As the lockdown abates, we wait in anticipation of nights that are out out! But when the hangover kicks in the following day, here are our favourite films to transport us away from our headaches. Our list will take you across decades and genres, so sit, relax, pour yourself the hair of the dog, and enjoy.
“Straight away he clocked us for what we were. Small-time wasters with an accidental big deal” – Renton
Released in 1996 the impact of Trainspotting on UK cinema can’t be underestimated. If the 1993 debut novel by Irvine Welsh introduced readers to a side of Edinburgh never previously documented the 1996 movie introduced filmgoers to a city a million miles away from its usual tartan and shortbread cinematic depiction.
Translating a book which unapologetically honoured working-class Edinburgh dialect and where so much of the story revolved around the characters’ hallucinatory experiences was always going to test a Producer. Consequently, Andrew McDonald brought Scottish screenwriter John Hodge and Director Danny Boyle, who had already started to document the darker side of the city with his 1994 debut Shallow Grave, on board.
Jettisoning those parts of the book which were quite simply impossible to translate to screen, they concentrated on a tale of friends trapped in a cycle of heroin addiction, violence and crime. Pretty bleak stuff you might think, and yes, the violence is graphic and scenes such as the infamous baby and toilet scenes are pretty disturbing and hard to watch, but as the characters themselves might say, it’s also ‘funny as f**k’.
Those characters Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and resident radge Begbie traverse a pre-gentrification Leith and the more mental outposts of North Edinburgh in a self-destructive journey of increasing intensity and despair but one replete with working class Scottish gallows humour. Filmed at 100 miles an hour in an edgy spiky style with all different types of intercutting and interlocking shots and accompanied by a frenetic techno and indie soundtrack, Trainspotting is a 90-minute rollercoaster.
While the Embra accents aren’t always captured too well and too much of it was filmed in Glasgow, Trainspotting’s tale of radges and gadges navigating Thatcher ravaged, post-industrial, drug saturated 1980s working class Edinburgh is a cultural phenomenon which influenced so many subsequent movies in terms of both style and content. Twenty-four years on Trainspotting remains “pure barry” as Renton himself might say.
“So, we’re like Robin Hood in this instance” – Terry Noonan
The New York gangster movie is a genre that’s been with us since at least the 1930s. While most have focused on the Mafia and the Italian American crime experience, State of Grace released in 1990 and directed by Phil Joanou, concentrates on the Irish American crime fraternity. It’s based on author TJ English’s book “The Westies”, a true-crime account of the gang who conducted a reign of terror throughout the cities Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood in the 70s and 80s.
Featuring a triumvirate of my favourite character actors, Sean Penn plays Terry Noonan an undercover cop who returns to his childhood neighbourhood to infiltrate the gang headed by the Flannery brothers played by Gary Oldman and Ed Harris. Conflicted by the competing loyalties of job and childhood friends, Penn brings that dichotomy to the screen with an intense performance that fully merits his casting. Oldman plays sociopathic gangster Jackie Flannery and alternates between chilling and charming as only Gary Oldman can, while Ed Harris playing his older brother and gang leader Frankie Flannery populates the screen with brooding menace.
Set against a backdrop of a neighbourhood and neighbourhood loyalties being torn asunder by redevelopment, the movie reaches beyond the standard crime caper because of the depth of characterisation that this trio of eminent actors bring to their roles. It also features a haunting score by Ennio Morriconne while Jordan Cronenweths cinematography captures the gritty and seedy atmosphere of pre-gentrification Manhattan.
Although it includes a spectacular shootout, State of Grace, moves at a less frenetic pace than many others in the genre and is all the better for it. Overshadowed by Scorsese’s seminal New York mob masterpiece Goodfellas when both were simultaneously released, State of Grace is a cult classic well worth bringing out of those shadows.
“And I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper”- Marge Gunderson
The first of two Coen Brothers movies to feature, Fargo is a comedy thriller released in 1996 which received seven Academy Award nominations including best actress and best screenplay. Set in snow bound Minnesota the plot involves an outwardly innocent but duplicitous car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, played beautifully by William H Macy, who hires a couple of low-level criminals to kidnap his pregnant wife and obtain a ransom from his wealthy father in law. Darkly comedic, the plan obviously goes awry from inception as Macy’s thoroughly naive, but equally nasty character furiously endeavours to save his chaotically unravelling scheme.
Step forward local police chief Marge Gunderson played deliciously by Frances McDormand whose daily life and domestic struggles we see in all their minutiae as she struggles to investigate the sudden outbreak of multiple homicides that sweep this sleepy part of Minnesota. Undervalued by her bosses and underestimated by the criminals, she methodically follows the leads in her own charming and humorous way to solve the crime wave.
The other main character in this movie is the location and the community who live there. The deep winter beauty, the snow globe pretty houses and the gentle sing song Scandinavian tinged accents of rural Minnesota, all provide a highly incongruous backdrop for murder and mayhem. The Coen brothers also imbue it with a sense of the surreal, an off-kilter aesthetic where it’s this world but not quite this world.
There are so many things to love about this film, from McDormands Oscar winning performance to Macys understated but virtuoso acting, the stunning cinematography, the Coen Brothers masterful storytelling. All combine to demonstrate why Fargo has been rated one of the 30 most significant independent films of the last 30 years. Take a trip to Fargo and be charmed and shocked in equal parts.
“Anyone who spends a significant amount of time with me finds me disagreeable” – William Somerset
There are few movies that manage to convey a feeling of deepening fear and unease in their opening credits and Seven is one of them. Directed by David Fincher, this 1995 made serial killer thriller manages to take the genre to even darker places than usual.
Starring the majestic Morgan Freeman as Detective William Somerset and the always watchable Brad Pitt as his blow-in sidekick David Mills, it also features the now wholly, and quite rightly, discredited Kevin Spacey.
Tasked with investigating a series of gruesome murders inspired by the seven deadly sins, Freemans cynical, soon to be retired, character is the yin to Pitt’s irascible and impatient yang. The sense of impending horror and increasing foreboding which permeates the screen was heightened by bleaching the film stock to create dark, shadowy imagery while the unnamed city location is continuously shrouded in torrents of incessant monsoon-like rain. All this adds to an atmosphere of unrelenting, almost dystopian, bleakness, while backseat camera techniques borrowed from reality cop shows put the viewer at the heart of the madness.
While the violence is shocking and graphic, and it’s definitely not for the squeamish, Seven isn’t a slasher movie. The fear that the Director brings to the screen and to us, the audience, is as much psychological as it is visible. Fincher described it as a “meditation on evil” and Spacey brings that evil in a bravura performance that has to be acknowledged despite his subsequent real-life crimes.
The tension that escalates as the detectives track down the killer culminates in a denouement that is one of the most frightening things I’ve seen on screen. Disturbing, dark and distressing Seven isn’t an easy watch, but there’s a beauty in its horror that should be experienced.
“This is a very complicated case Maude. You know a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have- you’s” – The Dude
The second Coen Brothers offering to feature in our list, The Big Lebowski, is a comedy mystery which was released in 1998, two years after Fargo.
Mining the same kidnap gone wrong territory that the Brothers explored two years earlier, it’s an out and out comedy, which takes the surrealism that ran through Fargo to a whole new level. Starring 90s box office royalty Jeff Bridges and John Goodman it also features a highly impressive supporting cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturo and Julianne Moore.
Drawing inspiration from Los Angeles crime noir author Raymond Chandler and the cinematic adaptations of his books, the story is set in 90s LA and is essentially a tale of mistaken identity. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, played by Bridges, is assaulted by a couple of thugs who mistake him for someone with the exact same name, a millionaire who goes by the nickname “The BIg Lebowski”. This other Lebowski owes money to the attackers’ boss, a porn movie mogul. Encouraged to seek some form of redress by his best friend, played by Goodman, the duo embark on a scheme that’s doomed to fail from the get go.
To try and provide a synopsis of how the plot unfolds from there is pretty much impossible and probably pretty unnecessary as the joy of this movie is the journey that the Coen Brothers take us on and not necessarily the destination. It’s a journey that takes us to bowling halls and pornographers’ molls, to kidnaps and ransoms, to drugs and rugs.
The movie inhabits a bizarre, absurdist world where the characters’ actions often make no sense at all. That sense of the surreal is heightened by the dream sequences which intersperse the film and some of the weirdest dialogue to make it to mainstream cinema. Yet the Coen Brothers direction, script and the casting of an inspired ensemble somehow makes the unbelievable believable.
Often dismissed as a stoner or slacker movie, it’s true that many of the quotes from it have entered the lexicon of that particular area of pop culture. While it’s that on a certain level, like so much of the Coen Brothers best work, it’s also an eviscerating exploration of the American psyche. Most important though, it’s hilariously funny if you like that kind of thing, which I have to admit I do.
The Big Lebowski polarises opinion like few other movies, the lovers love it and the haters hate it. Sit back, pour yourself a White Russian and decide which side of the fence you want to sit on.
“You put this kid behind the wheel, and there’s nothing he can’t do” – Shannon
Initially you might think this film appears to be coarse and simple; like its protagonist. Just another moody unreachable lead, just another action story, but inwardly, for both, there is substance. The narrative is centred on a mysterious Hollywood stuntman, shooting car-jumps by day and moonlighting as a getaway driver by night. But his night job earns him trouble in this action drama that paved the way for a new breed of antihero.
The perfectly cast Gosling is a man of few words whose character is all about precision, intense concentration, honed skills with no distractions – until there is one. Car rolls and screeching halts surrender to emotion and conscience when he encounters Cary Mulligan’s Irene. We feel his growing sense of longing for a life more ordinary. But this gradual softening is inferred through stolen glances and smiles that are more subtle than the raging chases and gang fights that surround him.
Faced with winding turns down dark paths, Gosling is a master of compartmentalisation. As a driver, he focuses unapologetically on the goal, adopting the same mantra again as he disguises the dark situation that threatens Irene and her son.
Winding Refn of the beautiful but controversial Neon Demon, won Best Director at Cannes for this masterpiece. If our Driver’s quiet poise is captured with minimal and considered words, then Refn’s careful use of shots compliments our protagonist’s measured approach. This film broke down barriers both narratively, metaphorically and stylistically. It spoke to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to this genre, and it set the tone for a new aesthetic in modern commercial cinema. Like Gosling’s character, sometimes it’s good to look past the general trajectory and recognise that there are other facets of life to be enjoyed.
“Yeah, she’s a sculptress; lately, she’s been making these plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheeses” – Marcy
This forgotten Scorsese masterpiece starts when Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a hapless white-collar data entry worker, meets the quirky and alluring Marcy in an uptown coffee shop. The promise of a date (under the guise of buying her friend’s artworks), takes Dunne away from the comfort and banality of his worker bee existence as he heads downtown. The film takes place in SoHo in the early hours, when only the artists, the kooks and the darkly lit bars are still awake. What starts as a road to seduction, turns into a frantic and surreal nightmare without escape.
Joseph Minion’s compelling film school thesis was the basis for the film that earned Scorsese Best Director at Cannes. Adopting Hitchcock’s elaborate directional style; he builds a neo-noir atmosphere and frenetic pacing with hyperreal closeups as Dunne’s character slips from one misadventure to another. The depiction of early 80’s pre-Giuliani SoHo, the grime, the eerie darkness and subversive element are broken only by yellow tungsten lights on dappled cobbles. Howard Shore’s eerie score adds to the atmosphere.
Like many of Scorsese’s leading men, Paul Hacket is hyper-paranoid and emasculated by the women he meets. He set the precedence for Henry Hill and the Quaalude-infused Jordan Bellfort of Scorsese’s later films. Downtown in his beige suit, he is a misfit amongst misfits, navigating his way through a series of encounters that gradually feel interconnected. His restless manoeuvring from the path of one neurotic eccentric to the other leaves us sympathetic to his dilemma, and the tedium of uptown suddenly seems so appealing.
With a stunning ensemble cast such as gloriously quirky Rosanna Arquette, John Heard, Teri Garr and the mesmerising Linda Fiorentino, the colourful characters never fail to amuse and intrigue. Scorsese references Kafka’s work, ‘Before the Law’ in the dialogue between Dunne and the bouncer, when he endlessly waits to enter Club Berlin. This scene channels the director’s frustration at Paramount for cancelling his film, The Last Temptation of Christ in 1983. However, this pause in the controversial film’s production, left him available to direct After Hours. This forgotten gem is as independently irreverent as its characters and well worth taking that cab-ride to Soho for, no matter the cost.
“You know, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece” – Lt. Aldo Raine
Arguably one of Tarantino’s finest films since Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds creates its fiction by altering the catastrophic history of Germany’s Nazi administration. It’s a tale of vengeance on the part of a Jewish survivor and a team of Jewish American soldiers and their plan to assassinate the entire leadership in one gasoline-soaked swoop. One dogged S.S. colonel connects them all and threatens to discover their plot.
The film draws us into a dangerous game of cat and mouse from the tension-inducing opening scene to the flame-lapped climax where the hunter becomes hunted. Christoph Waltz’s chilling portrayal of an S.S. Colonel Hans Landa is standout and brings his talents to the attention of a wider commercial audience. Calm, charming, but ruthlessly calculating Colonel Landa keeps his poise as he interrogates victim after victim, all with a knowing air of their true situation and identity. The film is so compelling thanks to the disquieting scenes and the effective dialogue so characteristic of Tarantino’s works. The gripping performances from the all-star cast add to the tension that is tempered by the flashes of brilliant humour. How can a cafe scene with apple strudel be so achingly painful to watch? Tarantino does what he does best, playing on the contrasts.
Such a delicate subject deserves respect, but what Tarantino does so brilliantly is to bring us the ending that we had all imagined with an irony that softens the seriousness. Confronting the brutal regime and its cruel leader, he also challenges the stereotypes of elite and underdog. Their Jewess enemy’s vengeful laugh from the screen conveys a hateful wish to eradicate – not only their rule but the aesthetics that personify Nazi power. With blond hair and blue eyes, she laughs on as destroyer, yet looks like the object of their Aryan aspirations. Their stereotypical ideals have served as their undoing as the deceptive and vengeful lamb becomes the wolf.
This film was nominated for eight academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. The latter distinction, Waltz deservedly won. Basterds is a years-in-the-making triumph for Tarantino, and apple strudel will never taste quite the same again.
“Tomorrow I’ll be kissing her aerobicized ass but tonight let me dream of a world without Heather, a world where I am free” – Veronica Sawyer”
‘Dear Diary’, those immortal words are the hormone-filled scribblings of many a teen. With dark thoughts bubbling under the surface and the simultaneous excitement and uncertainty of the years ahead, Heathers is a familiar story played out through the generations. But this tale is set amongst bouffants, shoulder pads, scrunchies and Swatches. Welcome to Sherwood High circa 1989. A place for ‘teen angst and young love with a body count’.
This black comedy paved the way for 2004’s Mean Girl’s, though with a more cult-like take on a teen drama. It’s a world where looks and muscle-mass are currency. Where the kids are cutting their teeth ready for the big wide world, and the age-old power struggle between the prom queens, jocks and the have nots is played out against a backdrop of locker-lined halls. The three Heather’s and their friend Veronica Sawyer are the rulers that strut those halls calling the shots and preying on the aesthetically unfortunate.
Winona Ryder’s darkly sarcastic Veronica Sawyer is conflicted over the social misconduct of her spoilt frenemies, and her thoughts turn to rebellion. Enter stage left a dark and moody stranger, in the form of Christian Slater’s J.D. (in full Jack Nicholson mode), who offers her teen lust and a solution. Together, this ’80s Bonny and Clyde, search for revenge against queen bee Heather, though J.D. has other plans, namely death by bleach under the guise of suicide. But Clyde dupes Bonny, and she’s not going to take it. The film leaves plenty of room to capitalise on Winona’s darkly comic skills and her tinge-of-goth aesthetic. Sarcastic lines are in abundance. At one point, Veronica announces, “it’s one thing to want somebody out of your life, but it’s another thing to serve them a wake-up cup of liquid Drano.”
Rudy Dillon’s costume design is stylistic and flawlessly in synch with the production design; where its use of primary colours signify status. Red is the signature hue of ‘leader’ Heather Chandler, and it is thematically painted throughout the film to convey danger, lust and power. Veronica is mostly seen in blues and darker shades, setting her apart from her peers, suggestive of her introspective nature.
It’s a story of the human inclination to conform coupled with the teen desire for independence. And when suicide itself becomes ‘the thing to do’ Veronica shows the sheep that it’s ok to walk an alternative path. Upon its release, some critics were scathing against the satirical take on a delicate theme. But Director Michael Lehmann said, “the most horrific topics are the ones that are best suited to satire.” Ultimately Heathers addresses the subject with a positive message; there may always be a prom queen, but cool isn’t always king. Independent thought is power.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility” – Ash
It’s still hard to believe when you watch the opening credits, that Alien was made over 40 years ago. From the chillingly stark yet uber-modern type in its opening credits to the silent shots that propel you through the sterile set towards the first glimpse of the cast.
Playing on the paranoia of invasion and space exploration, Alien is not just a sci-fi horror; it is a politically driven narrative about characters forced together. In the distant future, the mining spacecraft Nostromo is on its way home to Earth, when a sudden and unexpected transmission orders it off course into unchartered territory. Under the flimsy contracts of “the company” the crew that constitute cogs, are obliged to investigate.
The small but perfectly cast crew include collected Captain Dallas, the agitated, chain-smoking, Lambert, the dismissive Parker and his petulant sidekick Brett. Ian Holm captures the coldly calculating Ash and John Hurt is an unwitting surrogate. Finally, Sigourney Weaver makes her breakthrough as the powerful, uncompromising Ripley. The choice of a female hero was timely, given the mid to late ’70s were a point of increased liberation and employment for women. To this day, Ripley remains an iconic embodiment of female power.
The build-up is intensely slow, and the slower it is, the greater the anticipation of impending terror. The clicking and jabbering computers and the echoing acoustics of the haunting score intensify the bleakness of the crews’ environment. Alien’s production design is exceptional; from the sterile, light-filled walls of the mother chamber to the dark metallic underbelly of the engine room. Together with Editor Terry Rawlings, Scott’s direction is masterful; his use of pared but saturated colour palettes and the application of shadow and light play with the atmosphere. The pacing flows from painful stillness intercut with fast action, and fragmented takes, like the choppy edit that represents Kane’s perspective of surprise ambush.
Alien is a prime example of practical effects over CGI, the former used effectively but sparingly so as not to belie their limits. Incidentally, Geiger’s predator doesn’t make an appearance until an hour into the movie, utilising the idea of the unknown to build the tension. As the hunter seeks its prey, metallic and dripping with protruding jaw, the animatronics perfectly capture the visceral killer nature of this unstoppable being. Ash utters in appreciation, “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”. Its emotionless ambition matches the starkness of the place from where it came. The film, just like the Alien itself, is and will continue to be, a force to be awed.
We hope you enjoyed this eclectic selection of screen gems and that they give you some cinematic inspiration while we all wait for our local multiplex to reopen.