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Charlatan (Agnieszka Holland, 2020)

The Czech Republic’s submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Oscars, Charlatan comes from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, a veteran filmmaker known for movie and TV work made across wildly different countries and cultures. Her previous feature, the largely English-language Mr Jones, followed a Welsh journalist uncovering an international conspiracy in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Charlatan is also inspired by a real-life figure falling foul of forces in power, this time self-taught herbalist and faith healer, Jan Mikolášek…

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The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

Released the same year as her film The Bigamist, 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker would be one of Ida Lupino’s final features in the directing chair, ahead of a prolific career working in television. When working in front of the camera, the actor-turned-director appeared in a number of notable noir thrillers, including the prior year’s On Dangerous Ground, which she also co-directed (uncredited) for a few days when Nicholas Ray fell ill. The Hitch-Hiker is widely regarded as the first American film noir to be directed by a woman…

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The Babysitter: Killer Queen (McG, 2020)

In humour and topsy-turvy aesthetic, McG’s The Babysitter proved a surprise word-of-mouth success for Netflix. It was bolstered by a few key notes of merit. The first is that it was undeniably a crucial stepping stone for the star ascent of Samara Weaving, whose first major American role – at least in terms of filming date, more on that later – was as the eponymous character, a loving guardian for nervous pre-teen Cole (Judah Lewis) who turns out to actually be the leader of a devil-worshipping cult, looking to use her innocent ward’s blood for a ritual that will supposedly grant one’s deepest desires.

Second was a theoretically interesting theme concerning how, to kids on the cusp of puberty, older teenagers can have this air of terror, intrigue and incomprehensibility about them that is hypnotising – part of how Cole gets himself into the mess he does is because he wants to see what cool babysitter Bee gets up to with her friends when he’s supposed to be asleep.

Third, peppered throughout The Babysitter was a genuinely quite sweet subplot about Cole’s developing relationship with his best friend and neighbour Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind). In the final half hour of The Babysitter, Cole flees to Melanie’s house as Bee fires at him with a shotgun she swiped while disposing of a cop car and the bodies of two police officers her crew killed. Melanie’s own father is reportedly away on a date with a “protestant”, so, with no adults around to defend them, the pair end up hiding from Bee trying to find them in Melanie’s house.

Once she’s left, Cole tries to make sure Melanie is safe before he goes back to his house to face Bee and his fears. Melanie kisses him, telling him: “Just because she’s a psychopath doesn’t mean women are evil.” Boosted by this romantic development and Melanie’s suggestion they should make out next time, Cole heads back and takes out the remainder of the cult. This includes returning to swipe Melanie’s dad’s car to drive into both Bee and his own house, something the film shows Melanie supporting both as and after it happens.

Fast forward to The Babysitter: Killer Queen, the 2020 sequel with a title that seems to have been chosen on the basis of whatever the most expensive song on the soundtrack was, rather than much to do with the story. Despite two police officers called to the scene that night going missing (you’d think that would be a big deal), no one in the film’s world believes anything about Cole’s account of the first film’s events, except for Melanie who at least witnessed Bee brandishing a shotgun around her house.

A more fantastical film that confirms all the ritual business is real, Killer Queen brings back practically everyone from the first outing, including the deceased cult characters played by Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Andrew Bachelor and Hana Mae Lee, who are resurrected from limbo for another chance at performing the ritual, something that can apparently only happen every two years. Samara Weaving’s Bee is also back, eventually, but since she’s become a much bigger deal of late and was filming both Bill & Ted Face the Music and the currently delayed GI Joe spin-off Snake Eyes when Killer Queen was being shot, adjustments had to be made for this direct continuation…

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Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Dario Argento, 1971)

Dario Argento’s first three features as director – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet – are commonly referred to as his “Animal Trilogy”. They are not connected by recurring story threads or characters, but by visual and thematic motifs in their mystery narratives about murder most foul, many involving voyeurism. And each of the three’s titles contains a species’ name, in case you somehow missed that…

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Amateur (Hal Hartley, 1994)

Breaking through with early features The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990) and Simple Men (1992), writer-director Hal Hartley was one of the key figures of the tail end of the 1980s/early 1990s boom of American independent cinema, alongside the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch, before that landscape became altogether different in the wake of the success of films such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Clerks (1994).

Hartley’s early tragicomic dramas – which explore such topics as class, the nature of love, and foolhardy ambition in the face of absurd reality – are immediately recognisable through the specific deadpan cadence to the dialogue and his performers’ delivery of it, whereby emotional duress or ecstatic highs are largely conveyed with a relatively expressionless affect, outside of a few select scenes. Hartley’s regular actors around that time included such talents as Martin Donovan, Edie Falco, Robert John Burke, Bill Sage and the late Adrienne Shelly. Hartley can also attest to being one of the earliest directors to regularly employ Parker Posey’s particularly unique screen presence.

Amateur (1994) is a key transitional work for Hartley. For one thing, it’s a decidedly more violent offering than anything he’d presented before; while relatively free of actual onscreen blood, multiple characters are shot and one is tortured to near-death and driven mad. Secondly, while his later studio foray and prosthetics-heavy oddity No Such Thing (2001) likely cost more, Amateur certainly looks like the most expensive film of Hartley’s career at that point, thanks to use of varied New York City locations (Long Island was his favoured locale before this) and the mere presence of a particular actor (more on that in a moment). Among the production company credits in the gorgeous opening title sequence, set to the score by Jeffrey Taylor and Hartley himself (under the pseudonym Ned Rifle), are the likes of UGC and what was then Channel Four Films (now Film4 Productions), a reflection of Hartley’s growing status as a hot commodity in European arthouse markets…

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Eyimofe (This Is My Desire) (Arie Esiri/Chuko Esiri, 2020)

The feature-length debut of directing brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri (the latter also writing the screenplay), Eyimofe – or This Is My Desire – is a Nigerian drama that acts somewhat in opposition to the country’s filmmaking output at large, both in terms of general perception overseas and the standard domestic models. Nigeria is among the world’s most prosperous film industries, putting out roughly a thousand productions a year. That said, many are made on extremely low budgets and shot within maybe a week at most. Few tend to travel outside of Africa through traditional distribution channels, nor do that many seem especially commercially minded, as it were. (For a sense of at least one major Nigerian studio’s offerings, UK viewers with Sky can watch Rok TV, which screens Rok Studios-produced films and television series 24 hours a day.)

All of this is necessary context for why Eyimofe feels so different as a project. In interviews and supplementary production notes both before and after the film’s world premiere at the 2020 Berlinale, the brothers Esiri have cited their wide-reaching influences as including Robert Altman, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Vittorio De Sica and James Joyce’s Dubliners – filmmakers and authors who notably, though not always, gravitate towards works that examine the larger spaces their characters inhabit, where the city or town itself is truly a character in the text…

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Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012)

The French title of Olivier Assayas’ 2012 film, Après mai, translates as “After May”, referring to the famous uprisings in the country during May of 1968. It was a period of revolutionary zeal that is also evoked by the film’s UK title, if one recalls the lyrics of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit single Something in the Air: “We’ve got to get together sooner or later, because the revolution’s here.”

Assayas is no stranger to the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s himself, and Something in the Air is semi-autobiographical. Rather than providing a historical exposé of the revolutionary ideals of the time, the film is instead a coming-of-age narrative set against that backdrop of demonstrations and fervour; it is more in line with a film like Dazed and Confused (1993) than any overtly politically charged work…

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Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020)

Since breaking through as a writer-director in the 1990s, with oddities such as 1994’s post-modern vampire tale Nadja, Michael Almereyda has remained one of American independent cinema’s most unpredictable creative forces. What is consistent among his recent fiction efforts – he also dabbles in documentary – is playfulness when it comes to genre or adaptation, such as in housebound sci-fi Marjorie Prime or his 2000 take on Hamlet. The latter saw Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark become the son of the newly dead CEO of Denmark Corporation in New York City, with Ethan Hawke delivering the key “to be or not to be” speech in a Blockbuster Video store.

Hamlet leads Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan reunite with Almereyda for Tesla, a freewheeling biopic of inventor Nikola Tesla (Hawke) that focuses on his antagonistic interactions with Thomas Edison (MacLachlan); his scientific developments concerning the transmission of electrical power and light; his business matters with entrepreneur George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan); and his relationship of sorts with philanthropist Anne (Eve Hewson), daughter of dominant American financier JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Some of this narrative territory was also explored in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s recent The Current War, in which Nicholas Hoult, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon and Matthew Macfadyen played Tesla, Edison, Westinghouse and Morgan, respectively. But two more different takes on ostensibly similar material you are unlikely to find…

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Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon Ho, 2000)

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has previously said in interviews that he considers his 2003 sophomore breakout Memories of Murder to be something akin to his “true” debut feature. Whether or not that has anything to do with his actual debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), underperforming financially in its home nation – and only belatedly being distributed in many international territories – is a question only the man himself, or possibly a therapist, can answer. In the US, distribution rights were only finally acquired in the summer of 2009, around the time when Bong’s Mother received rave reviews at Cannes. In the UK, Barking Dogs Never Bite played at the London Film Festival in 2000 but has otherwise never had an official release until now, a time when Bong’s star has never been higher after Parasite’s game-changing Oscars haul and global box office success…

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Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2011)

Monsieur Lazhar was Canada’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars ceremony of 2012, making it to the final five nominees but losing to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. On a surface level, that Monsieur Lazhar concerns a new teacher changing the perceptions and lives of a group of students may make it seem like an ideal, easy target to which the Academy might take a shine. Philippe Falardeau’s film, though, is a much different – and better – beast…

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