The UK’s best-known film critic, Mark Kermode offers up 50 personal viewing recommendations, from great classics to overlooked gems.
The Arbor (2010)
Director Clio Barnard
Artist Clio Barnard’s moving film about the late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (Rita, Sue and Bob Too) is no ordinary documentary. Mixing interviews with Dunbar’s family and friends (seen lip-synched by actors), scenes from her plays performed on the estate where she lived, and TV footage of her in the 1980s, the film makes intriguing, inventive play with fact, fiction and reminiscence.
Mark Kermode says: “Somehow the disparate elements form a strikingly cohesive whole, conjuring a portrait of the artist and her offspring that is both emotionally engaging, stylistically radical and utterly unforgettable.”
Bad Timing (1980)
Director Nicolas Roeg
Seen in flashback through the prism of a woman’s attempted suicide, this fragmented portrait of a love affair expands into a labyrinthine enquiry into memory and guilt. One of director Nic Roeg’s finest films, starring Art Garfunkel, Theresa Russell and Harvey Keitel.
Mark Kermode says: “Roeg himself reported that a friend refused to talk to him for three years after seeing the film. Today, Bad Timing still divides audiences: monstrosity or masterpiece? Well, watch it and decide for yourself.”
La Belle et la Bête (1946)
Director Jean Cocteau
With its enchanted castle, home to fantastic living statuary, and director Jean Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais starring as a Beast who is at once brutal and gentle, rapacious and vulnerable, shamed and repelled by his own bloodlust, this remains a high point of the cinematic gothic imagination.
Mark Kermode says: “Personally I think Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, the maestro of the modern screen fairytale, said it best when he declared La Belle et la Bête simply to be the most perfect cinematic fable ever told.”
Black Narcissus (1947)
Directors Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
A group of nuns open a makeshift convent in the foothills of the Himalayas but soon find their vows challenged in this new, exotic environment. Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh has a spiritual crisis, while a fellow nun, brilliantly played by Kathleen Byron, becomes erotically obsessed with a British agent, leading to an unforgettable ending.
Mark Kermode says: “Black Narcissus is a vividly sensual work, which looks unlike any other British film of the period. Oscar wins for Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and Alfred Junge for production design confirm it as a technical triumph, but it is still so much more than that. It is a work of extraordinary power and passion from Powell and Pressburger.”
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Director David Lean
When an eccentric spiritualist summons a man’s first wife, the ghost refuses to leave, much to his and his second wife’s frustration in this wonderful comedy based on one of Noël Coward’s most beloved plays. Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings are great as the husband and second wife, but the funniest turns come from Kay Hammond as the spoilt first wife and Margaret Rutherford as the batty medium.
Mark Kermode says: “A spicy screen comedy filmed in blushing technicolour… why Lean is still considered one of Britain’s greatest directors.”
Bullet Boy (2004)
Director Saul Dibb
Ashley Walters rose to fame as one of So Solid Crew but impresses here in his first lead acting role, anchoring Saul Dibb’s stark and compelling urban drama. When Ricky (Walters) is released from prison he soon finds himself drawn back into old ways, while trying protect his brother Curtis (Luke Fraser) from the advances of a local gang.
Mark Kermode says: “Both Dibb and Walters have travelled far since the days of Bullet Boy, but this urgent, low-budget British drama remains a defining moment in both of their diverse careers.”
Capricorn One (1977)
Director Peter Hyams
Peter Hyams’ stunning sci-fi thriller is steeped in post-Watergate paranoia. The world watches the first manned flight to Mars, unaware the mission is being faked. Forced to participate, the astronauts realise that when the hoax goes wrong, their existence threatens national security. In desperation, they escape…
Mark Kermode says: “After the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, it was easy for audiences to believe that governments were corrupt and recordings could be doctored – it is no wonder that so many people took Capricorn One at face value.”
Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)
Director Jacques Rivette
Jacques Rivette’s biggest commercial hit is an exhilarating combination of the themes of theatricality, paranoia and ‘la vie parisienne’, all wrapped up in an extended and entrancing examination of the nature of filmmaking and film watching. Its freewheeling, playful spirit still captures the imagination of new audiences today.
Mark Kermode says: “A comparative commercial hit on its release, Céline and Julie Go Boating has since gone on to become a much sought after cult item and has influenced everyone from David Lynch to Susan Seidelman. It was also hailed as an influential female buddy movie by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote that many women consider it to be their favourite film about female friendship, and many men too.”
Un chien andalou (1928)
Director Luis Buñuel
“Seventeen minutes of pure, scandalous dream-imagery…reveals itself at each viewing to be richer and more indefinable, as the sensitivity of its shades of each mood become apparent.” (Raymond Durgnat). Buñuel and Dalí’s provocative first collaboration, a classic of surrealist cinema, is a scabrous study of desire, the subconscious and anti-clericalism.
Mark Kermode says: “Arguably the most celebrated work of surrealist cinema, a satirical gem which, when I first saw it at the Museum of the Moving Image as an unsuspecting young film fan, caused me to faint.”
The Company of Wolves (1984)
Director Neil Jordan
The gothic landscape of the imagination has rarely been filmed with such invention as it was in Neil Jordan’s second feature. Within lavish, expressive sets, the teenage heroine begins to discover her sexuality and its dark, unsettling power. Wolves become human, humans become wolves. The film’s elaborate structure offers tales within tales, but what really grips is the utterly lucid fantasy.
Mark Kermode says: “Pitched somewhere between arthouse tract and exploitation horror movie, The Company of Wolves drew mixed responses from some baffled critics, but proved an enduring audience favourite. Today, it has become a timeless classic, which is studied by film scholars and adored by film fans alike. If you like your fairy tales to have teeth, this is the film for you.”
Countess Dracula (1971)
Director Peter Sasdy
Public decency is breached with laudable regularity in Hammer’s 1971 tale, based on the legend of Elizabeth Báthory. Ingrid Pitt plays the widowed countess rejuvenated by virgins’ blood, and Nigel Green her accomplice and lover, Captain Dobi. Indignity is a theme and, for Pitt, a reality: her role was dubbed, and she never spoke to director Peter Sasdy again.
Mark Kermode says: “A bona fide screen icon, at the very height of her dark powers.”
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Director Val Guest
When the USA and Russia simultaneously test atomic bombs, the Earth is knocked off its axis and set on a collision course with the sun. Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), a washed-up Daily Express reporter, breaks the story and sets about investigating the government cover-up. With strong performances (Leo McKern is a standout), a vivid depiction of the world of newspaper journalism and extensive location shooting on the streets of London, Val Guest delivers one of the best British sci-fi films.
Mark Kermode says: “Today, the film may seem almost quaint, but it’s as captivating as ever.”
Dead Ringers (1988)
Director David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s multi-award-winning psychological thriller explores the bizarre lives of identical twins, Elliot and Beverly, both played by Jeremy Irons. World-renowned gynaecologists, the twins share everything from their clinic to their women, until they meet Claire (Geneviève Bujold). Beverly falls in love with her, and a schism develops between the brothers for the first time.
Mark Kermode says: “It’s not the visual effects that dazzle, the real magic is in the performances, with Jeremy Irons using the Alexander technique to give Elliot and Beverly different stances, different energy points… The result is overwhelming, at times horrifying, but mostly heartbreaking.”
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)
Director Terence Davies
Set in a world before Elvis, a Liverpool before the Beatles, Terence Davies’ debut feature is a remarkable evocation of working-class family life in the 1940s and 50s and a visionary exploration of memory. Davies’ poetic masterpiece has now acquired the status of a modern British classic.
Mark Kermode says: “Described at one point as ‘a forgotten masterpiece’, Distant Voices Still Lives has grown in stature over the years, and in 2011 it was voted the third best British film in a survey conducted by TimeOut magazine, beaten only by Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.”
Director Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos’ frighteningly relevant but mordantly witty look at a dysfunctional Greek family offers a brilliant if deeply disturbing analysis of the power dynamics of parent-child relationships. Highly original and insightful in its narrative details, and directed with an impressively cool, almost mechanical precision, the film was greeted as a breakthrough in Greek filmmaking.
Mark Kermode says: “Balancing astute social commentary with absurd tragi-comedy, Dogtooth has been read as a dissection of Greek society, both personal and political. Lanthimos retains a Lynchian quality of refusing to discuss his work, saying that, ‘If I wanted to discuss social problems I would have become a writer, but I am a filmmaker it is all I can do’.”
The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Director Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway became a director of international status with this witty, stylised and erotic country house murder mystery. In an apparently idyllic 17th-century Wiltshire, an ambitious draughtsman is commissioned by the wife of an aristocrat to produce 12 drawings of her husband’s estate and negotiates terms to include sexual favours from his employer. Extravagant costumes, a twisting plot, elegantly barbed dialogue and a mesmerising score by Michael Nyman make the film a treat for ear, eye and mind.
Mark Kermode says: “It is weirdly wonderful, from Nyman’s Purcell-influenced score to Sue Blane’s eye-catching costumes. Most importantly the film shows a unique talent getting to grips with narrative cinema that is as engaging and alluring as it is baffling and perplexing.”
The Elephant Man (1980)
Director David Lynch
John Hurt, unrecognisable beneath the makeup, delivers a tender performance as the severely deformed Joseph Merrick, rescued by Anthony Hopkins’ kindly surgeon from the hell of a circus sideshow to a more genteel world of scientific enquiry. David Lynch’s sensitive study of disability and difference was shot in lustrous black and white by veteran cinematographer and ex-Hammer director Freddie Francis.
Mark Kermode says: “There was nothing John Hurt couldn’t do, but it is a role in which his famous face was all but hidden and his mellifluous voice almost unrecognisable that ironically garnered some of his greatest reviews.”
Director Antonia Bird
Robert Carlyle and Ray Winstone star in a stylish and exciting crime thriller from acclaimed director Antonia Bird (Safe, Priest). A close-knit gang of professional thieves plan an intricate heist but begin to turn on each other when things go wrong.
Mark Kermode says: “A cracking but often overlooked crime thriller from 1997, featuring a sharp script, a stellar cast, and a dynamite soundtrack. Directed by Antonia Bird, Face one of the UK’s most versatile and sorely missed filmmakers, Face is an ace heist-gone-wrong thriller that was correctly hailed by London’s Time Out magazine as a ‘muscular, raw and aggressive slice of vividly authentic populist cinema.’”
Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Not a shot is wasted in this bold reworking of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), which unfolds with gripping simplicity: one evening in Munich, an elderly cleaning lady (Brigitte Mira) escapes from the rain into a bar frequented by immigrants. To her surprise, the jukebox plays an old German tango and a handsome young Moroccan (El Hedi ben Salem) asks her to dance…
Mark Kermode says: “Sit back and experience a film that seems even more relevant today than it did in 1974.”
Director Werner Herzog
One of Werner Herzog’s most acclaimed and audacious films, Fitzcarraldo tells the incredible story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (played by Herzog regular Klaus Kinski), an opera-loving fortune hunter who dreams of bringing opera (specifically Caruso) to a remote trading post on the heart of the Peruvian jungle.
Mark Kermode says: “‘I live my life or end my life with this project’, declared Herzog, and he wasn’t kidding. No wonder Fitzcarraldo remains such an overwhelming experience.”
Director Ishiro Honda
The original Godzilla is arguably the definitive monster movie – both a bold metaphor for the atomic age and a thrilling powerhouse of pioneering special effects. It stars Takashi Shimura as the revered palaeontologist who uncovers the horrible secret at the heart of the monster, a long dormant Jurassic beast awoken by the atom bomb. Don’t miss the film that instilled Japan – and the world – with an unquenchable appetite for destruction.
Mark Kermode says: “While the scenes of destruction viscerally recall the destruction of America’s nuclear strikes, the dialogue offers a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the guilty responsibilities of scientific advancements… reveal in the mastery of this superb creature feature.”
Director Bruno Dumont
Céline, a young novice nun, is rejected by her convent as is attracted by the conviction and charisma of a Muslim religious teacher and activist in this provocative drama from Bruno Dumont (Camille Claudel 1915). Recalling the work of Robert Bresson, Hadewijch is an uncompromising film with an ending that will provide much debate among viewers. Exploring the themes of city and country, faith and fanaticism, it’s a unique and powerful study.
Mark Kermode says: “Make no mistake, Hadewijch is not for everyone, but if you are looking for something different, it’s challenging, arresting and thought-provoking fare.”
Hands of the Ripper (1971)
Director Peter Sasdy
In Edwardian London, a series of gruesome murders match those of the Whitechapel Ripper, revealing an unlikely suspect. Hammer’s second stab at the Ripper (after 1949’s Room To Let) is an atmospheric curiosity anchored by its star. Angharad Rees gives depth and colour to the role of Anna, the young woman exploited by her twisted guardian (Dora Bryan), a medium haunted by visions of infamous Victorian killer. Peter Sasdy made this a particularly bloody affair, with results that still shock over four decades later.
Mark Kermode: “For all the film’s shortcomings, Sadsy brings a dash of Argento-esque style to the increasing splatter, ensuring that the hands of the Ripper continue to grip audiences even today.”
Highway Patrolman (1991)
Director Alex Cox
Highway Patrolman charts the harrowing transition from idealism to grim realism in an intense and brilliantly played character study that offers a fascinating and gritty insight into corruption and embittered disillusionment. Alex Cox’s Spanish-language film remains a high-point in an undervalued career, and it’s ahead of its time too, anticipating the wave of Mexican crime and corruption films that would follow in the 21st century.
Mark Kermode says: “A Mexican drama from British director Alex Cox, who made his name with the cult classic Repo Man, and cemented his reputation as the new rose of post-punk cinema with Sid & Nancy. It was described by the Los Angeles Times in 1991 as ‘Cox’s finest film to date.’”
Immoral Tales (1974)
Director Walerian Borowczyk
Walerian Borowczyk presents a history of sexual taboos, comprising four stories around unmentionable practices such as incest, bloodlust and bestiality that recur throughout history. Featuring historic characters such as Lucrezia Borgia and Erzsébet Báthory, Immoral Tales was considered an affront to decency upon its release, scandalising the London Film Festival in 1973 and becoming mired in censorship controversies for much of the decade.
Mark Kermode says: “Today it remains divisive, with scholars referring to it as Borowczyk’s least substantial work while others succumb to its bawdy pleasures. Art or exploitation? Watch it and decide for yourself.”
Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)
Directors James Franco, Travis Mathews
James Franco and Travis Mathews recreate explicit footage cut, and rumoured to be lost, from one of the most notorious features ever made – Cruising (1980), starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover to hunt out a serial killer preying on New York’s homosexual S&M community. Inspired by the mythology of this controversial film, the directors explore the limits of sexual and creative freedom.
Mark Kermode says: “Interior. Leather Bar. is not for everyone, but for anyone fascinated by Friedkin’s cause celebre it is by turns infuriating, indulgent and intriguing.”
The Ipcress File (1965)
Director Sidney J. Furie
Living a low-key life in a London bedsit, and happier whipping up an omelette than whipping out his pistol, Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) was altogether a new breed of secret agent – a million miles away from the elitist ethos of James Bond. In this splendidly understated 1960s spy thriller, with a terrific John Barry soundtrack, Palmer can’t trust anybody, as he tracks down a traitor within his own department.
Mark Kermode says: “By 1999, it was ranking at number 59 in the BFI’s Top 100 list of Best British Films of the century, ahead of classics like The Dam Busters, Passport to Pimlico, Oliver, Hope and Glory, and The Wicker Man. Watch the film and see why.”
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Director Alfred Hitchcock
When an old woman (Dame May Whitty) goes missing on a train from Switzerland, a British girl (Margaret Lockwood) is convinced there has been foul play, but all the other passengers deny having ever seen her in Alfred Hitchcock’s hugely enjoyable comedy thriller. Director Francois Truffaut, a huge admirer of Hitchcock, named The Lady Vanishes as his favourite film by the master of suspense.
Mark Kermode says: “So successful was The Lady Vanishes that it persuaded the producer David O. Selznick to sign up the director for a seven-year contract, sending Hitchcock to Hollywood where he would make some of the most celebrated screen thrillers of all time.”
The Lodger (1927)
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller, about a man accused of being a serial killer, was a huge critical success upon its release in 1927, with trade journal Bioscope stating: “It is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made.” It boasts many staples of Hitchcock’s later work, including the themes of murder and suspicion, an obsession with blonde women and Hitchcock’s first ever cameo (as a newspaper editor).
Mark Kermode says: “The film offers early evidence of the director’s longstanding association between sex and murder, ecstasy and death, introducing fetishistic tropes that would become defining moves in Vertigo and Psycho.”
Director Barbet Schroeder
A young innocent falls for a leather-clad dominatrix in Barbet Schroeder’s controversial film, at once a conventional love story and a dark study of fetishism. It stars Gerard Depardieu as Olivier, the young innocent who falls for the mysterious maitresse Ariane (Bulle Ogier). Only released at the time in a handful of club cinemas in 1981, the film was cut by almost five minutes and finally awarded an X certificate. This fully uncut version was first passed in 2003.
Mark Kermode says: “When the film first came before the BBFC in 1976 it was banned outright, with one examiner noting that, ‘this sort of depiction of sexual pathology goes way beyond what we can certificate for showing in a public cinema…’ Yet that same examining conceded that ‘the film is very well made, with good acting performances from two of France’s leading stars…’ but concluded ‘…opulent excrescence, for all its glitter, remains excrescence.’”
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directors Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
First mooted as a project to foster an improvement in Anglo-American relations, Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death emerged as a timeless romantic fantasy. David Niven plays Peter Carter, a young airman seemingly doomed before his time and trapped between life and death, between a Technicolor Earth and a monochrome heaven.
Mark Kermode says: “Breathtaking cinematography from Jack Cardiff, superb locations work at places like Saunton Sands in Devon, and an intriguing camera obscura subplot featuring the photophilic themes that would appear in Powell’s later film Peeping Tom, all combine to make this an utterly flawless classic.”
Le Mépris (1963)
Director Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard’s sardonic look at the world of filmmaking boasts superb performances by Michel Piccoli as a compromised writer, Brigitte Bardot as his bored wife, Jack Palance as a manipulative producer and Fritz Lang as himself, about to film Homer’s Odyssey in Cinecittà and Capri. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork and Georges Delerue’s music enhance the beauty and poignancy.
Mark Kermode says: “A tale of artistic compromise and marital strife, Le Mépris is a playfully self-reflexive affair, the poster of which focused on the pillowy charms of Brigitte Bardot, but which in fact offered something altogether edgier, more angular and anarchic.”
Director Bong Joon-ho
A widow (Kim Hye-ja) resides with her mentally challenged son (Won Bin) in a small South Korean town, where she scrapes out a living selling medicinal herbs. Mother and son are plunged into a nightmare when the body of a murdered young girl is discovered. Circumstantial evidence indicates the son’s involvement, and he becomes the prime suspect during the sloppy police investigation. The fourth feature from cult director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer) is a startlingly original account of maternal feelings in all their terrifying intensity; blackly comic and exquisitely shot.
Mark Kermode says: “Having scored Korea’s biggest box-office hit with The Host, Bong wanted to do something completely different for the follow-up. From the surreal opening – from which the fate, tragedy and madness of the subsequent narrative is subtly laid out – that difference is clear and present.”
Director Werner Herzog
Reconnecting German cinema with its Weimer forebears via Murnau’s iconic Nosferatu, Herzog’s vampire film references its 1922 predecessor but has a distinctive temperament. Nosferatu, played by the stunning Klaus Kinski, is modelled on the monster of the earlier film, yet his obsession with Isabelle Adjani’s character of Lucy Harker reveals a certain pathos, even as his army of rats brings plague and delirium to a prosperous small town.
Mark Kermode says: “‘It was clear that there would never be a vampire of his calibre again’, said Herzog some years later, insisting that in four centuries to come Kinski would remain the definitive embodiment of this mythical creature. Well, we may only be four decades away from Herzog’s Nosferatu, but so far Kinski still looks unsurpassable.”
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s beautifully photographed tale explores the religious intolerance and familial tensions within a Danish farming family. Based on a 1932 play by Danish playwright and Lutheran country priest Kaj Munk (1898-1944), Ordet is a tale of miraculous resurrection brought about by human love. Dreyer achieves its powerful effects in deceptively simple ways, and has produced, in its closing moments, one of the most extraordinary scenes in all cinema.
Mark Kermode says: “A hit with the public and the critics alike, Ordet won the Golden Lion at Venice, shared a Golden Globe for foreign language film and is one of the highlights of the Dreyer collection on BFI Player Plus.”
Director Abel Ferrara
Written and directed by cult filmmaker Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant, Welcome to New York), this dark, daring drama tells the story of the fateful final days of the controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Starring Willem Dafoe (The Last Temptation of Christ) as the great auteur, Pasolini is a powerful and evocative look into the dark world of one of film’s most controversial figures, as seen through the eyes of one of modern cinema’s most surprising directors.
Mark Kermode says: “The blend of politics, religion and blow jobs is pure catnip for Ferrara, although those not versed in the controversy surrounding Sálo might want to do a little background reading to fully appreciate what is going on… This show belongs to Ferrara and Dafoe, both of who seem besotted with a bygone age, in which a filmmaker promoting his new movie could talk to the press about philosophy, poetry and politics and the whole world would listen.”
Peeping Tom (1960)
Director Michael Powell
Much criticised at the time of its release, Michael Powell’s psychological study of a shy camera technician, who films for his home movies the death throes of the women he kills, is now widely regarded as a dark classic. Less a straightforward serial-killer thriller than a Freudian meditation on how and why we watch movies, it is rich in its thematic resonance – and in in-jokes about the film world.
Mark Kermode says: “With its lurid Eastman coloured hues, and its daringly confrontational POV camera work, Peeping Tom remains a startling uncomfortable watch to this day. Watch, but be warned: to do so is dangerous.”
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Director Stephen Frears
A celebration of outrageous British playwright Joe Orton’s irreverent and charismatic talent, starring Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as his lover, Kenneth Halliwell. It is the controversial story of one of the young turks of the 1960s – from working class boy to national celebrity, from sexual innocent to grinning satyr, from penniless student to peer of the Beatles and icon of London’s swinging 60s. Orton made his success by mocking the rules of the establishment and lived his life ignoring them.
Mark Kermode says: “Having already earned plaudits for My Beautiful Laundrette, director Stephen Frears would go on to helm such hits as Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and Philomena. But this early hit remains one of his best works – rich, ribald and worthy of repeat viewing.”
Radio On (1979)
Director Chris Petit
Chris Petit’s cult classic is one of the most striking feature debuts in British cinema – a haunting blend of edgy mystery story and existential road movie, crammed with eerie evocations of English landscape and weather. Stunningly photographed in monochrome by Wim Wenders’ assistant cameraman Martin Schäfer, Radio On is driven by a startling new wave soundtrack featuring David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Lene Lovich, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Robert Fripp and Devo, and reveals an early screen performance by Sting.
Mark Kermode says: “Radio On is a genuine British classic, which perfectly captures the unsettling architecture both cultural and physical of country seen through the windscreen of a two-tone vintage Rover.”
Director Akira Kurosawa
Credited with bringing Japanese cinema to worldwide audiences, Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough tells the story of a murder in the woods from four differing perspectives. With its snaking bolero-like score and poetic use of dappled forest light, Rashomon is a work of enduring ambiguity.
Mark Kermode says: “As the various stories unfold we come to question what is true and what is false, and whether darkness really does lurk at the heart of mankind, and whether honour may triumph over – or be defeated by – treachery.”
Red Desert (1964)
Director Michelangelo Antonioni
Antonioni’s mid-career masterpiece – his first film in colour – tells the story of Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a young woman suffering a mental and emotional crisis and embarking tentatively on an affair. Red Desert is a stunning film from the great Italian auteur, a deserving winner of the Golden Lion at the 1965 Venice Film Festival and a high point of post-war European cinema.
Mark Kermode says: “With its evocative electronic music and its startling off-kilter vistas, there is a hint of science fiction about Red Desert, where Vitti becomes the woman who fell to earth… yes, this is a world of pollution and poison, both physical and emotional. But it is also a world of fable and fantasy, of imagination and hallucination – worldly and otherworldly. Or to put it another way, it is a film by Antonioni.”
Red Road (2006)
Director Andrea Arnold
Jackie (Kate Dickie) is a CCTV operator and gets a perverse satisfaction from observing the lives of others, until one day a man from her past appears on her monitors – one whom she never wanted to see again. Now she has no alternative but to confront both the man, and the demons inside herself. Andrea Arnold’s (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) superb debut feature was voted one of the best British films of the last 25 years in a poll conducted by The Observer’s Film Quarterly.
Mark Kermode says: “Despite diverse comparisons with the cruelty of Michael Haneke, the social realism of the Dardenne brothers and the visual poetry of Lynne Ramsay, Arnold’s style is distinctively her own and has continued to grow through her subsequent, critically acclaimed features, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights and, most recently, American Honey.”
The Red Shoes (1948)
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Described by Martin Scorsese as “the movie that plays in my heart”, and a direct influence on Kate Bush, who was attracted by its portrayal of crazed passion, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film is a moving masterpiece. Moira Shearer stars as a ballerina torn between her love for her husband and the strenuous demands of her art. The extraordinary 15-minute performance of the Red Shoes ballet at the film’s climax is one of the most famous sequences in British cinema.
Mark Kermode says: “The Red Shoes is a dizzying blend of dazzling dance and daring darkness.”
Rome Open City (1945)
Director Roberto Rossellini
A landmark of Italian neorealism often cited as one of the greatest films ever made, Roberto Rossellini’s portrait of life under the Nazi Occupation remains remarkable for its sheer immediacy, tension and power. Made in extraordinarily straitened circumstances immediately after the liberation of Rome, the film follows a partisan leader as he attempts to evade the Gestapo by enlisting the help of the the underground resistance.
Mark Kermode says: “Ubaldo Arata’s visceral cinematography blends the grit of reportage with the heart and soul of a drama as the people of Rome struggle with the constraints, compromises and collusion of life during wartime.”
Director José R. Larraz
The official British Palme d’Or entry at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, Symptoms is a sophisticated modern gothic horror film exploring the themes of sexual repression and psychosis. José Ramón Larraz’s dark and stylish film tells of a young woman (Lorna Heilbron) who is invited by her girlfriend (Angela Pleasence) to stay at her remote English country mansion. Events take a disturbing turn when a menacing groundskeeper (Peter Vaughan) interrupts their time together, and a woman’s body is found in the mansion’s lake.
Mark Kermode says: “Symptoms opened to rave reviews but quickly became a cult oddity rarely seen in cinemas or on TV. Only when the title flagged up as one of the BFI’s Most Wanted was the negative located by Deluxe, providing the source of a new digital transfer.”
That Sinking Feeling (1979)
Director Bill Forsyth
Before Gregory’s Girl, Bill Forsyth made this equally hilarious caper about a group of unemployed teenagers who hatch a plan to steal a job lot of stainless steel sinks. Forsyth’s authentic depiction of 1970s Glasgow youth culture makes for an unfairly neglected slice of British cinema.
Mark Kermode says: “A British comedy with more urban grit and whimsical wit than anything else that was around at the time. When it played the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1979, That Sinking Feeling became the toast of the town.”
This Filthy Earth (2001)
Director Andrew Kötting
This Filthy Earth is the story of sisters Kath and Francine, whose lives are disrupted by two men – a brutal villager greedy for the girls’ land and a gentle stranger who offers the possibility of escape. This Filthy Earth is the second feature from Andrew Kötting, whose debut film, Gallivant, won him Channel 4’s best new director award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1996.
Mark Kermode says: “Epic and untamable, Kötting’s films have rarely obtained commercial success. Despite early rave reviews, he has shown no interest in working within the mainstream, preferring instead to plough his own field. Thank God, as This Filthy Earth demonstrates that cinema needs more filmmakers cut from Kötting’s uncompromising cloth.”
Director Anthony Asquith
Underground tells the story of the lives and loves of four young working people in 1920s London. Parallels with life in the metropolis today are poignant, and it is fascinating to see the locations – the pubs, shops and underground – in which the drama unfolds. It’s assured filmmaking with the occasional impressive flourish – a trademark of Anthony Asquith’s directorial style.
Mark Kermode says: “This is a film that I want you to watch with your ears, an early 20th-century silent, with a superb 21st-century score by the incomparable Neil Brand.”
Director Joanna Hogg
On a Tuscan break a fortysomething woman finds herself unable to socialise with her adult peers and is instead drawn to the company of a group of partying teens, including a young Tom Hiddleston (in one of his earliest roles). But after discovering she can never really be part of either group, she undergoes a deep existential crisis. With its unusual and unapologetic focus on the lives of the middle classes, the debut film from Joanna Hogg (Archipelago, Exhibition) heralded the arrival of a major new British talent.
Mark Kermode says: “With just three films in a decade, Hogg is hardly prolific, but her style is acute, incisive, so utterly distinctive that all her features are worth the wait.”
La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds) (1972)
Director Barbet Schroeder
When Viviane (Bulle Ogier), a chic young diplomat’s wife, meets an intriguing adventurer (Michael Gothard) and his hippy friends in the wilds of Papua New Guinea, different worlds collide. Barbet Schroeder’s striking second feature explores the limits of experience and freedom, journeying into the Great Unknown accompanied by Pink Floyd’s especially composed soundtrack, later released as the album Obscured By Clouds. The film is an authentic tribute to the liberating spirit of adventure.
Mark Kermode says: “It has a far more cynical attitude towards its colonial adventures than some critics give it credit for. Watch the film for yourself and ask yourself, ‘Can you see the valley?’”
One thought on “Mark Kermode: 50 films every film fan should watch”
With all due respect to a fellow film critic who makes a far better living at it than I, this is a great big slab of baloney.