It’s been a wonderful year for film. It’s always a worthwhile year for cinema if you look hard enough. However, this particular year is filled with refreshing and bold new films from newcomer filmmakers like Aftersun‘s Charlotte Wells to veterans Todd Field and Park Chan-wook. Films ranged from sweet yet poignant reflections on mothers and daughters in Turning Red to more heartbreaking and heavy introspective on fathers and daughters in Aftersun.
The Screen Speck team looked back at some of their personal favorites of the year and highlighted their importance in the film canon.
Great Freedom (Sebastian Meise)
Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom (Grosse Freiheit) is a piercingly tender portrait of gay desire in post-World War II Germany. In the film, freedom remains an impossible wish for Hans Hoffman (Franz Rogowski), a Jewish gay man who is directly transferred from a concentration camp to prison after the war. As Paragraph 175 – a law that criminalizes homosexuality – was upheld in parts of West Germany up to the 1990s, Hans is sentenced to prison over and again over three decades. Great Freedom moves through Hans’ life in a non-linear manner; the film abruptly transitions between different eras, and blacked-out screens occupy the hallowed distance between wasted years. Hans is a gay man who is irreparably stuck in time, and Meise understands that, too, as viewers are forfeited glimpses of the outside world. It is almost as if the film finds it impossible to visualize a future where gay men are truly free.
While Great Freedom is relentlessly bleak, it never resigns to the inhumane cruelty of Hans’ fate; the film does not accept that the state can legislate gay love. Hans continues to care for other gay men who are imprisoned, and he seeks out loving relationships, both in and out of prison. He knows the lesser life which awaits him if he is honest with his desires. But he isn’t afraid to be who he is. The generosity of his love transforms suffocating prison cells into spaces where true intimacy blossoms.
Great Freedom ends in 1969 when Paragraph 175 is repealed, and Hans is finally released from prison. But the man he loved for decades is still serving a life sentence for a murder charge. He goes to a gay club but finds men cruising — the crime that he was persecuted for — in underground sex chambers. The blacked-out screens which were used to mark the static passage of time in prison infiltrate this supposedly better world; the trauma of the closet endures across time and space. Freedom that the state must grant is trite. So Hans conspires to go back to prison and to the man he loves. It is a masterful closing act that illustrates the radical defiance that’s inherent to gay desire, and one that refuses to succumb to state-sanctioned ideas of what love ought to be. (Sharmane Tan)
Turning Red (Domee Shi)
I don’t think I’ve watched a film more times this year than Turning Red. Be that because I got to watch it early, or I had to sit my entire family down to watch it when it came out, or because I wanted to get screenshots of that particular scene at the end that we all hopefully know about that makes me cry every time I watch it. It doesn’t matter. The film is easily up there with my favorite Pixar film Coco, which says a lot.
Turning Red celebrates the Asian-American experience, highlighting just how much generational trauma affects each generation and how we must work even harder to break that cycle if we’re ever going to heal. Writer and director Domee Shi dove deep into her past. Through the phenomenal collaboration between her and her all-female core staff, they connected with a deep and primal emotional story that resonated with many people out there, especially older daughters of Asian families, i.e., me.
The film focuses on the relationship between Mei (Rosalie Chiang) and her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), as they deal with a family “curse,” the ability to transform into a giant panda triggered by their emotions. In true traditional fashion, Ming urges Mei to hide the panda, pushing her feelings as down as they can go instead of encouraging her to work through them. We’ve talked a lot about “breaking generational curses” in the past few years, the joke being that POC kids are now grown up, and they’re making stories where they finally get what they most want from their families: an apology. But I believe it’s good that we’re seeing this discourse happen through digestible media like this. For one, it’s showing younger children that they should stand up for themselves and that they shouldn’t feel the need to carry their ancestors’ burdens, fears, and mindsets. At the same time, it allows us to open a line of dialogue with our parents and grandparents. (Aiko Hilkinger)
Aftersun (Charlotte Wells)
Aftersun is a little time capsule of a film. Following father and daughter Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a trip to a Turkish resort, Charlotte Wells‘ feature directorial debut plays out with all the fogginess of a memory that has been stitched back together by the complicated emotions of grief and the ache of time’s passage. To a curious audience, Aftersun almost feels like a mystery film on its first viewing, but you quickly realize that it’s withholding of neat and tidy answers isn’t just the point, but the bedrock of what makes the film so poignant. With very little to speak of in the way of plot, it’s a movie that is easy to project your feelings onto; you’ll begin to think about your own parents, or anyone who has been a parental figure in your life, and their unknowable parts. You’ll reflect on the silences in relationships, how we may never truly know the unfathomable depths of a loved one’s pain, and what they do when we are not there to watch.
Aftersun also has a bit of a twist on the unreliable narrator device. If this is Sophie’s memory, we presume that she is filling in the gaps with what she can only guess about her dad. Did Calum really walk into the torrential ocean on that night after the disastrous karaoke sequence? You can imagine a teenage Sophie, running through the evening in her head years later, wondering what her father could have possibly been doing on that night when they were separated. Only Calum knows, and like Sophie, we are left only with our educated guesses.
But adding to the film’s dreamlike quality is the use of a rave scene that is interspersed throughout, featuring an adult Sophie scouring the dance floor for her lost father. What is this liminal space? Is it the place where we confront our trauma? The place where we bump against our anger and our pain? It’s a place where time doesn’t exist, grief personified, for what does grief do if not blend together the past, present, and future? Up until the end, I was proud to have held my emotions in check, despite the subject matter and the poignancy with which Wells infused her characters in such a short amount of time. Yet, the moment where an adult Sophie and her father can finally reunite in the place where memories reside, so powerfully set to Queen and David Bowie‘s “Under Pressure,” is an emotional high point of any film this year. By the time you arrive at the conclusion — and one of the single best shots of the year, I might add — the film has taught you so well how to watch it that there’s no doubt about the implication when Calum walks through the airport doors. Aftersun is filmmaking at its more tender, and its most devastating. (Sam Moya)
TÁR (Todd Field)
In a medium so dependent upon what you show, there’s something special about a film whose conflicts begin in the shadows, gradually peeking out into the visible. TÁR is the movie that Todd Field has been waiting to make for years, rightfully holding out for Cate Blanchett to give her masterful performance as a conductor whose past indiscretions begin to catch up to her. We never see flashbacks of Lydia Tár (Blanchett)’s past victims, who are relegated to glimpses of sent emails swiftly deleted. We see Lydia confronting her daughter’s bully, telling her that nobody will believe her if she reveals Lydia’s threats, asserting her position of power over a child. It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine this same confrontation playing out with Lydia’s students, a brilliant choice to keep the audience rapt by her words and yet still enamored enough not to cast her away.
Lydia Tár is a terrible person, but the audience is still on her side for much of the film by virtue of disclosing her past little by little until it all comes crashing down. As she sets her sights on another young ingenue, Olga (Sophie Kauer, a trained cellist herself), her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) watches with weary resignation. Through her face, we realize that this is not the first time something like this has happened, a fact that Lydia’s assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), is all too aware of. But before we meet most of these other characters (save for a glimpse of Francesca’s feelings on Lydia via a text exchange), we’re introduced to Lydia through a list of her undeniably elite accomplishments.
I’ve played violin since I was in the fourth grade. What TÁR gets right is the absolute euphoria of making music, of being surrounded by the sheer force of performers working together. After all’s lost, Lydia watches a recording of Leonard Bernstein defining the meaning of music as “the way it makes you feel when you hear it,” a way of expressing the feelings that no words can. Earlier, a smash cut to the orchestra rehearsing hits the audience in the face, and magical isn’t enough of a word to describe it. And Blanchett, as the conductor, is able to control this magic, this sound, this passion that she feels in herself and sees in others — and manipulate it as she pleases. Until she can’t. (Catie McCarthy)
The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)
It might seem counterintuitive to describe a film in which a man cuts all the fingers off of his own left hand as “restrained.” Even so, The Banshees of Inisherin is perhaps the most restrained film in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s cinematic oeuvre. This dark comedy, structured as a series of intentional and accidental escalations, could have easily gone off the rails. It might have been if the intensification were played entirely for laughs or shock value. With his fourth feature, however, McDonagh taps into a more melancholy vein that recalls the best parts of his debut film In Bruges.
The playwright and filmmaker even reunites with his In Bruges leading men, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, to tell the tale of what could most succinctly be called a friend break-up. (The core cast, including Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon, give uniformly excellent performances.) Set in 1923 against the distant backdrop of the Irish Civil War, a sudden rift between two friends sends ripples through the small rural island community of Inisherin. Colm (Gleeson) abruptly decides that he no longer wishes to be friends with Pádraic (Farrell), which spins Pádraic into a spiral. Pádraic, upset and unable to accept Colm’s arbitrary reasons for refusing to speak to him, compulsively pesters Colm despite his repeated entreaties to be left alone. By the film’s halfway point, Colm’s request has become an inexplicably grisly and self-destructive ultimatum.
It’s a simple-seeming fable about two men who are too stubborn for their own good, friends turned to enemies out of pride. Colm’s depressed, having a crisis and convinced that chatting with “dull” Pádraic for hours a day is turning his brain to mush and wasting his time. Colm wants to spend his days writing music—making art—that will outlive him and mean something once he’s gone. Pádraic thinks that Colm is being unnecessarily cruel and self-important, not to mention missing the entire point of living. (If Pádraic’s drunken “nice person” speech isn’t Farrell’s Oscar clip, someone should get fired.) Neither man is fully right or wrong, and McDonagh’s script imbues Colm and Pádraic alike with equal amounts of humanity and ridiculousness. This even-handedness ultimately gives the film its surprising complexity.
Banshees is also one of the year’s best-looking films, courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis’s beautifully lit and rigorously composed shots. Davis’s images evoke a Northern European pastoral that both dignifies and belies the characters’ petty behavior. The fictional island of Inisherin (a composite of several coastal filming locations in Ireland) may be beautiful, but McDonagh doesn’t present small-town, rural life as idyllic. Being an honest farmer won’t insulate you from existential concerns. (Leah Carlson-Downie)
The Menu (Mark Mylod)
There are films that, straight from the first trailer, you know you are the target audience. No matter what is said or released, you know this film will be made for you. This year, the film that gave me that feeling was no other than Mark Mylod’s The Menu. Mylod, who has made a name for himself writing for HBO’s Succession, continues his commentary on class and society in general, but this time with a dark twist.
The film follows Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who, along with her boyfriend, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), travel to Hawtorne, an exclusive restaurant owned and operated by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), located on a private island. Along with a small and catered group of diners, Margot finds herself in a nightmare situation when Slowik slowly becomes more and more violent and reveals his true intentions for the night… to kill everyone in the room.
In reality, The Menu should not work as well as it does. It doesn’t break barriers or try to be anything but what it was marketed as. And yet, the film works precisely the way it intends to, and because of that, it elevates the final product. The Menu’s script can be heavy-handed on the commentary and not subtle about what it is trying to say, but the pairing of great acting, especially from the trio of Taylor-Joy, Fiennes, and Hong Chau, as Julian’s right-hand woman, and dark humor that hits all the right spots crafts a delicacy that is to die for.
The Menu might not be one of those Oscar movies everyone loves to talk about comes award season, but it is still one of those films that should be on everyone’s radar. It’s over the top, fun, and, more importantly, so damn good. (Arianne Binette)
Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook)
Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is a study of romance. In the tension between two people whose unintentional connection becomes larger than themselves. All of this backdrops a modern noir murder mystery where Hae il Park’s Detective Jang Hae-jun finds himself equally infatuated and disappointed in the suspect of his murder investigation, Tang Wei’s Song Seo-rae. As the widow and primary suspect of both of her late husbands, Song Seo-rae doesn’t give Detective Jang Hae-jun much to trust. And yet, the two can’t help but fall into the orbit of the other, no matter how many dead bodies begin to pile up.
Decision to Leave is a conflicting mix of emotions and genres. A kaleidoscope of human expression that centers on the love story that takes place. It’s an emotional affair that speaks to the complicated nature of human interpersonal relationships. While Detective Jang Hae-jun is married, his fascination with Song Seo-rae extends into the corners of his heart. He can’t help it any more than he can help to breathe to survive. Song Seo-rae is just as helplessly lost to her unrelenting connection with the detective. The real mystery encasing the film is the mystery of our own emotional interweavings. Of how arbitrarily our souls choose to connect with another human being, much against our will.
Despite the central focus on the love story, the film is also witty and sharp in comedic timing. A few subtle use of slapstick and funny quips between characters, these additions enhance the film’s ability to juggle all these genres masterfully. There’s a particularly funny scene involving a young, cocky cop trying to run uphill as he chases after a suspect, only to be outrun by a much older Detective Jang Hae-jun. The hubris of young men and their need to prove their physical prowess.
Its blend of genres enhances the film’s strong grip on human uncertainty. Of the obscure nature of human emotion as viewers work to untangle the mystery of the murders. Can we trust Song Seo-rae or are we just as helpless as Detective Jang Hae-jun? Chan-wook delivers another visually stunning film with a softer edge that reveals his tender reverence for love. Decision to Leave exceeded all expectations and only improves with each new viewing, unraveling new detail in the process. (Mariana Delgado)