Denzel Washington received a well-deserved Best Actor Academy Award for his searing, unforgettable performance as crooked narcotics cop Alonzo Harris in this tense thriller, in which (the also Oscar-nominated) Ethan Hawke’s rookie detective Jake Hoyt must endure a fraught 24 hours under the grizzled veteran’s cynical tutelage.
Harris’ law enforcement methods, naturally, can’t be found in any dusty old rulebook, and Hoyt quickly finds himself dragged not only into LA’s terrifying criminal underworld but a wide-ranging conspiracy among the cops charged with keeping the city safe.
Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning screenplay is just one fascinating aspect of this stylish, genre-bending movie, in which the superb Carey Mulligan plays a coffee shop worker who spends her nights teaching creeps a lesson about consent.
Is Promising Young Woman a black comedy? A rom-com? A revenge thriller? A post-Me Too polemic ? A cautionary tale about how holding onto anger and resentment can consume you? It’s all of the above, and all the more captivating for it.
Forget the tame Colin Farrell-led remake: this is the Total Recall you should jack yourself into. Paul Verhoeven’s characteristically lurid sci-fi romp, loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker who has recurring dreams of walking the red deserts of Mars, now colonised and on the verge of a civil war between exploited workers and a corporate overlord backed up by a militarised police force. The thing is: he’s never been to Mars. Or has he? When he visits a company that implants fake memories in customers’ heads – a sort of alternative vacation service – it unlocks something deep within his brain and turns his mundane life into a deadly adventure.
Beneath the ultra-violence, sex and corny one-liners Total Recall is, like most of Verhoeven’s movies, awash with interesting and subversive ideas. But even if you don’t want to think, it’s more than entertaining enough for us to recommend.
Emerging from a shallow (and evidently premature) grave, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass sets out on the long, cold journey towards revenge, evading marauding Native Americans, foraging for sustenance and performing gruesome self-surgery in a series of incredible sequences. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction – ever impressive, never showy – and the flawless camera work help the viewer feel every moment of Glass’ struggle to survive.
Despite uttering a mere handful of lines during the film’s nigh-on three hours of running time, DiCaprio bagged his first Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant. Watching what he goes through here, it’s not difficult to see why the Academy was so impressed. As a pure physical performance, it’s remarkable – and it’s just one notable aspect of a movie packed with them.
The Green Mile
Like The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile sees Frank Darabont adapt a prison-set Stephen King tale for the screen – but here things move well into the fantasy genre thanks to the miraculous powers of enigmatic death row inmate John Coffey, a gentle giant seemingly blessed with the ability to heal the sick and infirm. Tom Hanks plays the guard who grows to respect and seek to protect his charge against not only the electric chair but the depredations of fellow inmates and cruel corrections officers. Moving stuff that’ll likely have you blubbing like a baby by the final reel.
Cameron Crowe’s paean to the early 1970s glory days of American rock and roll – based heavily on his real-life experiences as a teenaged Rolling Stone journalist – remains a diverting, funny and affecting watch almost two decades after it was released, even if the sexual politics of the time seems even more brutal and bizarre now than it did in 2000.
Focussing on the complex triangular relationship between Patrick Fugit’s naive Crowe-substitute, Billy Crudup’s mercurial lead guitarist and Oscar-nominated Kate Hudson’s free-spirited groupie, Almost Famous brilliantly conjures up the mystical, tense and crazed life of a touring band better than any other movie we can think of.
No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men always felt like the most screen-adaptable of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, and with the Coen brothers at the helm it would have taken some kind of disaster to stop this movie from becoming an instant classic. And it is, thanks to not only the source material and its sympathetic treatment by America’s finest filmmaking pair of siblings, but due to killer performances from Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and, most memorably, Javier Bardem as a philosophising, seemingly unstoppable mass murderer with a criminal haircut. If you like your thrillers as contemplative and lyrical as they are nail-biting, look no further.
Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is even more visually striking and similarly packed with rich period dialogue, as Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play lighthouse keepers tending the lamp on a remote, fog-bound island off the coast of New England. Eggers’ tight 4:3 framing and high-contrast black-and-white cinematography gives this psychological thriller a cramped, oppressive and out-of-time feel, as the two men’s isolation starts to worry away at their nerves and strain their relationship. It’s hugely stylish and rich with imagery, but don’t go in expecting a standard chiller with all the ends neatly tied up – this film pervading feeling of dread may come easily, but answers do not.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The first (and we think best) Indiana Jones film is a globe-trotting blockbuster that has set the standard for all Hollywood adventure movies since. A throwback to the flicks of Spielberg and producer George Lucas’ childhood, it sees Ford’s bullwhip-brandishing archaeologist travel to Egypt in an attempt to locate the Ark of the Covenant ahead of the Third Reich, who plan to use the ancient artefact’s powers to place the world under Nazi rule.
The visual effects and, er, ‘cultural depictions’ have aged noticeable since 1981, but this is mainstream filmmaking at its purest – a broadly entertaining, fast-paced and iconic movie that it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
This masterful film by first-time director Joe Talbot tells the story of Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, the role being based on his own early life), a young African-American man striving to reclaim his childhood home – a large, ornate Victorian house in what is now an upscale San Francisco neighbourhood. The house, which Jimmie claims was built by his grandfather, is his focus in life – one unmoving certainty in a world that’s always shifting.
Beautifully shot, unpredictable and elegiac, it’s both a compelling character study and a nuanced portrait of a city that has changed, is changing and will continue to change in the future.