The Best of 2021

Finally, for the last time (not really the last time): what I consider to be the best (or, more accurately, my favourite) films I saw for the first time in 2021 (that bit’s correct).

This year, I tried to make a start on my list early (I began pondering it and pruning my long-list back in November, whereas normally I don’t even start that until January 1st), all so I could post it fairly promptly once we reached the new year. Well, it’s now the 9th, which is one of the latest dates I’ve ever posted my ‘best of’ list, so that didn’t really work, did it?

Anyway…



The 21 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2021

No, it’s not 21 for ’21 — it’s 10% of whatever my final total is (as it has been since 2016). This year that total was 207, of which the appropriate percentage is 20.7, but I can’t very well include seven-tenths of a film, can I, so it rounds up to 21. (If you think that’s too many for a list like this, feel free to scroll down and start wherever you like.)

As always, all the movies I watched for the first time in 2021 are eligible, not just brand-new releases. However, I did watch 31 films that had their general UK release in 2021, and five of them made it into this list, so I’ve noted their ‘2021 rank’ too.

21=
Holiday Affair
Happiest Season
Anna and the Apocalypse

Reader, I have cheated! After 15 years of sticking to (my own self-imposed set of) The Rules, I have caved and broken the proscribed number of films allowed on this list, and also allowed a tie (I don’t think I’ve allowed a tie before, although one year I did comment that the top 4 were all effectively in first place — but I still sorted them). Why has this happened? As I’ll talk more about in the Honourable Mentions, I got stuck at 32 films for the longest time. I managed to whittle it down to 23, but after days of being stuck there I just gave in. If I could have decided which of these were #22 and #23, they could’ve been taken off the list; but as I can’t, here are all three, tied. At least they’re connected, by being overtly Christmassy films, which is kinda why they’ve all got stuck together — “which of the many Christmassy films I watched this year did I like the most?” Turns out, that’s a three-way tie (unless you also include the one that’s at #9…)

20 Carol

Okay, this one’s quite Christmassy too. Indeed, it’s practically “Holiday Affair but with lesbians”, a comparison I’m sure would’ve come up more if Holiday Affair was better known.

19 Spontaneous
High schoolers begin mysteriously exploding in this sort-of-horror cum comedy cum teen romance, which I found both hilarious and surprisingly emotional.

18 Daughters of Darkness

An erotic horror movie — sounds like schlocky trash, but mixed through a European arthouse sensibility it comes out the other side as a dreamy, surreal experience.

17 Who?
This is a pretty obscure sci-fi spy flick: it has under 700 ratings on IMDb; I hadn’t heard of it before Indicator’s Blu-ray release — but it deserves more. It’s almost like a Le Carré thriller in its slow-burn intellectual depiction of Cold War plotting, but with a dose of just-beyond-the-possible SF mixed in.

16 Futureworld

Another ’70s sci-fi thriller that I think deserves better. This widely disparaged sequel to Westworld is very in keeping with other films of its era: it’s a paranoid thriller about a pair of journalists investigating a corporate conspiracy — in this case, Delos’s attempt to rehabilitate their robot theme park after the disaster in the last film.

15 Love Affair
A prototypically romantic melodrama (it’s been explicitly remade twice, not to mention the other films that have borrowed from it), I was expecting a bit of fluff but ended up finding it surprisingly affecting. It dodges the clichés I thought it was bound for, in addition to being beautifully shot.

14 Strictly Ballroom

Another one that confounded my expectations. As Baz Luhrmann’s debut feature, I expected a dry run for where he’d go stylistically in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! But to regard Strictly Ballroom as anything less than a fully-fledged member of the Red Curtain Trilogy is to do it a disservice. Its ludicrous, over-the-top treatment of a ludicrous, over-the-top world is both absurdly hilarious and totally captivating.

13 Godzilla vs. Kong
2021 #5 Big monkey punch giant lizard! No one’s going to call this movie high art, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining pulp-SF gubbins with giant-size fights thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I don’t know what some people expect from movies like this when they go about criticising them. If giant animals having a brawl isn’t to your taste, fair enough, but if you were expecting a meditative character-driven insight into the human condition or something, more fool you.

12 The Invisible Man

The fourth feature from Universal’s genre- and studio-defining run of horror films in the early 1930s. Dracula and Frankenstein may have become more iconic, but, for my money, this is the best movie from the bunch (and I’d rank The Mummy second). The special effects are more extensive than you might expect for the era, and even hold up pretty well today, while Claude Rains is superb as the cackling villain, James Whale’s direction is highly effective, and there’s a nice vein of humour to balance the darkness.

11 Captain Phillips
That Tom Hanks wasn’t even nominated for most major awards for his performance here is a crime against cinema. He’s extraordinary as the eponymous captain of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates. Paul Greengrass brings his usual edgy tension to proceedings, but it’s Hanks’s humanity that ultimately elevates the piece. The final scene is one of the greatest single pieces of acting we will ever see.

10
The Hound of the Baskervilles

Hammer does Holmes. Peter Cushing is a note-perfect incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective in what was, sadly, the famed horror studio’s only attempt at filming Sherlock. Personally, I’ve never thought The Hound of the Baskervilles was a particularly good detective mystery novel — but it is quite a good gothic adventure, which makes Hammer the perfect studio to have brought it to the screen. As that, this version doesn’t disappoint, with Terence Fisher’s direction leaning hard into the appropriate atmosphere, plus a superb cast — alongside Cushing, André Morell is a peerless Watson. I wish they’d done a whole series with the pair.

9
The Green Knight

2021 #4 Some people seemed surprised when this film delivered exactly what its trailers had promised: an arty-yet-fantastical interpretation of the Arthurian myth. It’s a moody, earthy take on the material, but one that also has room for magical realism, fairytale-esque fantasy, and flights of inexplicable oddness. The measured pace and off-kilter tone (plus the pitch-dark cinematography) was never going to be to everyone’s taste, but for those on its level, it’s intoxicating. And if you think Die Hard counts as a ‘different’ Christmas movie…

2021 #3 I was worried that I’d find Nomadland a bit boring and “not my kind of thing”. It seemed like the kind of film where you hang out with the characters and their landscapes, rather than a piece of clear narrative storytelling. And it is that — but, for once, it worked for me. It’s almost like a TV travelogue, visiting places worth seeing and unusual people worth meeting. You watch to appreciate the scenery, to understand the people, to experience a different way of life. It’s a film to escape with — to get away from ordinary life and spend time in these captivating places. Within and alongside that, it creates a beautiful, deeply humane, quite powerful experience. [Full review.]

7
Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Having grown up reading sci-fi magazines, I’m very aware that, when it comes to Star Trek movies, “even ones good, odd ones bad”. And this first one has a particularly poor rep — “slow” and “boring” seem to be commonly-attached adjectives (which I can’t help but feel stems back to expectations on its original release, which came in the wake of the success of Star Wars, so presumably people expected a fast-paced action-adventure). But as I settled down to begin watching all the Trek movies from the beginning, I found myself in for a very pleasant surprise. It’s not even trying to be a Star Wars-style adventure, but something different entirely; almost more akin to 2001 in its sense of wonder and exploration, digging into an imagining of a genuinely alien lifeform rather than running about blasting rubber suits with laser guns. Engaged with on the right terms, I enjoyed every minute of it.

6
WolfWalkers

The third film in Irish animation outfit Cartoon Saloon’s Folklore Trilogy — and Wolfwalkers really does feel like an authentically-told folktale, not a Disneyfied modern reimagining. A big part of that is the animation style. Even if you think you’re becoming inured to it from the studio’s previous work, it has surprises in store; moments of additional innovation or beauty. It’s constantly impressive and regularly breathtaking. Combined with the magical story, the result is a simply gorgeous film.

5
Dune: Part One

2021 #2 Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably one of my favourite novels, and previous attempts to film it have either been interesting but fundamentally flawed (the 1984 film) or faithful but limited by format (the 2000 miniseries), so when it was announced a new version would be masterminded by Denis Villeneuve — one of only two directors to top my year-end best-of list twice, once with another tricky-to-pull-off re-envisioning of a sci-fi masterpiece — well, my hopes were high. Suffice to say, he delivered, albeit in a film that is ‘very Villeneuve’. That is to say, it’s a rather brutalist take on the material, lacking the fanciful, weird interpretations of Lynch, Jodorowsky, or even (to a lesser extent) the TV version. In some ways that’s a shame, but it’s also true to the filmmaker. That the film has to abandon the story halfway through, forced into a rather low-key cliffhanger, is merely a factor of the length of the material rather than a fault of the filmmaker — some have taken serious issue with it, but, personally, the film ended where I always expected it to. And, as a fan, I’d rather this two-part adaptation, giving the story the necessary screentime, even if that means a limp end to Part One, rather than have the whole book in a rushed three-hour single shot. That said, this might be why it’s at #5 on my list rather than becoming Villeneuve’s third #1. I’m optimistic that, once we get Part Two (and, possibly, a Part Three adapting Herbert’s first sequel), the whole will be even greater.

4
The Kid Detective

This is one of those high concepts you wonder why someone hasn’t thought of sooner: what would a ‘kid detective’ (you know, like the Hardy Boys or the Famous Five or whatever) be like grown up? One answer to that would likely fuel a CW-esque YA series, but here we get a more real-world treatment: the detective who was exalted as a kid, a quirky story for the local paper and whatnot, is now a washed-up has-been as he tries to follow the same career as an adult. Like several other films on this year’s list, here was a film that looked like it would tickle a particular itch of mine, and delivered — it was everything I expected it to be and more. It’s both an amusing extrapolation of its central premise and a solid mystery in its own right, with a surprisingly moving conclusion. One part in particular gave me goosebumps, and you’ve got to love anything that can elicit such a physical reaction.

3
Joint Security Area

Before Oldboy or The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook gained international attention for this 2000 military thriller about a shooting in the DMZ between North and South Korea. After a South Korean border guard apparently kills two North Korean soldiers and wounds a third on their side of the border before fleeing back to the South, heightened tensions between the nations rest on an investigation by a neutral investigator. As the Swiss Army major tries to find the truth of what happened amidst conflicting accounts, the obvious point of comparison is A Few Good Men, but JSA also made me think of Paths of Glory in its ultimately-tragic message about the wasteful futility of war. But although these point towards its tone and effect on the viewer, it outshines simple comparisons to be its own magnificent thing.

2
David Byrne’s American Utopia

I’m not a music critic — heck, I don’t even listen to all that much music on a regular basis, if I’m honest — and yet what is essentially a concert film has made it almost to the top of my favourite movies this year. What gives? I wish I could explain it properly, but, I confess, I don’t quite understand why I loved American Utopia, all I can say is that I did. It had an almost profound impact on me that I can’t quite account for. Of course that’s mostly down to the music and staging by Byrne and his fellow performers, but Spike Lee’s direction and editing transform the theatrical show into a near-perfect cinema version. My only unfulfilled wish is that this had been made during the world’s 3D phase, because movement in a three-dimensional space is a key part of the show’s staging, and I’d love to be able to watch that in 3D.

1
The Matrix Resurrections

2021 #1 This belated return to and continuation of the Matrix trilogy has divided critics and audiences alike. You’ll find plenty of people online prepared to slag it off at the slightest prompt. But for others of us, it’s a borderline masterpiece. Personally, it’s not just a film I enjoyed, but something I’ve almost been waiting for — and by “almost” I mean that I never expected to actually get it. This isn’t a by-the-numbers attempt to recreate the adrenaline highs of an enduringly popular action movie. Instead, it’s the kind of wild-swing hyper-meta self-deconstructing take on a popular franchise that I’ve always longed for a legacy sequel to attempt, but no one has been bold enough to try (or, possibly, no one’s ever been able to convince the suits to allow it). Sure, if all you want from a Matrix movie is people looking cool in sunglasses while they engage in precisely-designed epic action sequences, then Resurrections will leave you disappointed. If you appreciate a film that has something pertinent and meaningful to say about our current entertainment culture, there’s a lot to like.


As usual, I’d just like to highlight a few other films.

Normally I’m loathe to mention any films that just missed out on the top list — it is what it is, and if I wanted it to be longer I should just find an excuse to make it longer. That said, this year my “top 21” was stuck at 32 films for the longest time — as I mentioned back at #21, you may remember. So, it feels like those 11 almost-rans deserve a mention; except it’s nine almost-rans, because I couldn’t even get it all the way down to 21. I’m not sure these are truly #24–32 (for that distinction, I’d have to properly reconsider some others from my 89-film long list that I’d eliminated earlier), but, nonetheless, there were (in alphabetical order) The Father, Festen, The Mummy (1932), My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, Psycho Goreman, and The Quatermass Xperiment. In other years, maybe they would’ve been luckier.

That said, they’re not the only films that might feel aggrieved to have missed out (if films had feelings), because, while there are 4-star films in my top 21 (even in my top ten), there are 5-star films that didn’t make the cut. I awarded 25 films full marks in 2021, and 13 of them made it into my top list — namely Captain Phillips, Carol, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Dune: Part One, The Green Knight, Joint Security Area, The Kid Detective, Love Affair, The Matrix Resurrections, Nomadland, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Strictly Ballroom, and WolfWalkers. The less fortunate (but still great) ones were The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Cinema Paradiso, The Father, Festen, Kind Hearts and Coronets, My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, Sansho Dayu, A Single Man, When the Wind Blows, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There were also full marks for the original King Kong when I gave it the Guide To treatment.

Additionally, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, some of which have already been mentioned in this post and some of which haven’t. In chronological order (with links to the relevant awards): WolfWalkers, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Captain Phillips, Official Secrets, The Invisible Man (1933), Strictly Ballroom, The Kid Detective, The Green Knight, Dune: Part One, Nobody, and The Matrix Resurrections.


This year I watched 31 movies that had their general UK release in 2021, but that means there were a considerable number I missed. So, here’s my annual alphabetical list of 50 films from last year that I’ve not yet seen. In the past I’ve used IMDb’s dating to settle what was eligible for inclusion as “a 2021 film”, but nowadays I’ll allow in something that’s listed as 2020 if it’s only due to festival screenings or (as was the case with one film this year) its own premiere.

The main downside to watching so few big new movies is that there’s not much room here for the stuff that’s smaller but still significant, which is a shame. And where I did make space for those films, some of the year’s big-but-not-huge movies lost out. That said, in some ways it made selection easier: normally I begin with a long-list of something like 120 titles, in which I typically find 20 to 30 ‘must includes’, then I weed through the rest to choose the remainder. This year, the ‘must includes’ numbered 46. I could easily have doubled this list and still been featuring films everyone’s heard about, not least because I did leave out some multiplex fillers in favour of artier-but-acclaimed films. Maybe next year I’ll finally go all-out and make this a list of 100. That would fit the site’s name, after all.

For now, it’s 50 once again. As ever, the included films were chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety, and designed to include a spread of styles and genres, successes and failures.

Army of the Dead
Free Guy
The Last Duel
Luca
Shiva Baby
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Candyman
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Last Night in Soho
Old
Spencer
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Army of the Dead
Belfast
Candyman
Censor
CODA
Cruella
Dear Evan Hansen
Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
Encanto
Eternals
Fast & Furious 9
Finch
Free Guy
The French Dispatch
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
House of Gucci
In the Heights
Judas and the Black Messiah
King Richard
The King’s Man
The Last Duel
Last Night in Soho
Licorice Pizza
The Lost Daughter
Luca
Malignant
The Many Saints of Newark
The Mitchells vs the Machines
Mortal Kombat
Nightmare Alley
Old
Petite Maman
Pig
The Power of the Dog
A Quiet Place Part II
Raya and the Last Dragon
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shiva Baby
The Sparks Brothers
Spencer
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Suicide Squad
tick, tick…BOOM!
Titane
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
West Side Story
The Worst Person in the World
Wrath of Man


And that, ladies and gents, is officially the end of 100 Films in a Year — not just for 2021, but for ever.

Well, you already know that’s not exactly true. But it’s the end of the challenge as I’ve been attempting it for 15 years, replaced by a new take. In 12 months’ time, when a new “best of year” list is due, it won’t be drawing from ‘the challenge’ in the same way… though, that technicality aside, I rather suspect it won’t be too different from this post. And if, once again, I’m so spoilt for choice that I struggle to get it down to whatever number I decide the list should include, well, is that actually such a bad thing?

It’s the Final Countdown: The Concluding Monthly Review of December 2021

As mentioned last month, this post represents the end of 100 Films in a Year.

Er, except for all the end-of-year wrap-ups I need to do (did you think I’d leave you without an annual stats post? Perish the thought!)

But after that… the end? Really? Or is it…

Change, my dear. And it seems, not a moment too soon.

But let’s put that aside for, ooh, a couple of days, and instead look back at the final month of 2021…


#188 Home Sweet Home Alone (2021)
#189 Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)
#190 Falling for Figaro (2020)
#191 Gremlins (1984)
#192 Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
#193 Pather Panchali (1955)
#194 Black Widow 3D (2021)
#195 Tokyo Godfathers (2003), aka Tôkyô goddofâzâzu
#196 Happiest Season (2020)
#197 Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973), aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Kasama no chimatsuri
#198 Dreamcatcher (2003)
#199 Jingle All the Way (1996)
#200 The Final Countdown (1980)
#201 A Christmas Story (1983)
#202 The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
#203 A Boy Called Christmas (2021)
#204 Last Train to Christmas (2021)
#205 The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
#206 A Study in Scarlet (1933)
#207 23 Walks (2020)
Anna and the Apocalypse

Happiest Season

The Matrix Resurrections

.


  • I watched 20 feature films I’d never seen before in December.
  • And that’s the first 20-film December — the final month to hit that milestone! It’s funny it’s worked out that way, because there was a 19-film December all the way back in 2008, at which time it was the second highest ever month, a title it held for seven years, and yet it’s taken three years beyond every other month (the last to crack 20 for the first time was November in 2018). Well, I got there just in time.
  • In terms of monthly averages, it surpasses the lot: December’s (previously 11.1, now 11.7), the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 16.4, now 17.25), and the average for 2021 (previously 17.0, now finalised at 17.25).
  • As for the year, ending on #207 makes 2021 my fourth year ever to pass 200 films; and, as I did it in 2020 too, that’s the first time I’ve done it two years in a row.
  • Overall, it’s my third highest year ever. (I would’ve needed to make it to #261 for second place.)
  • See the Arbies for more on specific films, including #200 itself.
  • With Zatoichi’s Conspiracy, I’ve finally completed Criterion’s box set of the series. It’s taken longer than expected: I’ve gone from watching one Zatoichi a month (at my height of getting through them in 2018 and ’19) to more like one per year. Although that’s the end of the original film series, I’ve still got a few stragglers to go (a revival movie and three continuations/reboots). Hopefully they won’t take me until 2025…
  • I had two Blindspot films to watch this month to complete my challenge for 2021. I watched one, Satyajit Ray’s enduringly acclaimed depiction of a rural Indian childhood, Pather Panchali. The other was Come and See. I did plan to watch it — I set aside an evening and everything — but then… I just didn’t feel like it. I’ve been in a generally Christmassy mood this December, and it didn’t fit with that to spend two-and-a-half hours watching a film whose own blurb advertises it as “a senses-shattering plunge into the dehumanising horrors of war.” I mean, what could sound less festive than “a waking nightmare of unimaginable carnage and cruelty”? So, yeah, the second greatest film ever made can wait ’til another day.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Black Widow, A Boy Called Christmas, and Home Sweet Home Alone.



The 79th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It’s proven divisive with critics and audiences alike, but I’m firmly in the camp that loved The Matrix Resurrections. Expect it to feature highly on my forthcoming “best of year” list.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
It was an enjoyable month overall (there’s a couple of likely 5s in the list), but duds crept in nonetheless, especially when trying to pack in the Christmas films. Perhaps the most disappointing was Home Sweet Home Alone. Some people would say predictably so, but I was open to the prospect of a remake. Unfortunately, this particular one fudges the fundamental conceit. Ho hum.

Most Christmassy Film of the Month
I don’t normally watch many Christmas films over the festive period. It’s not that I’m averse to them (far from it), I just don’t make a particular effort — and, as December is a time when I often am making a particular effort to round out some goal or other, other things can fall by the wayside. Well, this year I did put some effort into it, and — while I didn’t come close to completing the shortlist of 30 specific Christmas films I drew up — I did watch 10 festive films, which is a lot more than the two or three I usually manage. Of those, I reckon the most Christmassy of all was Happiest Season. I mean, what could be more Christmassy than a mix of festivities and familial awkwardness?

Most “I Only Chose to Watch It Because of the Title” Film of the Month
Regular readers will know I like to choose films that are somehow significant for my milestone numbers. My first-ever #100 was Citizen Kane, for example, and others have included Lawrence of Arabia, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Stalker, Sholay, and, this year, Cinema Paradiso. So for 2021’s #200, I had to pick something befitting my last-ever (sort of) milestone movie. While not a particularly noteworthy film in itself, The Final Countdown seemed a thoroughly apt title.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
With just two new posts in December (and one of those only a brief Christmas message), let’s once again ignore their fate and see which was the most popular post overall. And this month it was… a tie! And a seasonal one at that, because the joint victors were The Past Christmas on TV and The Past Christmas on TV! Er, that’s the 2018 and 2019 editions, respectively. You might think the 2020 one was close behind… but you’d be wrong: for whatever reason, while those two topped the charts, last year’s Christmas TV post was way down at 25th. Not sure what’s going on there, but my referrals from IMDb suggest the elder posts’ victories may be due to a new series of Vienna Blood (I reviewed the first in the 2019 post) and Christmassy one-off Click & Collect, which I noticed popped up on Netflix this month (and I mentioned in the 2018 column).


To make my goal of 50 rewatches this year, I would’ve had to (re)watch 18 films this month. Considering my average for 2021 to the end of November was 2.9 rewatches a month, that didn’t seem particularly likely…

#33 Elf (2003)

Yeah, of course it didn’t happen. I didn’t even reach that average again (it ends up at 2.75 rewatches per month).

As for Elf, I enjoyed it more on this, my second viewing, when I was free from any hope of, say, well-executed character arcs (one of the main things I criticised it for in my above-linked review) and so just enjoyed the holiday hijinks.


Despite setting a new December record, my failures were as multitudinous as ever. My most noteworthy oversight from the big screen has to be Spider-Man: No Way Home, but there was also Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story and prequel The King’s Man, plus films with smaller releases that have nonetheless been much-discussed in cinephile circles, like C’mon C’mon, Lamb, and Titane. Also, Clifford the Big Red Dog. Hm.

There were similar big guns on the streamers, including forthcoming awards season contenders The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter on Netflix, plus other originals like Don’t Look Up, The Unforgivable, and Death to 2021 — though, after not much enjoying Death to 2020, I think I’ll skip its Charlie Brooker-less sequel. Over on Prime Video, there was a belated UK bow for Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man, plus Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos and sci-fi Encounter. And talking of Charlie Brooker and sci-fi, Apple TV+ offered the Black Mirror-esque Swan Song.

Sky Cinema’s originals were mostly Christmassy: as well as the ones I watched, they debuted the likes of 8-Bit Christmas and A Christmas Number One. Also this month, they’ve had Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights, plus a couple of things that I (annoyingly) bought on disc but haven’t watched yet, like Another Round and The Suicide Squad. Of course, Netflix and Amazon threw up a bunch of back catalogue stuff too, but, looking back over my long-lists, little jumps out at me as being worthy of particular note. That said, if you’ve not seen it, Netflix now has my #1 film of 2020, Never Rarely Sometimes Always. And, as well as meaning to catch Spielberg’s remake, I’d also like to make time to rewatch the original West Side Story, which is streaming on both Prime and iPlayer now.

Once again taking advantage of not having to worry about licensing windows, Disney+ offered up early streaming debuts for their latest ‘animated classic’, Encanto, plus Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which seemed a bit gruelling for Christmastime viewing. The latter is getting a belated, limited release on 4K Blu-ray in the UK at the end of January, which I’ve preordered, but I should probably find the time to watch it on D+ first — if I don’t like it, it’ll save me a few bob.

And talking of things I’ve bought, that certainly didn’t slow down in December. As is always the case at this time of year, there were multiple big box sets, like folk horror collection All the Haunts Be Ours (encompassing a whopping 22 feature films and 14 shorts), or Arrow’s kung fu collection, Shawscope: Volume One (another 12 features. Vol.2 is due in June), or Indicator’s Mae West box set (another 11 films, plus a TV movie biopic), or the limited edition of Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Trilogy (including the only disc release ever planned for Apple TV+ exclusive Wolfwalkers), or The Film Detective’s Sherlock Holmes Vault Collection (I actually watched one of those! See #206).

Also in a ludicrously oversized box was StudioCanal’s 4K release of Mulholland Drive. Considering said box was (a) a weird size and (b) mostly full of air, I think there must’ve been some crossed wires in manufacturing. Similarly joining my 4K rewatch pile were Breathless, My Fair Lady, No Time to Die (a popular Christmas present, based on it becoming a Twitter trending topic on the 25th), Criterion’s edition of Citizen Kane (with dodgy 1080p disc), and Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K/3D edition of Flesh for Frankenstein (with dodgy 4K disc). Also Millennium Actress, part of a frankly excessive haul I ordered from All the Anime’s Christmas sale. Said indulgence also included regular Blu-rays of Birthday Wonderland, The Dragon Dentist, Jin-Roh, Mind Game, Night is Short, Walk on Girl, Promare, and Ride Your Wave. Not heard of some of those? Me either, to be honest — I got one of their mystery boxes. Still, it all looks interesting.

That’s not even all (I could name another dozen things I bought), but, honestly, it’s more than enough. I’ve once again tried to keep this section brief and to the point, and it’s once again about as long as the entire rest of the monthly review combined. Is it worth giving it its own post each month in 2022? Something to consider…


…but the moment has been prepared for.

Merry Christmas from 100 Films in a Year

It’s a little after midnight on 25th December here in the UK, so time for 100 Films in a Year to wish you a Merry Christmas — and if it can’t be merry, I hope it can be safe.

The New Year fast approaches too, and, with it, big changes round these parts. But I’ll leave such talk for another day. Suffice to say, this is — officially speaking — 100 Films in a Year’s last Christmas. I’ve been stuffing it with more Christmas films than I usually watch, but, ironically, not Last Christmas. Maybe tomorrow. (Maybe not, too.)

A Christmas 100-Week Roundup

Breaking the precise order of 100-week reviews, here are a handful of Christmas films I watched back in December 2018. One of them has its UK network TV premiere today, so it seemed like a good time to share them.

  • The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
  • The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
  • A Christmas Carol (2018)


    The Christmas Chronicles
    (2018)

    2018 #248
    Clay Kaytis | 104 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Christmas Chronicles

    Netflix’s big-budget Christmas adventure got a sequel this year, which shows this first one must’ve been a hit (by whatever secret metric Netflix use nowadays) — and it’s well deserved, because The Christmas Chronicles is a lot of fun.

    The setup is two home-alone siblings set out to catch Santa on video (thank goodness they didn’t use that inciting incident to launch a found-footage Christmas movie), but things go awry and the pair end up having to help the man in red save Christmas.

    Like many a live-action American kids’ movie, The Christmas Chronicles is a bit cheesy to begin with, but it has an ace up its sleeve: Kurt Russell as Santa. Once he turns up, with a perfectly-pitched performances, the film really takes off — figuratively and literally, thanks to his flying sleigh. From there, the film develops a spot-on streak of irreverence. A chainsaw-wielding elf! Fist-bumping Santa! A jailhouse song performance! Santa snowboarding out of the sky! There are lots of funny little gags too — not big clever “jokes” per se, just well-played moments.

    Sure, there’s an element of comfort and cliché to the “sad kids who need to recapture Christmas spirit” stuff, but Russell’s cool Santa, and the tone he brings with him, enliven proceedings no end. The film manages to dodge the traps of being cloying or overly cheesy, without disappearing into a well of grim cynicism. It works so well that some of the final few minutes might just bring a little tear to the eye.

    Any criticisms (I had a whole paragraph about the kids’ limp family motto and its predictable use) just feel like nitpicking. This is designed to be a frothy, easy Christmas treat, and as that it would be perfectly adequate; but when you add Russell’s superb incarnation of Santa into the mix, it’s elevated to something very good indeed. A great movie? Not particularly. A great movie to watch at Christmas? Oh yes.

    4 out of 5

    (That is the UK poster I’ve used above, despite the fact it’s got the title of Harry Potter 1 wrong.)

    The Man Who Invented Christmas
    (2017)

    2018 #258
    Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland & Canada / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Invented Christmas

    “Charles Dickens writes A Christmas Carol” is the simplified plot of this film. Well, it’s not even that simplified: it’s the plot. In this telling, various parts of Dickens’s story are inspired by characters and situations he encounters in real life — how convenient. It’s all thoroughly far-fetched, of course, but not without a certain Christmas charm and amusement for those feeling forgiving in the festive season.

    Dickens is played by the dashing Dan Stevens. It’s another thing that seems like artifice — making the author young and handsome so he can be the main character in a movie — until you learn Dickens was actually only 31 when he wrote the book. And he’d already written works including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby by this point!

    But don’t dwell on that too much, because it’s liable to make your life feel crushingly inadequate; and this is a lightweight film — a bit of festive froth — designed to brighten your days with a bit of seasonal cheer, not darken them with realisations of your own shortcomings.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of The Man Who Invented Christmas is on Channel 4 today at 4:55pm.

    A Christmas Carol
    (2018)

    2018 #260
    Tom Cairns | 72 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    A Christmas Carol

    Simon Callow has carved out a little niche playing Charles Dickens in various settings — the highest profile is probably in a 2005 episode of Doctor Who, but he was cast in that due to already being renowned for his recreations of Dickens’s public readings. This film is, effectively, one of those: based on Dickens’s own performance adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Callow reads the story and… that’s about it.

    A couple of things make it screen worthy. Director Tom Cairns stages proceedings in inventive and enlivening ways, using different rooms, lighting, props, and practical effects, some almost magical, plus music and sound effects mixed in a suitably evocative way, to lend an appropriate atmosphere to every scene and event. A lot of it is shot in long takes, which underline the impressiveness of both the staging (it’s often modified and varied within a single shot) and Callow’s performance, which is enhanced and complemented by Cairns’s work.

    And it is a performance, not just a reading. Callow inhabits all the characters, thereby bringing a sense of life to take the words beyond mere narration; but he executes it in a subtle-enough way that his turn doesn’t descend into some overripe actorly ‘showcase’. It’s very well judged. Indeed, it feels like the kind of thing that should become a staple of Christmas Eve evenings on the BBC.

    4 out of 5

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Continuing the spirit of publishing things about ten days late, here’s my Christmas TV review, about ten days after the season ended. (And if you’re thinking, “um, Christmas was 18 days ago,” well, the TV ‘Christmas’ season goes on until at least January 1st here, so there.)

    Santa Goes Wrong
    Here’s Santa to rekindle your festive spirit.
    With alcohol.

    This is now my fourth annual Christmas TV post, would you believe. I still feel like TV reviews are a fairly recent addition to this blog, but nope, it’s been four years. And this is, in a way, a vintage year, what with the Gavin & Stacey revival becoming the most-watched Christmas Day broadcast in something like 17 years; and, even more impressively, it was the only scripted programme to make the top ten TV broadcasts of the decade (the rest going to sporting events and one random episode of The X Factor).

    As for whether it was any good, and what I thought of other stuff that was on… well, read on…

    Doctor Who  Spyfall
    Doctor Who: SpyfallFor the first time in 14 years, since the series returned, there was no Doctor Who Christmas/New Year special. Gasp! At least we got the first episodes of a new series, though — two slightly-longer-than-normal instalments (at 60 minutes each, which doesn’t feel that special when regular episodes are 50 minutes now). And a two-parter, too — the first of those since 2017. And a big two-parter at that, with big-name guest stars and big action sequences and big overseas locations.

    Yep, this is Doctor Who with a bang — a marked contrast to last series, which mostly went for understated. Well, as understated as modern Doctor Who gets, anyway. But whereas series 11 had no two parters and no returning monsters and, as I say, a markedly calmer pace and tone, series 12 begins with the antithesis of all of that. In case you’ve not seen it I shan’t spoil the end-of-part-one reveal, which was a massive delight that I did not see coming (I guess someone learnt a lesson from last time that villain returned, when the production team basically spoiled it themselves before anyone else could). That was the highlight of an episode that moved at a mile a minute, not pausing to let you consider the logic of what was going on (which, yeah, was not faultless). But while it may not have been perfect, I’m glad to see a return for this fun, exciting version of the show. I didn’t find series 11 a total washout (I think my reviews as it was airing were mostly positive, even), but overall I felt like something wasn’t quite working.

    Well, let’s be honest, what wasn’t working is showrunner Chris Chibnall. His episodes under previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were never the very best (and I say that as someone who likes them more than most), but without their oversight to guide him, he seemed a bit lost. He’s a long-time fanboy of the show (somewhat famously, he appeared on a viewer feedback show in the ’80s to slag off the quality of the writing), and at times last series it felt like he was writing for the show as he’d loved it as a kid (that is to say, a bit slow-paced and old-fashioned). Now, possibly taking some of the criticism on board (or possibly just trying to mix it up), he’s attempting to emulate the whoosh-bang blockbuster-but-quirky style of RTD and Moffat. What he can’t grasp is their effortless-seeming slickness — when they rushed over something it was usually because “it makes sense if you think about it”, whereas Chibnall is trying to cover a logic gap; conversely, when there’s no gap to be hidden, he has characters mercilessly over-explain everything, I guess for the sake of anyone who’s just walked in.

    So, not perfect, but I thought Part 1 was a blast nonetheless. Sadly, I was much less enamoured with Part 2 — a virtually nonsensical runaround through time, which didn’t seem to know what to do with everything that had been put in play, just throwing “more” at us until the Doctor basically said “time for the story to end now”, and so the baddies disappeared and that was that. Apart from an epilogue, which was quite intriguing — and dove head first into full-on mythology territory, something the series studiously avoided last year. Whether Chibnall’s got anywhere good to go with what he’s teasing, God only knows (I fear not, based on the evidence), but it’s a welcome bit of business that will hopefully jazz up the season to come.

    Gavin & Stacey  A Special Christmas
    Gavin & Stacey: A Special ChristmasI won’t recap Gavin & Stacey’s ratings success (what with already having mentioned it at the start), nor will I touch on the controversy around its use of Fairytale of New York (I kind of get why people complained, but also, the song is the song). As for the episode itself, well, I thought it was masterful. It may be nine years since the last episode, but it was like they hadn’t been away. Not that they tried to ignore the passage of time — clearly, the best part of a decade had passed in the characters’ lives, and naturally changes had come with that — but the characters and performances felt true to their old selves, as if they’d never stopped playing them, with the rhythms and comedic style of the show fully intact. Some decade-later revivals feel like new shows — the writers have forgotten how to write it properly; the cast have forgotten how to play it right — but not this one. This was bang on what it should be. Tidy.

    Dracula
    Dracula“From the makers of Sherlock”, declared the publicity for this new adaptation of the Victorian novel — so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a present-day reimagining. But it wasn’t. Well, until it was.

    This new Dracula is very much a tale of three parts, and not just because it was in three 90-minute episodes. While undoubtedly a serial, each episode was almost a standalone instalment, which was a structural trick I quite liked — it doesn’t feel like you’re watching one four-and-a-half-hour work broken into three by the necessities of the schedule, but rather three separate-but-connected works. And I really, really liked the first two.

    The Rules of the Beast is what you most expect of Dracula: a spooky Transylvanian castle; “I don’t drink… wine”; mild little Englishman Jonathan Harker discovering terrible secrets… Of course, writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss didn’t shy away from bringing a few affectations and twists to the piece, but I thought they all worked well. Claes Bang makes for a fantastic Dracula (a comment that holds true throughout the series), the rest of the cast were very good as well, and there were some proper horror bits — this adaptation was not, ahem, toothless.

    The second instalment, Blood Vessel, dealt with Dracula’s voyage to England aboard the Demeter — a part usually more or less glossed over in other adaptations, as far as I know. But here Moffat and Gatiss spin it out into a full 90-minutes, kind of like a slasher movie set in a confined location, albeit we know whodunnit — so, naturally, there are other twists to be found. Again, I liked this a lot — the way it felt respectful to the source while also expanding and refreshing it; the interesting supporting cast; some very impressive production work (they built the entire ship on a soundstage!)

    Then we get to episode three, The Dark Compass. There’s no way to talk about what happens here without spoiling it, so if you haven’t watched the series yet and are intending to, look away now. If you have watched it, you’ll know this episode jumps the action forward 123 years to 2020. And you also probably hated it, because it seems almost everyone did. My feelings were slightly more nuanced. In my opinion, its biggest mistake is that it’s a completely different show. Sure, we still have Claes Bang playing Dracula (and he’s still excellent), and we still have Moffat and Gatiss’s recognisable stylings in the dialogue and whatnot, but the entire setup has shifted. Judged in isolation, as a present-day-set reworking of the Dracula story as told in the novel, I don’t think it’s that bad. Maybe it’s a tad too cheesy (the scenes in nightclubs and whatnot do have a feel of “how do you do, fellow kids”), but it’s workable as a modern-day adaptation of the character and plot. The problem, as I say, comes from placing it as part of a whole alongside the reenvisioned-but-fundamentally-faithful adaptation we got in the first two episodes. In doing so, Moffat and Gatiss undermine the whole enterprise — it robs the first two-thirds of a fitting finale; and, by being so radically different to the style we’ve spent three hours getting used to, it doesn’t give itself a fair shake either.

    And so many have judged the overall result to be a failure. Personally, I enjoyed enough of it that I was still entertained, but if they’d given us a ‘proper’ third episode to round it out then I think I may’ve loved it.

    The Goes Wrong Show  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
    The Goes Wrong Show - The Pilot (Not the Pilot)Oh my, what a treat! Regular readers will remember how much I loved Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Christmas 2016 (“the best thing that was on TV during the festive season”) and its 2017 followup, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. When the gang missed Christmas 2018 I feared we wouldn’t be getting any more, possibly thanks to the negative-nelly reception in some quarters. But oh no, for 2019 they’re back with a vengeance: not a one-off hour, but a whole series of half-hour Plays Gone Wrong. Reader, I am cock-a-hoop with delight!

    The first episode was another Christmas special; the second a historically-inaccurate WW2 thriller (set in 1961); the third aired on Friday but I’m currently saving it. It’s a half-hour parade of utter silliness — slapstick, wordplay, entirely predictable tomfoolery… but sometimes the total predictability of what’s about to go wrong is part of the fun (episode one begins with a blatant setup for a joke that isn’t paid off until the very end of the episode). And it’s exactly the kind of thing the whole family can watch and enjoy, whether you’re 6 or 66. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I was driven to tears of laughter. Actually, I can — it was Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Long live the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society!

    Also watched…

    A mix of Christmas scheduling and non-Christmas stuff we just happened to catch up on.

  • Criminal: United Kingdom Season 1 — Netflix’s high-concept cop show wasn’t quite as classy as the publicity would have you believe (it still indulged in the old staples of office politics, breaking from the tension of the interrogation to faff around with romance subplots and whatnot), but the guest stars still gave it their all — I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hayley Atwell like that before, and David Tennant was superb as always. Good enough that I’ll check out some of the international versions.
  • In Search of Dracula with Mark Gatiss — This felt like it was planned as a promo for the BBC’s new Dracula, but aired after it. Weird. Anyway, Gatiss has fronted several great documentaries on horror before, and while this wasn’t quite in their league (the others are exceptionally good) it was still a solid and interesting look at the history of the Count. And it made me want to see a load of previous Dracula films, which I always think is the mark of a good movie documentary.
  • Miranda My Such Fun Celebration — I know the sitcom Miranda wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it, as did lots of others, hence this one-off special to mark its tenth anniversary. It’s a bit of an oddity — a mix of cast reunions, sketches, clip montages, and song and dance. Yes, song and dance. It was well-meaning but, well, I found it a little strange. But for those people whose lives have been positively impacted by the series (and, genuinely, hurrah to it and them for that), I’m sure it was a delight.
  • Vienna Blood Series 1 — A new crime series from “that other guy who wrote some episodes of Sherlock”, this adaptation of a series of novels set in Vienna c.1907 did feel a bit like Sherlock Lite, with its Freud-influenced genius consulting detective and some stylish visuals. But it lacked the innovation that marked out Sherlock, especially in its early days. You can tell this has half an eye on being an easy sell to international markets, able to sit comfortably alongside all the other 90-minute crime dramas the UK TV industry churns out. So, it was a bit predictable and formulaic, but decently done and reasonably entertaining. This Guardian article echoes my feelings on it pretty well.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Christmas CarolThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. I know it went down with some degree of controversy, but its revisionist, horror-tinged style looked right up my alley. Unfortunately, it was stripped over three nights, and because I knew I was going to be away for the third evening I didn’t start it. By the point I had enough time to make room for it, it was so long after Christmas that I wasn’t sure it was appropriate. Now, it’s January 12th and it’s definitely too late. Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then.

    Next month… it’s a new year, so I’m sure there must be plenty of new TV. Although I kind of hope not, because I’ve still got tonnes and tonnes from last year to catch up on.

  • A seasonal message from 100 Films

    It’s Christmas Day now here in the UK, so time for some seasonal good will and reflection.

    You see, it’s been a funny old year here at 100 Films. On the one hand, the number of new films I’ve watched already puts it in my top five years ever (as I mentioned in November’s monthly review). And I’ve had easily my most number of visitors ever, with the number of hits already up over 24% from last year (the second highest).

    But on the other, my sub-goals have faltered: my Rewatchathon only recently passed the halfway mark, and neither Blindspot nor WDYMYHS look likely to be completed (I expect both to fall around 25% short). My actual blogging has been much more sporadic too, with only 124 posts published so far this year (for comparison, every year from 2015 to 2018 ended up with over 200). And consequently my review backlog has reached insane proportions — that page now lists a whopping 178 films I’ve watched but not reviewed.

    So, some rethinking might be needed going forward (e.g. am I really going to get round to writing reviews for 178 films, some of which I watched almost two years ago, especially when there are still new ones being added?) But the time for that reflection will come later… as will my usual reviews of the year, of course — starting a week from today (give or take), in fact.

    For now, I’m here primarily to wish you a merry Christmas — and if it isn’t, I hope it’s at least peaceful and safe.

    The Past Christmas on TV

    Once again it was another busy festive period on the tellybox, and here’s what I thought of what I watched.

    Doctor Who  Resolution
    Doctor Who: ResolutionNow, that’s more like it! After the damp squib of alleged-finale The Battle of [Mashes Hand on Keyboard], this New Year’s Day special does a much better job of putting a capstone on series 11. Despite its status as a separate “special” episode, it’s hard to deny that it’s actually part of the last series (despite what BBC Worldwide would have us believe, with their cash-grab move of leaving the episode out of the series box set, which isn’t even released for another fortnight): Ryan’s dad finally turns up (after being mentioned multiple times during the main series), while the primary storyline does a more subtle and effective job of mirroring series premiere The Woman Who Fell to Earth than Battle of Thingy-Wotsit did by just having a returning villain.

    Resolution has a returning villain too, of course: the Daleks! Or, rather, one sole Dalek. Like 2005 episode Dalek, Resolution seeks to make a single Dalek a world-threatening force, and largely does a bang-up job. As has been thoroughly demonstrated by now, current showrunner Chris Chibnall isn’t half the writer that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat are (and he only proves this harder by trying to emulate their styles so often), so Resolution doesn’t have as much freshness or innovation as some Dalek tales from Davies’ and Moffat’s eras. But, saying that, the Dalek ‘riding’ a human via some kind of icky telepathic link is a new idea, which makes for some effective horror moments, especially given the creepy cephalopod-influenced design of the creature. There’s plenty of exciting running about too, making this the most blockbuster-like version of Who we’ve yet seen from Chibnall’s era.

    It still wasn’t perfect (as glad as I was to see Ryan’s dad turn up, the lengthy heart-to-heart scenes crippled the pace, and his inevitable redemption was narratively unearned; plus, Yaz continues to get shafted with “generic companion” duties), but overall it was a fun treat for Christmas New Year’s Day. More episodes with this kind of ambition when the series returns in 2020, please!

    The ABC Murders
    The ABC MurdersOnce upon a time it seemed implausible that anyone would ever try to play Poirot ever again, given how iconically (and thoroughly) David Suchet had embodied the Belgian detective during the 25-year series in which he starred. But I suppose it was inevitable that it would happen someday, and so following Branagh’s go at the end of last year, this year ends with another pretender to the throne: John Malkovich. Where Branagh stuck to tradition, with a flamboyant and fastidious embodiment of the character that seemed in-keeping with how Agatha Christie wrote him, Malkovich and regular TV-Christie scribe Sarah Phelps (she’s written all of the BBC’s new adaptations to date) have gone more revisionist. This Poirot is quiet, unassuming, ageing, almost embarrassed to be butting into the police investigation, especially as they would rather he pushed off, and he lives in a 1930s where fascism is ascendent and foreigners are despised, so he feels compelled to hide his Belgian roots as much as possible. It all feels psychologically plausible (and the mirroring of Brexit Britain is obvious), but it’s also a big set of changes to take in one go, which understandably angered some fans. I confess, I’ve never read a Poirot book, but I was a fan of the Suchet series. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this take on the character as an alternative — it may not be faithful, but it is believable.

    The same could be said of the plot. Poirot and/or Christie are best remembered for country house-type murder mysteries, with a bunch of upper-class suspects in a confined location, who Poirot interviews one by one before bringing them all together to explain what happened. This was the format that Branagh used to reassuring effect in his film (and, presumably, will continue to use in his next one, if my memory of its structure serves me right). The ABC Murders doesn’t go that way, however, with Poirot on the hunt for a killer who taunts him via letters. The suspect pool is limited not by confined location, but by how sophisticated the viewer wants to be at guessing — the structure is that of a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, as we witness the murderer going about his deeds while Poirot attempts to find him out. But this is Christie, so there’s a twist in the tail. Look, I’m trying not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet, but everyone I was watching with figured early on that (last spoiler warning!) the guy who was Obviously The Murderer was not the murderer, and so it turned into the usual guessing game of “which recognisable guest star did it?” Well, at least one aspect of this was reassuringly familiar, then.

    Watership Down
    Watership DownThe BBC and Netflix teamed up for this £30 million CG animated adaption of Richard Adams’ children’s novel, perhaps most (in)famous for its 1978 film adaptation that is said to have traumatised all who saw it (I never have). I guess most of that money went on the all-star cast (seriously, the number of well-known names is mad — far too many to list here, so you can check out this list if you want), because it certainly doesn’t seem to have been spent on the animation. Frankly, much of the series looks like an unfinished animatic; the stuff you sometimes see on animated movies’ DVD release as deleted scenes or work-in-progress versions. And yet, there are occasional flashes of polish: look closely at the rabbits’ fur in many scenes and you’ll see high levels of detail.

    Cheap production values are not the be-all-and-end-all, though — such things can be easily overlooked if there’s a good story or characters. But Watership Down’s animation is so poor that it scuppers that, too. Most of the characters are visually indistinguishable, made worse when there are so many of them to get to know, and very little screen time is invested in delineating them. It’s not even something you get used to or work out for yourself — the longer the series went on, the more confusing it became to follow who each rabbit was and what was meant to be happening to them. It’s frustrating and distancing, getting in the way of you caring about the characters or the story, which literally ruins the entire production. We stuck with all four hours of it because of a bloody-minded “we’ve started so we’ll finish” attitude. I’d recommend not even starting it.

    Not Going Out  Ding Dong Merrily on Live
    Not Going Out LiveNormally I’d fold this into the comedy roundup (see below), but I enjoyed it so much I’m singling it out. As the title implies, this was a live edition of the long-running sitcom. What inspired that, I don’t know, but it paid off with the series’ best episode for years. The storyline didn’t necessitate the live-broadcast format in the same way as 2018’s other live comedy special, Inside No.9, but writer-star Lee Mack built in various sequences to push what was possible live. And, naturally, some things went wrong — golden opportunities for a quick-thinking comic like Mack, who got to throw in plenty of improvisations and fourth-wall breaking. It may not be sophisticated, but it was funny. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice within 24 hours.

    Comedy roundup
    Upstart Crow: A Crow Christmas CarolAlso tickling my funny bone this season were a new Upstart Crow Christmas special, given a prime Christmas Day slot. It riffed off A Christmas Carol, which was unfortunate because I saw rather too many version of that this year (see below for another). I can’t say Crow’s take was particularly special, but I’m fond of the sitcom anyway so another episode is always welcome. The night before that (Christmas Eve, for those not keeping up), BBC One had one-off comedy-drama Click & Collect, with Stephen Merchant as a dad who must travel to the other end of the country to collect that year’s most-wanted toy for his daughter, accompanied by his irritatingly over-friendly neighbour. It’s the kind of fluff that would feel a bit too daft most of the time, but hits the right light-entertainment note at Christmas. A bit more cutting edge was Goodness Gracious Me: 20 Years Innit!, marking the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking British-Asian sketch show with a special that used some of the series’ funniest sketches as examples to discuss what made the show so important. It was a subtly clever way to be both “greatest hits” clip show and retrospective documentary at once. Sadly, the repeat of an overlong old Christmas special that followed wasn’t quite as vintage. And, as I’m rounding things up, there were also seasonal editions of panel shows Mock the Week (the usual clips and outtakes), Have I Got News for You (more compiled clips), and Insert Name Here (actually a new edition! I’m fond of it and was happy to see back on our screens). Several others I’m yet to catch up on (Would I Lie to You, The Imitation Game), though I did see both new episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys. I know I “should” hate it, but the Christmas Day one, at least, made me laugh.

    Also watched…
  • Black Mirror Bandersnatch — Was it a film? An episode of TV? Something else? I’m still not 100% sure, but I went with “film” and reviewed it in full here.
  • A Christmas Carol — A filmed version of Simon Callow’s one-man show, and another production that sits on the film/TV divide. They released it in cinemas before it was on TV, though, so I’ll be reviewing it as a film at some point. The only reason I mention it now, then, is because I thought it was very good and wanted to point out it’s still on iPlayer.
  • The Dead Room — Simon Callow reading again, this time in Mark Gatiss’ latest attempt to revive the beloved-by-some “Ghost Story for Christmas” format from the ’70s. It was an effectively creepy little tale while it lasted, but it seemed to stop before the story was over.
  • Mark Kermode’s Christmas Cinema Secrets — A festive edition of the series that entertainingly explains the inner workings of genre. In this case, we learn that pretty much every Christmas movie is basically A Christmas Carol.
  • Les Misérables Episode 1 — OMG there woz no singing!!!! (Proper review in a future post, when more of it has aired.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3This Christmas, I have mostly been missing A Series of Unfortunate Events season three — the final one! Okay, it only came out yesterday, but I was with family and couldn’t watch it (ugh!) Not that I’d want to rush through it, anyway. By the time you’re reading this I’ll have made a start, and it’ll be reviewed next month. The same is true of Luther season four, which also started yesterday and which I’ll watch sometime later.

    Next month… look away, if you can: it’s the final series of Unfortunate Events!

  • “Christmas in July” Review Roundup

    Being someone who lives in the northern hemisphere, and up towards the top of it too, we celebrate Christmas at, y’know, Christmas. But for people who live in places where 25th December falls in summery weather, all the trappings of the festival don’t feel so appropriate. Hence at some point someone conceived of “Christmas in July”.* I don’t know when — a long time ago, probably — but I first encountered the concept a year or two back.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s celebrated on a specific date (it’s just a thing some people do some places), but it turns out there is a “Christmas in July” in London — a great big marketing event, self-described as “the ‘London Fashion Week’ of Christmas press launches.” Well, what could be more Christmassy than massive commercialisation? That’s occurring today and tomorrow, and seemed as good a point as any to post this selection of leftover reviews from the festive viewing I enjoyed seven months ago.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Elf (2003)
  • Scrooged (1988)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


    Elf
    (2003)

    2017 #173
    Jon Favreau | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Elf

    Regarded by some as a modern Christmas classic (though it’s 15 years old now, so I’m not sure if “modern” still applies), Elf is about a human raised as one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) who travels to New York to find his real dad (James Caan), in the process spreading Christmas joy with his charmingly innocent view of the holiday.

    An early starring role for Ferrell, the film is more concerned with letting him get up to funny antics than it is with, say, building fully rounded character arcs — Caan goes through his inevitable redemption in the space of one cut. It’s less character development, more character transplant. Heck, transplants take time to perform — it’s character transmogrification. By taking such short cuts it fails to earn the changes of heart for its characters, leaving it to feel kind of empty and unsatisfying on an emotional level. Nonetheless, the focus on comedy and an innocent’s eye-view of Christmas means it makes for a fairly entertaining, pleasantly festive time-killer.

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

    2017 #174
    Richard Donner | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Scrooged

    Director Richard Donner transplants the most famous of all Christmas stories (that doesn’t star a divine baby, anyhow), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the corporate ’80s in this fantasy comedy. (Most Christmas movies are “fantasy comedies”, aren’t they? Even the ones that aren’t (like, say, Home Alone) kind of are. But I digress.)

    Bill Murray stars in “his first comedy since Ghostbusters”, as the UK poster boasts (“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, there’s no one to call.”). He’s the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, a miserly TV executive visited by three ghosts who expose his negative effect on the world, and in turn on himself. Obviously, therefore, the film retains the broad shape of Dickens’ original story, but it goes a little further than that, taking all the salient details and adapting them to its own variation. It’s a good modernisation: true to the original, but without being slavishly beholden to translating the story word for word.

    It does feel like it could’ve been tightened up a bit, though according to Murray they “shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film,” which I guess means this is already the improved version. Nonetheless, this is a Christmas tale with just enough ’80s cynicism and gentle horror to stop it being too twee, while retaining an appropriately goodhearted festiveness.

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

    2017 #171
    Frank Capra | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    It's a Wonderful Life

    I’m a little late to the party here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmastime TV staple that most people have been enjoying for decades, many since childhood. Frankly, that’s the main reason I watched it — almost out of a sense of duty, owing to it being an iconic Christmas film, and also well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250.

    So I set out merely to rectify my oversight, expecting to find it a bit saccharine and twee, and probably overrated. But no, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film — I even got something in my eye during the conclusion, even if its heartwarmingness was objectively inevitable. Now, my only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner, so that I could’ve been re-experiencing it all my life.

    It’s not often you get a film with a reputation like this that manages to live up to it, but It’s a Wonderful Life is that rare exception. Indeed, it’s so good I’d even say it exceeded its reputation. Wonderful indeed.

    5 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life placed 6th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    * If you happened to think this had something to do with the football — you know, like, “if England get through to the final it’ll be like Christmas in July for the fans” — then, um, no. Sorry. ^

  • The Conclusory Monthly Update for December 2017

    And so another year comes to an end — welcome to 2018, dear readers!

    Before that, I’m going to spend the next week-ish raking over the remnants of the year just ended. First up: the month of December, and my final tally of new films watched in 2017.


    #164 Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
    #165 Her (2013)
    #166 Atomic Blonde (2017)
    #167 Men in Black 3 (2012)
    #168 Your Name. (2016), aka Kimi no na wa.
    #169 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
    #170 Hidden Figures (2016)
    #171 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
    #172 Forbidden Planet (1956)
    #173 Elf (2003)
    #174 Scrooged (1988)
    Star Wars: The Last Jedi
    .


    • 11 new films this month sees me reach a final total of 174 for the year, my third highest ever behind 2015’s 200 and 2016’s 195.
    • But that main list total was undoubtedly decreased by putting effort into my Rewatchathon — what if I added the two totals together? Well, there’ll be more on that in my annual stats post later in the week…
    • Other than that, it’s a bit of an unremarkable monthly tally: it’s below the December average (previously 11.55, now 11.5), below the rolling average of the last 12 months (though it bests December 2016, so raises that from 14.42 to 14.5), and below the average for 2017 (previously 14.8, now finalised at 14.5).
    • Earlier this year, Empire magazine published their latest reader-voted 100 Greatest Movies list. Watching It’s a Wonderful Life means I have just 2½ to go: La La Land (yep, still not seen it), True Romance, and the film I can never remember if I saw as a kid or not, E.T.
    • This month’s Blindspot film: sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, which is still impressive in its own way but has inevitably been out-sci-fi-ed in the last six decades.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film was more science fiction: Her, which is basically an episode of Black Mirror. A good one, though.



    The 31st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    I watched a few Christmas films this year, which makes a change, and one of those is also my favourite film of the month. As it’s a long-fêted classic I was a little sceptical about how good It’s a Wonderful Life could actually be. Turns out, it’s magnificent.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    No real stinkers this month, but my least favourite was another Christmas film: Will Ferrell comedy Elf. It’s alright, but no classic.

    Most Kick-Ass Women of the Month
    Sure, Rey could get you good with a lightsaber, and whatever-Charlize-Theron’s-character-was-called-in-Atomic-Blonde could hand your arse to you in a single-take stairwell fight, but the women of Hidden Figures fought the patriarchy for real — and racism, too, while they were at it.

    Favourite Porg of the Month
    Porg, Millennium Falcon, window

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    You might think the release of a new Star Wars film would walk this, but you’d be wrong: the victory goes to my monthly TV review, which this time covered The Punisher, Detectorists, The Good Place, and so on. It’s the sixth time a TV post has won this award in 2017 — that’s half the year, folks! (The Last Jedi was of course the most-viewed film review, and by a considerable margin: out of all posts it came 6th, with the next new film post at 32nd.)


    I didn’t do my review advent calendar again this year, but by coincidence I did post exactly 25 new reviews.


    My Rewatchathon goal of 52 films should’ve averaged out at 4⅓ a month, but I came into December with seven left to get through. Did I manage it?

    #46 The Terminator (1984)
    #47 For a Few Dollars More (1965)
    #48 Star Wars: The Force Awakens 3D (2015)
    #49 Home Alone (1990)
    #50 Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)
    #51 Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
    #52 Airplane! (1980)

    Yes, I did — but only just: I watched Airplane on December 31st.

    It’s been about 25 years since I last watched Home Alone. It’s not a bad kids’ film, is it? I’d forgotten how little of it is actually the famous stuff with the burglary and the traps.

    My full review of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon from 2008 is linked above, which I mostly stand by (I found Lionel Atwill’s Moriarty less underpowered now), but it’s also worth noting that this time I watched a colourised version. I jotted a couple of thoughts about that in my Letterboxd diary here.

    Speaking of which, there are also a couple of notes on my Force Awakens rewatch here.


    Everything kicks off again, for the 12th time.

    Before that: all the stats and lists pertaining to my 2017 viewing.

    The Past Christmas on TV

    Ah, Christmas — it could be called “the season of TV” here in the UK. (Apparently Christmas Day telly is Not A Thing in most/all of the rest of the world. What do they do, actually interact with their family?! Madness.) Consequently, although it’s only two weeks since my last TV overview, my list of stuff watched that could go in this post included 26 different programmes. That’s all those one-off specials for you. From that long, long list, here are the ones I felt like writing about…

    Doctor Who  Twice Upon a Time
    Doctor Who: Twice Upon a TimeAnother year, another divisive Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s the third time that the Christmas Day spectacular has to serve double duty by writing out the programme’s lead actor, and it follows the format set out by David Tennant’s swan-song The End of Time and Matt Smith’s finale The Time of the Doctor by being a very inward-looking fan-focused edition. I’m not sure that’s the right tack to take on Christmas, quite frankly, when the show’s playing to a wider audience of more casual viewers than normal. Former showrunner Russell T Davies and immensely popular leading man Tennant had earnt that kind of indulgence by the time they exited, and the series was pretty much the biggest thing on British TV at the time, so most of those so-called “casual viewers” were actually regular watchers of the show anyway. I’m not convinced exiting showrunner Steven Moffat and departing Doctor Peter Capaldi are quite in the same position.

    Oh, but what does it matter? Capaldi’s been brilliant, and is brilliant here again. It was great to see Pearl Mackie back as the wonderful Bill, even if her return felt like a massive fudge about. How you felt about Clara’s cameo really depends on your opinion of Clara (I wasn’t surprised she cropped up; I also wasn’t bothered). David Bradley was absolutely spectacular as a recreation of the First Doctor, originally played by William Hartnell, who Bradley managed to evoke without doing a flat impression or a disrespectful re-envisioning. I’d love him to pop up again in the future, but that would make this a bit less special. The actual plot was a bit of nothing, though it led to a lovely conclusion on the battlefields of World War One — oh, and how good was Mark Gatiss in an almost thankless little role as a WW1 soldier? His reaction to the news that there would be a World War Two was heartbreakingly understated.

    And so, after Capaldi’s overwritten exit speech, we come to Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Thirteenth Doctor. “Oh, brilliant,” was all she could say before she was kicked out of a crashing TARDIS — just as Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi all were immediately post-regeneration. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to get a proper handle on her interpretation of the role. Under the guidance of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.

    The Miniaturist
    The MiniaturistThe BBC’s two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s 2014 bestseller promised to be a supernatural treat, though in that respect the trailers were somewhat misleading. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s about a girl who marries a wealthy merchant, but finds his strict and secretive household is not all she’d hoped. He buys her a dolls house as a wedding gift and she commissions a miniaturist to produce items for it, but she soon starts to receive things she didn’t order — things which suggest the miniaturist somehow knows people’s secrets, and can possibly see the future… In actuality, The Miniaturist is more of a period drama, albeit one with lashings of Gothic that were right up my street. It was beautifully made, with a fantastic eye on the costumes and locations, and cinematography that evoked painting of the era. There were strong performances too, particularly from Anya Taylor-Joy (yes, her out of The VVitch and Split), once again brilliant as the initially delicate but increasingly confident lead, and Romola Garai as the merchant’s overbearing sister.

    There were some striking revelations and twists along the way (even if we guessed a few of them), but where the narrative really struggled was as it moved towards its conclusion. Weirdly divided into ‘halves’ running 90 and 60 minutes respectively (did they accidentally make it half-an-hour too long, or half-an-hour too short?), the second episode felt like it was merely playing out the obvious repercussions from the first episode’s cliffhangers and reveals. The answers about the titular character were particularly underwhelming. Thematically, there was something there about being the master of your own destiny, but if that’s what they wanted to convey then I didn’t think it was played out as effectively as it should’ve been. A real mixed bag, then: I loved the overall style and many individual elements, but a disappointing second half failed to stick the landing.

    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A follow-up to last year’s magnificent Peter Pan Goes Wrong (see the “also watched” section), this sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to redeem themselves by gatecrashing the BBC’s new production of A Christmas Carol. Cue a parade of slapstick, farce, puns, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Last year’s production was adapted from an already successful stage show, while this is a brand-new production, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t feel as meticulously fine-tuned as Peter Pan. It’s still funny (though, as the Twitter reaction proved, this style of comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste), but it didn’t surpass last year’s instant Christmas classic.

    The League of Gentlemen  20th Anniversary Specials
    The League of Gentlemen“Oh God, I’d forgotten,” says one character early in the first instalment for almost 15 years of BBC Two’s pitch-black comedy series. He’s been confronted with some other returning characters, but I have to say that the sentiment kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of this revival, in two ways: firstly because I had to keep rummaging in my memory to make connections back to a series I haven’t watched for a decade and a half, and secondly because the hilarious grotesquery of the League came crashing back. Revivals of once-great comedies can be a mistake — they’re often little more than an exercise in nostalgia; and this one is certainly aimed at fans, as the vast majority of it continues or riffs off stuff from before — but, in spite of that, it still felt fresh and edgy, not like a gang of middle-aged men reliving past glories (the other thing that goes wrong with revivals). So it was all really rather good, and it’s gone down very well too. Officially it’s a 20th anniversary special rather than a fourth series, but might we see more? I think it would be welcomed.

    Comedy roundup
    300 Years of French and SaundersSo much comedy, so much of it a passable time-killer that I have little else to say about. The highlight was probably 300 Years of French and Saunders, an excellent celebration of the comedy double act, reminding us of many of their greatest hits alongside a few nice additions. It made me want a whole highlights series repeating all their many hilarious film spoofs. Shakespearean satire Upstart Crow offered a neat riff on one of the better-remembered storylines from modern Christmas classic Love Actually, which it executed with surprising subtly (or, at least, I had to point out the references to my fellow viewers, which was followed by half-an-hour of scouring through Richard Curtis’ film for the relevant scenes). I enjoyed the pilot for Tim Vine Travels Through Time back in September, so was delighted to see a Christmas special in the schedules. It’s good clean silly fun. The same can’t quite be said of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I only ever watch it at Christmas if I’m around other people who are, but I always laugh more than I feel I should. Other than that, I also chuckled (to one degree or another) through festive editions of Gogglebox, Have I Got News For You, Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, QI, and Travel Man, plus the annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year, one-off Miranda Does Christmas, and a Romesh Ranganathan standup special.

    Black Mirror  White Christmas
    Black Mirror: White ChristmasBlack Mirror series four was released last Friday, but I haven’t even watched series three yet. Well, I did only watch series two just before series three came out, so I guess I’m catching up at a set speed. One of the obstacles (kind of) was this, the show’s only Christmas special — you can’t watch a Christmassy Christmas special any time other than Christmas, can you? Of course, I could’ve watched it last Christmas, but shh. Originally airing at Christmas 2014 (so I’m only three years behind), the feature-length edition introduces us to a couple of blokes isolated somewhere on Christmas Day telling each other a trio of technology-inspired tales that (surprise!) turn out to be connected after all. It nails Black Mirror’s best-known qualities: future technology that’s incredibly plausible due to being just slightly more advanced than our own, the way it considers how such marvellous innovations would actually be used and affect us as human beings, and particularly how it might go horribly, horribly wrong. Merry Christmas!

    Also watched…
  • The Dresser — This adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s superb play, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins, was actually on over two years ago, we just finally got round to watching it now. Should I have counted it as a film, perhaps?
  • The Galaxy Britain Built — The centrepiece of BBC Four’s Star Wars Night, a new documentary on the British designers and craftsmen who contributed so much to the look and feel of a galaxy far, far away — and continue to do so today, in fact. You’re welcome, geekdom.
  • The Highway Rat — I normally devote a bit more time to discussing these animated specials (previous ones include The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Revolting Rhymes, all brilliant), but I was a bit underwhelmed by this year’s offering. The actual animation was as beautiful as ever, but the story and writing left something to be desired. Hey-ho.
  • Peter Pan Goes Wrong — Sadly this highlight of last Christmas wasn’t repeated this year, but my parents still had it recorded so I got to see it again. Last year’s review is here.
  • Snow Bears — This was an odd one. The BBC are normally so good at nature documentaries, yet this took a bunch of different bits of footage and mixed them up into a fictionalised narrative, and did it so obviously that they had to put a disclaimer at the start. Some cute stuff with bear cubs, mind.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Little WomenI may’ve watched 26 different programmes, but there’s still an awful lot I’ve missed. Like the BBC’s new three-part adaptation of Little Women — I’ve never read it or watched another version, so here’s my chance to get cultured. Less worthy but no less lovely, there’ve been a couple of Great British Bake Off specials featuring contestants from the BBC years even though it’s now on Channel 4. Gasp, indeed. And despite that long list up above, there’s still a handful of comedy specials I’ve got to catch up on, like Not Going Out, Would I Lie to You?, and even some not featuring Lee Mack. There’s bound to be something else I’ve forgotten — I’ll have to go through the Radio Times, again…

    Next month… New Year, new shows!