be a ruthless gunslinger, and when an opportunity to do one last job comes along, he takes it. ‘I ain’t like that no more,’ he says when his old partner (Morgan Freeman) tells stories of the man he used to be – the kind of man you might find in the westerns that made Eastwood famous – yet here he is, riding out to kill again.
It’s an extraordinarily melancholy film about ageing, the weight of our past, and more than anything, violence. The film has a deep moral concern for how violence affects both the perpetrator and the afflicted. Violence has a weight in Unforgiven that it rarely has on-screen: a scene where a man bleeds out, asking for water while he dies slowly, is haunting. Befitting the western genre, it’s also about the mythmaking around violence. A minor character is a biographer of heroes of the wild west: first he’s a hilarious meta-joke, and then, something much more sinister.”
Dean: “I enjoyed but didn’t connect all that much with the first two Wes Anderson films I saw, The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox. There was something distant or withholding about them. I understood all the emotional beats but they didn’t reach me the way I expected. It made me think Wes Anderson was a director whose films I’d only ever admire, not love. But then I watched Rushmore.
Like The Catcher in the Rye, a book it clearly owes a huge debt, Rushmore takes its characters’ pain at face value, even as it motivates them to say and do extremely silly things. The sequence where pretentious boarding school student Max (Jason Schwartzman) and his steel magnate mentor Herman (Bill Murray) pull an increasingly dangerous series of tit-for-tat ‘pranks’ on each other – culminating in a murder attempt – made me laugh so hard I cried.
Olivia Williams, one of my favourite actresses, is absolutely wonderful as the kind, thoughtful schoolteacher they both love. Her character is by far the most grounded in the film and, in such a wacky film, the straight man role could easily have left her stuck in the background. But even as Schwartzman and Murray deliver two career-great performances, Williams shines through. Rushmore is a lovely, sad, very funny film about love and grief and depression. I can’t wait to watch it again.”