A rundown of the week’s cultural moments, books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
If you love the movies – or simply enjoy the basic human experience of being entertained in a crowd – there are few more melancholy spectacles than a cinema shutting up shop.
Think of the final scenes, say, of Cinema Paradiso (1988), or The Last Picture Show (1971), in both of which classics the closure of a movie house draws a line under a phase of life. As the young Jeff Bridges says in the latter movie, set in Anarene, Texas: ‘Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.’
While politicians have been trading blows in the past week over the different ‘tiers’ of local COVID-19 restrictions and a ‘circuit-breaker’ national lockdown, movie lovers have watched with dismay as the big cinema chains have closed their doors once again, or radically reduced their weekly offerings.
Cineworld closed all 127 of its UK venues (including the Picturehouse franchise) on 9 October, while Odeon and Vue are closing many of their cinemas on particular weekdays.
All the more credit, then, to the BFI London Film Festival for forging ahead with its programme of 58 films from around the world – including Supernova, starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, which had its premiere at the BFI Southbank on Sunday night.
As for the big cinema chains, they have already suffered four months’ loss of revenue. The release in July of Christopher Nolan’s latest all-stops-out thriller, Tenet, did not pack theatres as had been hoped.
And so: Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond, No Time To Die, has been pushed back to April, and other tent-pole movies such as Marvel’s Black Widow, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and Wonder Woman 1984 held back as the second wave of the virus surges across the land.
It won’t have escaped your attention, either, that as movie production has stalled dramatically, the new content on the main streaming services is starting to look a bit – well – threadbare. I’m a militant consumer of action B-movies and obscure documentaries, but even I draw the line at Bruce Willis in Hard Kill and Growing Up With I Spit On Your Grave.
The algorithms that drive your homepage selection on Netflix, Amazon Prime and the other principal platforms are great at directing you towards movies that match your previous selections (and, of course, below-par movies they are desperate for you to watch). But they are much less inclined to steer you towards forgotten gems, underappreciated cinematic treasures, and the greatest movies you’ve never heard of. Which is ironic, because streaming has given us instant access to a colossal archive of films on a scale never before possible. You just have to know what to look for.
To keep you going, Tortoise staff this week offer you their own recommendations – not necessarily the greatest films of all time, or the most famous, but, instead, movies they have loved and treasure that are not always given the credit they deserve.
So I’ll kick off with…
Mississippi Grind (2015, Amazon Prime)
One of my top 10 films of all time, this is a mesmerising road movie about two drifters – Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn – gambling their way towards perdition or glory in New Orleans. It tanked at the box office, but it’s one of the greatest films about friendship ever made.
The Castle (1997, YouTube)
‘Unless you have dated an Aussie or have relatives Down Under, this classic will not likely be known to you. In the spirit of Kath & Kim, Muriel's Wedding, and Fosters and Castlemaine XXXX ads, The Castle is the story of an ‘uncultured’ family, and their David vs Goliath fight to retain their castle against big property magnates. Absolute comedy gold, and never really made it outside Australia and New Zealand. But – like Monty Python – it has left its mark upon conversation and culture with unforgettable lines.’
First Reformed (2017, VOD)
‘Ethan Hawke, directed by Paul Schrader, plays a pastor struggling to serve his flock while tortured by loss and soothed by whiskey. A masterly central performance with a properly climactic narrative.’
Peter HoskinThe Roaring Twenties (1939, iTunes)
‘James Cagney versus Humphrey Bogart in a gangster film that, in less than two hours, tells the story of an entire decade – from the final shots of WW1 to the stock market crash of 1929. Should be part of the American canon.’
Big Night (1996, VOD)
‘If food scenes were sex scenes, this film – starring Stanley Tucci – is XXXX rated. Everything is delicious, from the dialogue to the accents, the fashion to the city itself. Do not watch it when you’re hungry or dieting.’
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005, Amazon Prime)
‘The “not action movie” that proved to Hollywood that Robert Downey Jr could do action movies, apparently. He’s brilliant in it. Underwatched, IMO.’
The Big Blue (Director’s Cut) (2004, iTunes)
‘Luc Besson’s classic tale of free diving and friendship. Truly beautiful and a great soundtrack.’
Barbarella (1968, Amazon Prime)
‘Released the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, this box-office flop couldn’t be a more different sci-fi movie. Jane Fonda is a 41st century (outrageously sexualised) astronaut sent across space to find Dr Durand Durand and his laser-powered super weapon. The film is camp, kitsch, and due a 21st-century cult reckoning. It helped to name Duran Duran, influenced Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs in The Fifth Element, and has inspired music videos by Kylie Minogue, Ariana Grande, and Two Inch Punch. The set design is iconic (the director of photography was the grandson of the Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir). The plot and the dialogue are bonkers.’
Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016, Amazon Prime)
‘Before Taika Waititi won an Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, he wrote and directed this charming film set in his home country of New Zealand. A manhunt for a foster son and father as they head into the bush together – watch as the friendship unfolds.’
Helvetica (2017, iTunes)
‘It’s a film, directed by Gary Hustwit, about a typeface! I’d be letting the side down if this wasn’t on my list [Jon’s our Chief Designer]. Beautifully shot and watchable for non-type geeks, too.’
Winter’s Bone (2010, Netflix)
‘A story that brought courage and hope in the most despairing of situations. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is beautifully understated in this bleak and savage movie. The image of her face set in steadfast courage is at once inspirational and terrifying in the surety that she’s got this, regardless of what is standing in her way.’
The Intouchables (2011, DVD)
‘This is an exhilarating story of a millionaire and his convict caretaker with lots of twists and turns. A true crowd pleaser – perfect mix of humour and the pulling of heartstrings.’
Swiss Army Man (2016, VOD)
‘It’s hard to articulate how moving and funny this story of a young man finding his way home using a flatulent corpse is – but trust me, it’s worth a couple of hours of your time. The concept is utterly bonkers but completely disarming, and it lets you focus on Daniel Radcliffe’s brilliant performance as a corpse and Paul Dano as Hank on one of the weirdest and loveliest buddy road trips.’
Mark St Andrew
Annihilation (2018, Netflix)
‘Natalie Portman not being annoying for once. Alex Garland’s film rewards repeated viewing. Feels like an arthouse version of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Not a little trippy.’
Rocks (2019, Netflix)
‘Already one of my favourite films – it’s a story about a young girl who, all of a sudden, has to take care of her younger brother. It’s beautifully done, empowering, and authentically encapsulates Black British adolescence in a way I’ve never seen before.’
I Saw The Devil (2010, iTunes)
‘A shockingly violent Korean revenge thriller (directed by Jee-Woon Kim) that’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. Truly uncompromising and brilliantly directed.’
Michael KowalskiTetsuo: The Iron Man (1989, VOD)
‘A Japanese salaryman starts growing guns out of his body... These days, sounds like standard Netflix anime fare. Back in 1989 – and in live action – it was mind blowing, a window into the apparent weirdness of Japanese culture.’
Blue Jay (2016, Netflix)
‘Sarah Paulson. Mark Duplass. Seven days of semi-improvised filming ... and you get this 80-minute beauty. All about lost love, nostalgia, regret, things unsaid... Trust me, it’s an emotional roller coaster and absolute tear-jerker.’
The Cooler (2003, iTunes)
‘William H Macy excels in this casino tale of a man who brings bad luck to gambles merely by his proximity.’
Locke (2014, Amazon Prime)
‘Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke – a construction foreman – who juggles various personal and professional crises as he drives to London from Birmingham, where he is due to oversee a mammoth concrete pour the next day. The film is notable because the whole story takes place inside the car, something which, despite my initial fears, does nothing to damage the plot – rather it enhances it and makes you really empathise with Hardy’s character.’
Frances Ha (2012, VOD)
‘Directed by Noah Baumbach, the movie follows Frances Halladay as she dances, and stumbles, through her late twenties in NYC. Starring Greta Gerwig, (before her Little Women/ Ladybird directorial prestige) this ‘mumblecore’ film is a delicious delve into what it means to be mediocre in a world championing success. With a fabulous soundtrack, Gerwig’s impeccable comic timing on a black and white backdrop of the New York streets is not to be missed.’
That should keep you occupied for a while (and thanks to all my colleagues for their recommendations). Do let us know what you’re watching and enjoying – you can email us at [email protected].
Stay safe – and don’t give up on the movies.
Editor and Partner