Photo by Rafael Arkenau on Unsplash

Something hugely unexpected happened recently, I realised I quite like Bond films (no I couldn’t believe it either). Don’t mind them at all as it happens. All the gadgets, the babes, the sexy cars. Yes once in a while Bond might slap a chick in the face or on the ass and that might completely jar in the moment, but then she purrs “Oh James” and there he goes again, working his magic with his large government issue penis – noticeably uninterested in anyone’s relationship status and not exactly reaching for any contraception. I suppose the idea of 007 rifling fruitlessly through his crumpled tuxedo in search of rubber johnnies simply wouldn’t befit a man who literally just spent the evening eluding criminal masterminds.

Looking back, it explains a lot about the evolution of masculinity and how it appears to be ending with a backlash, and really that’s often what films are good for – for playing the part of a societal barometer, a way to trace our behavioural history, good and bad. To see how far (or not) we’ve come.

But that’s not why I like Bond films. I’m not wearing an ironic badge to enhance my progressiveness, praising them for cementing myths about manhood so we could debunk them years later. I’m nowhere near that level of intelligence (no pun) unfortunately. No, I like them for the stunts – particularly from the older movies in the franchise. The ones where you know that the muscular figure doing the unthinkable like skiing off a cliff edge or jumping out of a moving car/train/plane was actually doing it in that moment. Risking mortality for a couple of takes that they absolutely had to use, because they weren’t heading to a special effects studio to pump it full of collagen. They weren’t jacking it up in cyberspace to create a mirage. At a time when everything seems phony, where fairly often even something so mundane as someone’s teeth can be a lie, I get off on the authenticity of it. I admire the graft. Because really, if we’re talking about life (which we are, always, in a roundabout way), that’s where the reality lives. In doing everything you can to make the impossible/unfathomable look easy.

Anyway, my quest to watch 150 films this year continues (I’m already resigned to not making it, but I’ll get close), so here’s the latest batch, ranked from best to worst using the handy Covid Rating – 19 being spectacular, 0 being bullshit.

Past Lives (2023)

Directed by Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo

It’s hard to think of a more romantic movie in the last decade, perhaps even more than that, and it could yet join the pantheon of unrequited love films alongside Casablanca, In the Mood for Love, and yes, Titanic, and also yes, Brokeback Mountain. It’s certainly hard to think of a film that captures love and humanity in the same way. Lots of other movies have played around with the idea of the parallel universe where things are different, where you’re living the utopian life you feel you deserve, but all too often they do it in a way that’s convoluted, overcomplicated, top heavy with mysticism, or lunging too heavily at profundity (trying to be everything, everywhere, all at once, ahem) when all you need is simplicity, simple acknowledgements. To evoke the idea that we ultimately have to accept life for what it is without being bitter about what it could have been. And, as with Casablanca, to recognise that being in love can even mean not being together.
Covid Rating: 18

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin

Definitely more Alexander than Fanny, who barely gets a look-in, in what’s widely regarded as Ingmar Bergman’s most autobiographical film. One which deals with his usual fare of broken marriages, infidelity, death, and the baffling religious contradictions that dominate secular societies. What with it being Bergman’s final (and almost, but not quite, finest) hour, it’s a shame that both Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman turned it down – would’ve been like getting the old band back together to chuck one last TV out of the window.
Covid Rating: 17

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman

There was a point when this was going to be a full-blown comedy starring Steve Martin or Woody Allen, which would’ve made for a very different kind of trip – but not an illogical one. Because what’s so great about Eyes Wide Shut is that it’s one joke, one gag (no pun), with everything coming together (no pun) in the payoff. Much was made of the strange chemistry between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (married at the time), but it genuinely might be the best thing they’ve done – either of them.
Covid Rating: 16

Ida (2013)

Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza

A Polish film about a novice nun wrestling with the idea of taking her sacred vow. Not least on account of discovering that she’s both Jewish (long story) and attracted to a hot saxophone player. As we’ve come to expect with films that clang the shackles of Catholicism, you spend much of it urging her to turn her back on her faith, to embrace sex and love and hedonism, but then something miraculous happens. You see the world as it’s set out for her through her eyes, without God, and you want her to reapply the manacles and go back to her monastic life. Didn’t see that one coming.
Covid Rating: 16

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne

The mad thing about The Usual Suspects is that it even works when you know the twist. It somehow doesn’t matter that you’re wise to the con, the joy comes from seeing it unfurl – a bit like watching a skilled magician contrive to discover your playing card, you know it’s going to happen but it still explodes your mind when it does. The magician in this case being the shamed actor Kevin Spacey, having his strings pulled by the shamed director Bryan Singer. Yep, disappointing time for having heroes, the 90s.
Covid Rating: 16

Training Day (2001)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke

Denzel Washington goes large, as in really large, yet somehow he pulls it off, stacking tension upon tension, creating a wolf-like character who’s all seductive smiles and sharp murderous teeth. Some might recall that he won the Oscar for this – which, interestingly, was another year (2001) when the Academy had been scrutinised for failing to honour non-white actors, so reacted by bestowing the key awards on Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, and Sidney Poitier, as if holding its hands up and protesting a little too much. That’s not to say that Washington’s performance didn’t warrant the accolade, more that it smacked of limp tokenism from a bunch of dinosaur executives who were desperate to seem progressive – as proven by the same problem reemerging time and again in the years since. It’s a bit like when Trump manages to stand next to a woman (an actual woman) without honking her tits. He thinks about it, it’s probably all he thinks about, and then he silently congratulates himself for not doing it and decides that he’s probably a feminist now. Anyway point is: excellent film.
Covid Rating: 15

Ordet (1955)

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Henrik Malberg, Emil Hass Christensen

From the great Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the man who gifted us the silent cinema classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, and this is no less intense (with the title translating as “The Word”). A scenic stunner, it examines the ins and outs of faith, wondering who can claim to practice the right kind of Christianity –  those who approach it with solemn rigidity, or those who like their dogma a little more loosey-goosey (but still quite solemn). There’s also an interesting side-argument percolating about how we can separate insanity from divinity, with the self-proclaimed “second coming” getting fairly short shrift until he puts his money where his mouth is.
Covid Rating: 15

La Piscine (1969)

Directed by Jacques Deray
Starring: Alain Delon, Romy Schneider

Jealousy rears its ugly head during a luxurious holiday on the French Riviera. The piscine/pool in the title is the real selling point of a stunning property, which features other glorious views such as Jane Birkin and Alain Delon, but unfortunately, as with all holidays, what begins as a chance to unwind ends with everyone silently heading home in separate vehicles. One of which may or may not be a hearse.
Covid Rating: 15

Black Girl (1966)

Directed by Ousmane Sembène
Starring: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek

The promise of a cosmopolitan new life turns out to be one of servitude as the Black Girl of the title is taken from Senegal to France, only to find that she’s been duped by the couple she’s working for. She’d been sold a paradise that doesn’t exist, and the only way she can reclaim her humanity is to exhume it in the most brutal way possible. Powerful stuff, reasserting the abject shame of colonialism.
Covid Rating: 15

Vagabond (1985)

Directed by Agnès Varda
Starring: Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril

Cut from a similar cloth to Wanda (also watched in 2023), though in this case, it’s a younger, Frencher woman opting out, flicking her teeth at convention and choosing to embrace something closer to nihilism. The outcome is similarly dispiriting too, finding Sandrine Bonnaire figuring that without the usual trappings, all that’s left to trade with is your body and, in the end SPOILER ALERT, your life.
Covid Rating: 15

Silence (2016)

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver

Another one of those films that Scorsese toils to get made – like The Last Temptation of Christ – and they always split the consensus. Generally speaking, people don’t like it when he veers away from gangsters towards priests/messiahs, when he preaches the code of the cross instead to the code of the gun (though ultimately you could argue that they’re not so different, but that’s for another thesis). And being that this one came after his smash hit The Wolf of Wall Street, the world mightn’t have been quite ready for a Jesuit priest having his blinkers tested in 17th Century Japan. It’s really good though. Like, really good.
Covid Rating: 15

Cooley High (1975)

Directed by Michael Schultz
Starring: Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs

Kind of the yin to American Graffiti’s yang, with a slap of social realism obliterating any optimism you might have had for these black teenagers coming of age in 1960s Chicago. It’s a film that takes you by surprise, setting its stall out to be more knockabout than it becomes, and frankly, it’s much better for it.
Covid Rating: 14

Forty Guns (1957)

Directed by Samuel Fuller
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan

Another one starring the Hollywood legend Barbara Stanwyck, once voted the 11th greatest female star by the American Film Institute – here playing a landowner with a big posse (stop it), daring to fall in love with the sharp shooter who wasted her brother.
Covid Rating: 14

Detour (1945)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage

A classic noir at a canter, wrapping up in around an hour. It tells the story of an unemployed piano player getting in a pickle as he hitchhikes across America to declare himself to a girl. Romance went equally askew in real life for lead actor Tom Neal, who ended up doing time for (allegedly) manslaughtering his wife by mistake.
Covid Rating: 14

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring: Saeed Jaffrey, Daniel Day-Lewis

Initially made for telly (but then distributed as a movie instead) and it shows. There’s the full spectrum of performance on display, epitomised by the two leads. One of whom went on to bit parts in Boon and Brookside, while the other won three Best Actor Oscars before retiring a screen legend.
Covid Rating: 13

La Belle et La Bête (1946)

Directed by Jean Cocteau
Starring: Josette Day, Jean Marais

Jean Cocteau – poet, author, Dadaist, renaissance man – and maker of hauntingly magnificent movies like this one (basically the spookier French version of the Disney cartoon that came a few decades later). Cocteau really did do it all, even taking it upon himself to do Jean Marais, who played the Beast, when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Covid Rating: 13

Smithereens (1982)

Directed by Susan Seidelman
Starring: Susan Berman, Richard Hell

The punk icon Richard Hell – the style inspiration behind the Sex Pistols – has a supporting ‘boyfriend’ role here, in a film that appears to pay homage to the anthemic Blank Generation he christened with his Voidoids. After this, director Susan Seidelman continued to peddle spirited female punks but with ever-decreasing circles of intensity, first with Desperately Seeking Susan, then later with the pilot for Sex and the City.
Covid Rating: 13

Serpico (1973)

Directed by Sidney Lumet
Starring: Al Pacino, Tony Roberts

At some stage during the endless process of trying to get the film made, this police corruption procedural was attached to Hollywood doll Robert Redford with Sam Peckinpah at the helm – then a few incarnations later and here we are. With Sidney Lumet shouting instructions and Al Pacino shouting his lines. A couple of years later, they dovetailed to make Dog Day Afternoon (which is a much better film).
Covid Rating: 13

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Directed by Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr.

Lots of comedies are essentially sketches that’ve been stretched as far as they can stretch, as is the case here in a film that starts brilliantly but completely falls apart as it goes. It’s almost (almost!) saved by Robert Downey Jr. playing a pretentious method actor in blackface – which, no, probably wouldn’t get past the elevator pitch at this point in time.
Covid Rating: 12

Oppenheimer (2023)

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt

The question here seems to be whether the father of the atomic bomb can be forgiven for providing the first big blast on the way to ending humanity – and at just over three hours long, it does a thorough job of attempting to split the atom on that one. It can’t quite match Dunkirk, Nolan’s finest, which also finds humanity attempting to navigate oblivion, but at a far more digestible running time.
Covid Rating: 12

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Directed by Isaac Julien
Starring: Valentine Nonyela, Mo Sesay

Young Soul Rebels was one of the great funk and soul soundtracks of the 1990s, featuring tunes like Rock Creek Park by The Blackbyrds and Let’s Get it Together by El Coco, Running Away by Roy Ayers, Message in Our Music by The O’Jays, Don’t Let It Go to Your Head by Jean Carne, all 1970s humdingers reanimated by the Rare Groove scene that was happening in London in the 1980s. The movie doesn’t quite offer the same level of impeccable performance, it’s still good though.
Covid Rating: 12

The Beguiled (2017)

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Sofia Coppola somehow manages to encapsulate all that’s great and all that’s awful about nepotism. She famously bagged a plum role in The Godfather part III and tore the whole thing down by the curtains, though it must be said – and this is crucially important – that the awfulness that ensued was categorically not her fault. Her dad put her in it, so that’s on him. It’s what Francis Ford Coppola likes to do, like a good Mafioso he helps out the family, with members in the cast, members on the soundtrack, members thriving in an inhospitable industry. And what’s ultimately great about Sofia is that she’s taken his legacy and evolved it, arguably becoming the best director in the family over the last two decades. Would that have happened without the famous surname? Who the fuck knows? But we wouldn’t have movies like Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, and the massively underrated Somewhere. Unfortunately this, a remake of the 1971 Southern Gothic horror that starred Clint Eastwood, veers a little closer to Godfather 3 territory.
Covid Rating: 11

Made in Britain (1983)

Directed by Alan Clarke
Starring: Tim Roth, Terry Richards

A TV movie by Alan Clarke, who also delivered Scum and The Firm, so you’re not in it to be uplifted – you’re there for a thump around the chops of unsettling social realism. It famously features Tim Roth in his first TV appearance, playing a skinhead unable to break the cycle of endless violence and getting banged up.
Covid Rating: 11

The Creator (2023)

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring: John David Washington, Gemma Chan

Looks breathtaking but when the central love story isn’t convincing, it’s pretty much dead in the water before it’s even begun. Shame really because it looks breathtaking – no wait, I’d already said that. Sorry.
Covid Rating: 8

Creed III (2023)

Directed by Michael B. Jordan
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jonathan Majors

It’s another Rocky/Creed film, so you know what happens. I don’t even need to say it because you already have the entire film in your head. That’s what happens, the thing you just thought. You completely nailed it.
Covid Rating: 7

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