Starring: Donald Pleasance, Hugh Armstrong, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, June Turner, Clive Swift, James Cossins, Christopher Lee
Released in America under the more sensationally titled Raw Meat, Gary Sherman’s horror curio is literally an underground classic. When British horror of the early 1970’s mainly consisted of the Hammer studios struggling to break free of their gothic cycle and Amicus studios making starry US co-produced anthologies, Death Line represented a small number of UK independent films influenced by the sleazier, gorier horror of early Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (the following years would see Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren both carve out a gruesome niche in this very style). Chicago-born Gary Sherman moved to London as a commercials director, but found that the London Underground provided the perfect backdrop for his directorial feature debut. Marketed as an exploitative splatter horror, the film poster’s tagline – “Beneath modern London buried alive in its plague-ridden tunnels live a tribe of once human. Neither man nor woman, they are less than animals … they are the raw meat of the human race!” – neatly sums up the ‘lost race’ concept but is entirely misleading in respect to the film’s highly irregular narrative approach. Images of a scantily clad race of blonde zombies on the poster could not be further from the truth! So quite what audiences made of Death Line in 1972 one can only wonder, but it’s a fair guess that, depending on their taste, reactions would have ranged from baffled annoyance to joyous surprise.
Death Line is essentially split into two contrasting narratives, an overground/underground story divide as stylistically different in tone, design and direction as is possible. Firstly, overground we have the comings and goings at Russell Square tube station and a London of the early 70’s that’s not so much swinging as simmering. After some bizarre and groovy title music, two dreary 20-somethings Alex and Trisha find a man collapsed on a tube staircase and then bicker about it at length in their bed sit; a rather seedy Minister gets more than he bargained for after being rejected by a Soho prostitute; and Christopher Lee crops up as an MI5 agent for a 2-minute cameo sporting a terrible fake moustache which nevertheless bagged him a special writ-large title credit. Then there’s the wonderful horror stalwart Donald Pleasance, stealing the film as the grouchy tea-obsessed Inspector Calhoun, one of the greatest screen coppers and a clear forerunner to The Sweeney‘s Jack Regan. A gloriously eccentric performance filled with subtle ticks and quirks, Pleasance provides a much-needed comic tone to an otherwise grim and downbeat movie. In one delightful scene, the main plot is totally disregarded in favour of Pleasance getting hilariously drunk in an East End boozer. Earlier, over a nice cup of tea Inspector Calhoun is informed of a Victorian-era accident which trapped a number of men and women deep in the underground. Then with a sharp jump cut the film takes a startling turn …
In an astonishing 7-minute tracking shot, the camera slowly makes its way through a dark cave of unspeakable horrors. The noise of steady dripping water, a gradually increasing heartbeat and feral cries from an unseen creature accompany images of strewn decaying corpses. Eventually the camera pauses on The Man (Hugh Armstrong), a revolting wart-covered Neanderthal crying over his dying partner. The shot disappears through the damp mouldy walls, pulls back along a large disused tube tunnel and rises towards the noise of a train arriving at a busy Russell Square tube station. The sequence is an audacious side-step from the action that David Lynch would be proud of, enough for audiences to think someone had put the wrong reel in. Lingering on all the grisly details – crawling maggots, rotting flesh, pools of blood – the scene has the resolute ambition of the director stamped all over it. Later things get a whole lot nastier, as The Man drinks from the neck of a victim and gets particularly inventive with a spade. There are some truly shocking and incredibly gory attacks which were among the first of their kind in British cinema.
One of the first films to explicitly depict cannibalism, ‘The Man’ was making light work of carcasses two years before Frightmare‘s Dorothy Yates or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface. Hugh Armstrong’s compassionate performance makes The Man simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, similar to Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. He is a beast created through inhumanity and represents the fearful by-product of man’s own negligence. Apart from a series of wails and whimpers, The Man’s only words are the anguished repetitive cry of ‘MIND THE DOORS’, presumably the only words he has heard from above, which is both chilling and imbued with pathos. The film’s macabre eye for detail earned it a hardened fan base, including Guillermo Del Toro, who declared at a 2002 Lincoln Centre Horror season that it was one of his all-time favourites. Death Line even became respectable when it won the inaugural Golden Scroll award from the Academy of Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. In 2000 a panel of critics named Death Line as one of the ‘Ten Most Important British Horror Films of the 20th Century”.
Death Line could be described as slight and underdeveloped, clocking in at a mere 84 minutes, but as an exercise in brutal and unusual horror it can’t easily be dismissed. An essential film for any horror fan looking for something extraordinary – and verging on arthouse – beyond the canonical classics. It’s certainly enough to make you look twice next time you’re on the Piccadilly line!
Starring John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Terry-Thomas
The word cool just doesn’t do justice to Danger: Diabolik. It’s an uber-cool cult classic. If Danger: Diabolik is Dino De Laurentiis’ sibling movie to his own Barbarella from the same year, then it’s a trendier and wiser younger brother. After a run of mould-breaking and influential horror films, Mario Bava used his expert craftmanship to perfectly capture many popular traits of late-1960’s cinema: the spy thriller, the heist movie, exploitative sex and violence, and colourful escapism. Far from being euro trash, Danger: Diabolik is sublime pop art. It’s the Citizen Kane of hip psychotronic cinema, a comparison that isn’t quite as daft as it first sounds – Bava’s inventive, experimental and influential techniques have more in common with Orson Welles than one might imagine. For example, Diabolik’s underground lair, largely created through stunning matte paintings and subtle framing, is completely in the spirit of Welles’ audacious design for Kane’s Xanadu. Adapted from the popular Italian fumetti comic featuring the iconic anti-hero Diabolik, Bava succeeds in recreating the visual pace of the comic strip with cinematic flair. Clearly aware that the art of the comic book panel is to capture movement and emotional intensity in a still image, Bava injects every shot with a similar sense of depth and perspective, and every cut with the same dramatic urgency. His famously resourceful use of a small budget is remarkable – the impressive sets rival You Only Live Twice, tremendous underwater sequences are the equal of Thunderball, but all are filmed for a pittance of the Bond budget.
Contemporary critics assumed that Danger: Diabolik was stylistically informed by the high camp of the Batman TV series (ABC 1966 – 68), but in fact the two have little in common beyond the obvious comic book source and the paranoid city bureaucrats akin to Gotham City. But whilst Batman is unabashedly campy and a clear-cut good vs evil duel, Diabolik goes way beyond camp, acknowledging and relishing its own extravagances to the point of satire (30 years before Austin Powers foolishly thought it was clever to parody what was already a parody) and ploughing a far more subversive, morally skewed path. The character of Diabolik represents the archetype of the European criminal as a heroic figure. Unlike the victorious and moralistic American super-heroes, post-war Italy had a healthy cynicism for government and capitalism, and by the 1960’s Diabolik filled the need for a counterculture anti-hero who goes so far as to destroy all government buildings representing funding and taxation. Also noteworthy, whilst USA superheroes live with their butlers or etch out respectable careers as journalists, Diabolik proves that bad guys have more fun, revelling in his hedonistic lifestyle of casual sex and violence.
Danger: Diabolik fully embraces the late 60’s counter-culture ethos, with its attacks on materialistic pleasures and desire to bring down the state. In a perfect visual rendering of both these ideas, after Diabolik has stolen $10 million in bank notes from the government, he simply uses the money to make love in – and on a revolving love nest too! Diabolik is avarice personified and crucially he doesn’t even have an alter-ego – when Diabolik removes his mask he is still Diabolik, hungry for the gratification of sex or wealth and living the life of a decadent hermit. But there’s a doomed loneliness to the life of Diabolik and Eva Kant (his icy blonde sexpot companion), living in luxury but still living a trapped existence separate from any form of society. They’re like Bonnie and Clyde, only less rounded and charismatic! The criminals here are a vapid and humourless pair, almost enough to make one root for the police – if they weren’t so inept. As such, the moral tone of Danger: Diabolik is a confusing one – neither the good or bad guys illicit any real compassion, but one thing’s for sure: dislikeable people committing horrendous acts (even mass terrorism) has never been so much fun!
The late John Phillip Law (fresh from Barbarella) presents the hardest working pair of eyebrows in the business, his somewhat limited acting style finding its perfect arena here with a deliberately over-egged performance as Diabolik. This is, after all, not a film concerned with ‘acting’ but of actors inhabiting cut-and-paste characters with vim and vigour. Michel Piccoli, better know for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel, may have been paying the rent with this one but gives an enjoyable performance as the head of police obsessively hunting down the elusive master criminal. Ennio Morricone’s score is a connoisseurs delight, an absolutely terrific mix of psychedelic pop and his own unique orchestration of wails and jangling guitars as heard in the Leone westerns. The main theme “Deep Deep Down” is the sexy equal of any Bond theme and “Valmont’s GoGo Pad” captures the hippy zeitgeist as well as “Age Of Aquarius” despite its illegible lyrics! One of the great tragedies of cinema is that the soundtrack never received an official release, all master tapes having been destroyed in a studio fire.
Danger: Diabolik is also an incredibly kinky film, its euro trash leanings perhaps allowing it to flirt dangerously where other mainstream spy movies could only dream – its fetishistic costumes, explicit drug use and sexual abandon being enough to make even James Bond think “that’s a bit much!” Like all Italian films of this era, the slightly off dubbing contributes greatly to films otherworldly aesthetic. There’s a bizarre mix of beautiful Italian locales, a central US dollar monetary system and the very British Terry-Thomas as Minister Of Finance – yes, the unspecified world of Danger: Diabolik could only exist in an internationally co-financed sixties caper movie!
Just as Diabolik’s fate is to be trapped in a mould of molten gold, so the film is a 24-carat encapsulation of a wild and exuberant age of cinema. It represents the zenith (and last gasp) of colourful 1960’s escapism, filled with extravagant sixties fashion and design, before the 1970’s brought with it an earthier, more naturalistic style and a darker realism across all film genres. Even in 1968 the film was not a massive hit, the far more serious tone of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes heralding a new level of earnest fantasy that must have made Danger: Diabolik look all the more lightweight and frivolous. Only in retrospect can the film’s significant place in sixties pop culture be fully recognised. Time has been more than kind to it, revealing new pleasures of euro-cool kitsch and iconic pulp fiction with each passing year. The film literally ends with the largest wink to an audience imaginable, followed by the most deliriously maniacal laughter ever heard in a film. Diabolik gets the last laugh, in every conceivable sense.
Smarter, funnier, sexier and more knowing than any of its contemporaries or forerunners (Bond, Batman, Flint, Powers, and all subsequent superhero movies). The greatest comic book film ever made? Deep down, you know it is.
Very much a forgotten gem of British Cinema and a masterclass in sharp observational drama, The Ploughman’s Lunch captured the caustic nature of Thatcher’s Britain during the Falklands war like no other film, and found critical appreciation both at the cinema and as part of Channel 4’s inaugural Film On 4 season. The film also became famous for surreptitiously filming scenes against the backdrop of the 1982 Conservative Party conference in Brighton, similar to the use of the Democratic National Convention backdrop in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), even including footage of Margaret Thatcher’s speech.
Jonathan Pryce stars as the ambitious BBC radio journalist James Penfield, who has been commissioned to write a book on the 1956 Suez crisis at the same time as the Falklands War begins to dominate media coverage. During his research Penfield pursues the equally odious Susan in order to get assistance from her mother Ann Barrington (the excellent Rosemary Harris), a noted historian, who he eventually sleeps with in order to secure the fate of his book. Pryce’s compelling performance makes his sullen and pointedly unsympathetic character difficult to take your eyes off, despite being one of the most selfish leading men ever put on screen.
Ian McKewan’s script is unsurprisingly thorough and novelistic in its use of recurring themes and acutely observed characterisation. The prominent theme is the manipulation of truth – in the selective rewriting of history (the Suez Crisis), media coverage (Penfield dictates radio news scripts), and most devastatingly, the rewriting of one’s own history and personality. For example, Penfield is ashamed of his working-class parents, telling people they are dead. The film’s bleakest scenes show him grudgingly visiting them and showing no compassion for his mother’s terminal illness. Similarly deceptive, Ann’s marriage to Advert Director Matthew Fox (Frank Finlay) is a sham, existing for purely economic reasons. Matthew’s own arena of advertising is of course built on fabrications, as his character explains that the titular Ploughman’s Lunch is nothing more than a marketing trick, a 1950’s invention dressed up as an archaically traditional meal.
The Ploughman’s Lunch succeeds in making its thoroughly unlikable set of characters incredibly watchable. Like peering into a nest of vipers, the film reveals a morally and emotionally bankrupt British media – a rot which the film projects throughout the whole of society. Every scene and almost every character displays a soulless self-interest, offering a doomed vision of a country heading towards total ethical deterioration. Richard Eyre’s direction gives events a moody grey outlook and, in one stunning sequence when Penfield stumbles across a protest camp in a Norfolk airbase, there’s an almost apocalyptic feel to the landscape.
The Ploughman’s Lunch is the kind of film that forces the viewer to dig deeper, each viewing uncovering new subtleties in theme and characterisation. A cynical, severe and intelligent drama, given its concepts of moral decay at the heart of media, politics and society, perhaps it’s the right time for The Ploughman’s Lunch to find a new audience – it’s clearly as relevant now as it was in 1983.
Describing himself in a 1969 TV Times interview, Dennis Price wryly said he was “very nearly Britain’s biggest film star”. By the late 1960’s, after experiencing 30 years of ups and downs in British films, Price had seen all too clearly how haphazard the life of a “movie star” could be. For my money, Dennis Price is up there with Olivier, Richardson and Guinness (more on him later!) as the consummate British actor, but he is now almost a forgotten name, certainly a neglected one, even among film buffs. The reasons are many fold and pretty much a textbook example of a tragic film career. A brief look through his film roles offer possible answers as to why he is such a forgotten star, but they also remind us how he was one of the greatest actors of his generation.
His first film role could hardly have been any grander – a starring part in the excellent 1944 war drama A Canterbury Tale from the prodigious Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, which sees Price in thoroughly serious acting mode, hiding the naturally dry comic style with which he became known. The film was not a box office hit but is now regarded as one in a number of Powell & Pressburger classics. But the Dennis Price of this era seemed just another in a line of dashing leading men appearing in slushy melodramas that were ten a penny from Gainsborough studios, albeit with some good performance notices. But his leading role in The Bad Lord Byron (1949) didn’t even have those and met with a critical backlash, halting any chances of a move to Hollywood.
Then things took a turn with Kind Hearts And Coronets, the film that if anything Price is today best remembered for. His role as the devilishly suave psychopath Louis Mazzini showed how charismatic and funny Price could be. But he was cast against a certain Alec Guinness, appearing chameleon like as no fewer than eight members of the doomed D’Asgoyne family, a feat which largely stole the film’s plaudits. But Price’s performance in the film is absolutely pitch-perfect, a model of ruthless manipulation and cruel composure, surveying his victims as obstructive nuisances to be neatly swept aside. Despite his top billing, and being arguably Price’s best film and best role, Kind Hearts And Coronets is now only ever referred to today as the ‘classic Ealing black comedy” or ‘the film where Alec Guinness plays eight parts’. Another false start, it seemed. Price never made another Ealing comedy and Guinness went on to star in another four before launching an international career. Price seemed to make do with lesser comedies such as Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) and a run of B-movie crime thrillers.
Thanks to the Boulting Brothers, Price finally got another slickly diabolical role to get his teeth into with Private’s Progress (1956). Sharing top-billing with Richard Attenborough, Price’s performance as the corrupt Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel simply oozes ‘dispicable bounder’ from every pore. Invited to reprise the role in the landmark sequel, I’m All Right Jack in 1959, Price more than holds his own in a cast of British comedy goliaths: Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Irene Handl and Margaret Rutherford. But once again, Price’s role is somewhat neglected, given the stellar cast, the fact that the wonderful Ian Carmichael pretty much dominates the action and, like Guinness in 1949, Peter Sellers won all the plaudits in 1959. Price provided sterling support in many comedies from this British golden age – in The Naked Truth (again with Sellers and T-T), School For Scoundrels (with T-T and Carmichael), Double Bunk and What A Carve Up! (both with Sid James), and Go To Blazes (1962), but these roles were often all too throwaway and barely did his talent justice.
The 1960’s showed Price making a number of brief pit stops with stardom, mostly in notable supporting roles. In 1960 he was Sophia Loren’s analyst in The Millionairess (again with Sellers), but then the same year Tunes Of Glory presented a rare chance for Price to combine his persona of inscrutable upper-class cad with his some real dramatic meat. But yet again his role is somewhat obscured, given that the film is essentially a two-hander between John Mills and Alec Guinness (who actually used his considerable clout to make sure Price was cast, clearly demonstrating a professional respect Guinness had for him). It’s well worth revisiting Tunes Of Glory to take in Price’s delicate and subtle performance. The following year he gave what many considered a deeply personal performance as an actor blackmailed over his homosexuality in the controversial drama Victim, with Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. A small role but an effective one, contemporary critics have made much about how Price’s own homosexuality informed the part, which no doubt it did, but more striking is how it perhaps laid bare Price’s own insecurities about the trappings of fame and the fragile nature of success.
A late career upturn took place with the role of Jeeves in the BBC’s The World Of Wooster (1965 – 67) but sadly recordings of the show barely exist today. Continued financial troubles forced Price to become a tax exile on the island of Sark in 1967, making it hard for him to accept regular work. So it’s always a bonus to see Price briefly crop up in some good comedies of this era – The Magic Christian (1969), Some Will Some Won’t (1970) and The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer (1970). For the last few years of this life however, Price fell into something of an undignified trough and many a cult horror fan will recognize him for his many bit parts in a whole range of horror films – from the half-decent Twins Of Evil, the enjoyably bad Haunted House Of Horror and Horror Hospital, the below-par for Hammer Horror Of Frankenstein, to the downright awful Tower Of Evil and Vampiros Lesbos! One of his last roles was a good one though, as a bitchy theatre critic in the deliciously over-the-top Theatre Of Blood (1973), but Price died of heart failure after a hip fracture and a long battle with alcoholism before the film’s release.
So Dennis Price, one of the great underrated British film stars? There are a dozen film roles which stand as testament to his huge talent and natural gift for comedy, a handful of striking dramatic roles, and a flurry of enjoyable supporting turns. But perhaps he never fulfilled the potential he displayed in Kind Hearts And Coronets. Although did he ever really hunger after the role of revered leading man? As he once admitted, with sharp self-awareness: “I am a second-rate feature actor. I am not a star and never was. I lack the essential spark, you see.” Of course, he was quite wrong about the spark.
Recommended reading: Elliot J. Huntley’s excellent and thorough Dennis Price: A Tribute – The Life And Death of Dennis Price, which had a limited print run but it’s well worth tracking down a copy.
And the five greatest films of the decade are …
5 Hidden (2005)
A bewildering puzzle of a film, as well as a disturbing and gripping thriller, Michael Haneke dissects both bourgeoisie society and cinematic voyeurism in his greatest film to date. Mysterious videotapes sent to the home of TV host Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), contain endless footage of the outside of their house filmed from a hidden static camera, ultimately forcing Georges to confront terrible secrets from his past. Not only a tragic personal story of a man stalked by his past, Haneke also offers a scathing attack on a self-satisfied intellectual class who share and deny a buried collective guilt, explicitly referring to the massacre of Algerians in 1961, but the idea applies on a more general level. Hidden sustains its incredible disturbing tension throughout, so that when one particularly horrible scene arrives, it is all the more shocking. An extraordinary multi-layered thriller, with a final subtle twist in its tail.
4 Let The Right One In (2008)
A stunning romantic horror film, Let The Right One In is such a richly moving work that any genre pigeon-holing does it a disservice. This is technically and emotionally superb filmmaking, with Tomas Alfredson’s delicate capturing of time, place and character absolutely pitch perfect. In a bleak snow-drenched suburb of 1980’s Stockholm, introverted 12-year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) finds salvation from his bullying schoolmates when he develops a friendship with his young neighbour Eli (Lina Leandersson), who is actually a vampire over 200 years old. Like warm red blood melting through crisp white snow, this film will thaw any hard heart with its strange and poetic central friendship. By turns sensitive and shocking, Let The Right One In is a beautiful and frightening work of nuanced genius, where every detail matters.
3 Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Hurrah for David Lynch. Without his skewed psychological dreamscapes the cinema would be a far duller place. There’s something about Lynch’s unique off-kilter aesthetic that keeps me riveted to the screen, even in muddled but brilliant films like Lost Highway and Inland Empire, but with Mulholland Dr. he succeeds in making a work so unremittingly captivating that it doesn’t matter when none of it seems to make any sense. Of course, half the fun on repeated viewings is trying to work it all out (clue – it’s literally a film of two halves). If you thought Billy Wilder nailed feverish Hollywood noir with Sunset Boulevard, this menacing and surreal response to that film presents warped Tinseltown paranoia at the level of a carnivalistic nightmare. Mulholland Dr. is a monumental piece of intoxicating cinema, ranking with The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet as David Lynch’s third out-and-out masterwork.
2 Lost In Translation (2003)
A beautiful and totally charming tale of the unlikely friendship formed between an ageing movie star and the young wife of a celebrity photographer, both caught at emotional crossroads in their lives. Bonding over a shared sense of alienation and culture shock, a poignant relationship blossoms within the hotel’s sterile interiors. The couple’s final inaudible words together leave the audience floating with possibilities, but the impact is simply breathtaking. With career best performances from Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, an irresistible shoegaze soundtrack, and exquisite direction from Sofia Coppola, Lost In Translation is simple, sweet and so effective. Appropriately enough, this is a film to fall in love with and to lose yourself.
And The Film Of The Decade …
1 There Will Be Blood (2007)
So here it is, a film so devastating in its ambition and execution that no other came close to claiming the top title. The film’s many great aspects are all too clear when compared against other great cinematic jewels – There Will Be Blood offers a complex character dissection similar to Citizen Kane, it has the same themes of destructive greed as The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the same bold visionary style of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the same sprawling social commentary as The Godfather etc. In summary, this is one hell of a film. Channeling John Huston with frightening skill, Daniel Day Lewis’s tour-de-force performance as Daniel Plainview fully realises the character’s remarkable descent into evil. From a penniless wreck crawling over miles of hills with a broken leg to an insane ageing millionaire prowling madly around his empty mansion, the character arc of Plainview is truly terrifying. With this film, Paul Thomas Anderson cements his reputation as America’s greatest modern auteur. From its no-nonsense opening title to its closing dedication to Robert Altman, There Will Be Blood is an astonishing, mad, surprising, thematically rich, visually audacious masterpiece.
Look out for the next 100 Films Of The Decade list which will be published in January 2020.
10 Amélie (2001)
A picturesque postcard of Paris from the imagination of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amélie is a romantic comedy in which the word whimsical could almost have been invented. But that’s not to say it isn’t also extremely clever, witty, poignant and absolutley gorgeous to look at. Audrey Tatou plays the waitress Amélie Poulain, who goes to great lengths to surreptitiously alter the lives of those around her for the better, the role of guardian angel giving her lonely existence a purpose. The film is filled with the most wonderful comic touches (and conversely, touching comedy) such as when Amélie is mistakenly assumed to have a heart defect since the only time her heartbeat raced was during her medical inspections – the only physical contact with her father. The whole film has a glorious and unique colour scheme of glowing greens and yellows, giving it the quality of an eccentric fairytale. Endlessly inventive and engaging, Amélie is a total delight from start to finish.
9 Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Disturbing and enchanting in equal measures, Pan’s Labyrinth is a tour-de-force of allegorical adult fantasy from Guillermo Del Toro, restoring the traditional fairy tale back to it’s dark and twisted roots. In Spain 1944 at the close of the Civil War, the viscous Captain Videl hunts out anti-Franco guerilla fighters whilst his stepdaughter Ofelia discovers a fantastical world in an ancient labyrinth. The horrific and graphic realities of war are mirrored by an underground world of scary yet compelling creatures, with the film presenting a delicate balance between the brutal and the beautiful. The seamless mix of CGI, make-up and animatronic effects is quite incredible, making huge strides in this area. Pan’s Labyrinth perhaps overreaches itself with its overwhelming flow of ideas and conceptual levels, but there’s no denying the film’s incredible bewitching aesthetic and stunning cinematic vigour, which alone make it worthy of the top ten.
8 No Country For Old Men (2007)
After over twenty years of brilliant and fiercely individualistic filmmaking, The Coen Brothers made possibly their greatest film with this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s meditative crime thriller novel. Whilst sharing similar themes of chance, free-will and fate, as well as the corruptible effect of crime, with landmark Coen thrillers Blood Simple and Fargo, this study of nihilistic violence presents us with characters whose routes along the path of greed and violence is never assured or controllable. The whole film is neatly summed up by a quirk of psychopath Chigurh (a chilling Javier Bardem), who flips a coin to decide the fate of his victims and his decisions – every character’s actions and consequences in the film are equally haphazard. As well as its rich characterisations and evocative landscapes, No Country For Old Men is also a masterclass in taut suspense. A staggering achievement.
7 Children Of Men (2006)
In a dystopian Britain of 2027, reporter Theo Faron (Clive Owen) becomes involved with an underground group of rebels who are fighting to save mankind from a mysterious global infertility epidemic. Like all great science-fiction, Children Of Men is a thrilling (and here, grimly terrifying) vision of the future, as well as exploration of contemporary anxieties (immigration, homeland security, social cohesion). The film is notable for several remarkable one-camera tracking shots, particularly the seemingly real birth of a child and an exhilarating action sequence of a car being attacked by a guerilla army. Also worth mentioning is Michael Caine, giving one of his best performances in years as an ageing hippie activist. Children Of Men is best British film of the decade and one of the greatest works of speculative science fiction.
6 The Lives Of Others (2006)
A powerful and moving tale of humanity and self-sacrifice within the oppressive regime of 1980’s East Germany, Stasi surveillance officer Gerd Wiesler (a wonderful performance from Ulrich Mühe, who died shortly after the film’s release) is assigned to listen in on playwright and suspected spy Georg Dreyman in his apartment. But as Wiesler develops an increasing emotional attachment to the life of Dreyman and his wife, the tragic Christa-Maria, he becomes compromised between his duties to the state and his compassion for the artistic ideals of his target. The film met with criticism for its controversial depiction of the Stasi, especially the idea of a Stasi officer being the hero. With compelling plot turns, subtle characterisations and outstanding cinematography (capturing the grim setting of the GDR with dour greens and greys), I can’t recommend The Lives Of Others enough – watch it and let its poignant beauty overwhelm you.