6. Starred Up (2013)
Jack O’Connell plays Eric Love a 19-year-old who, at the film’s opening, is just about to begin a prison sentence. Eric is a hyper-violent boy, in his first day, completely unprovoked he makes himself a weapon and attacks his cellmate.
In an attempt to save him from himself the prison enlists him in a counselling session, trying to use therapy to set him straight. But Eric finds his life torn between the relationship with his therapist and his own father, who is locked up in the same prison just a few cells down.
The title takes its name from the term given to young offenders who are moved from youth corrections to an adult prison earlier than they were meant to. The nature of violence has a big role in the film with Eric being condemned for his actions but equally feeling that violence is necessary to survive in the new environment he finds himself in.
The film has some seriously impressive moments of drama as Eric battles with identity and reputation and coming to terms with being stuck in a system that has failed him and is, if anything, making his situation worse. The biggest irony of this situation is the scenes with his father telling him that he’s wasting his life while he himself sits in a prison cell.
Hypocrisy and contradicting advice surround Eric who, quite rightly, is more worried about the constant state of anxiety and threat he is in. A unique and excellent prison drama that never forgets that no matter how tough or violent Eric may be, at its heart this is a story about a young boy trapped in an adult world.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
There is a certain type of film, that cannot be called horror, but has a terrifying quality to it. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that always seems to be on the very edge of the story as though there is an important piece missing and that a significant moment of action is happening just off-screen. It makes for utterly compelling viewing with a desperate need to know what is happening, and it’s terrifying because you will never why things are happening.
Elizabeth Olsen (who, at the time, was cast as a relative unknown) plays Martha who has just been returned to her family after living with a Manson-esque cult. The film jumps back and forth between her time in the cult and Martha in the present day. Focusing entirely on Martha we watch as Elizabeth Olsen, essentially, plays two very different people (every name in the title is at one point given to Martha); her present self and her past.
Olsen’s performance is the heart and soul of this film as she flips between deep trauma and serene, albeit undeniably creepy, happiness in the cult. The film questions what we know about ourselves and shows how fragile our own personalities can be, and again its lack of explanation is terrifying.
8. Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
While this did earn a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination for Colombia, this incredible film from Ciro Guerra has such packs such an impressive punch it deserves to be more talked about than it is.
Set in two time periods in Colombia as the country is in the grips of European colonisation, the film follows two White explorers as they employ the help of an Amazonian shaman, Karamakate the World Mover, to help them find a plant with special healing properties.
The film is dedicated to the lives of Colombian natives that will never be known, and it expertly tackles a little explored aspect of colonisation: the complete destruction of a culture.
Throughout the film, native characters explain how they’ve forgotten how to make things the way their ancestors did. Using the dual timelines creates allows the director to set up one aspect colonialism had on the Amazon and then jump forward a generation and reveal the devastating effects it had.
Evoking scenes from Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, Wrath of God Embrace of the Serpent is a stunning film and expertly well crafted. Shot in black and white and using the Amazon river as a motif to flip back and forth between history, the film develops a timeless feeling as though there are ghosts all along the river with stories to tell if only we’d listen. At times dipping into horror, drama and even psychedelic scenes Embrace of the Serpent is a film like no other; watching it is like a spiritual journey in itself.
9. Obvious Child (2014)
Romantic comedies, but with a twist, are everywhere always trying to breathe fresh life into the great, but overdone, genre. Calling Obvious Child a romcom probably isn’t fair as it’s about so much more than that but it’s a good way to describe the effect of the film.
Jenny Slate plays Donna a stand-up comic who, at the start of the film, is dumped by her boyfriend, she then goes on a drunken one-night-stand and a few weeks later finds out she’s pregnant. In the midst of organising her abortion, she keeps meeting her one-night stand (Max) and they can’t help but like each other, but she doesn’t want to tell him about the abortion.
Not just does the film normalise a controversial topic it goes out of its way to paint a very sympathetic picture of people who don’t appear traditionally successful. Donna is in debt, her stand-up career is not great and she can’t keep her romantic life steady but the film shows her wailing and moaning and bitching with her friends in a way that is both hilarious and sympathetic. From the very beginning, the film accepts that the world is an unfair place and the “obvious” ways of dealing with it are never that easy.
It definitely focuses more on Donna’s abortion and her story than it does with the romance, but in so doing it finds a fresh way to feel the effects of a romantic comedy. Obvious Child talks about things that are not often represented in mainstream cinema and because it accepts that life can be hard at times whenever someone shows kindness its impact is all the more powerful.
10. In a World…(2013)
There are so many films about Hollywood and the journey of becoming an actor but In a World… which is written, directed and starring Lake Bell focuses on a little-seen section of the industry: voice actors. The legendary teaser trailer line, “In a world…”, has been performed by the same actor for years, but for the first time studios are opening up for new performers to bring a fresh take to the famous line. So begins a scramble in the voice over industry to be chosen for the coveted role, including between underachieving voice coach Carol and her arrogant, but successful father.
One element that the film does very well is depicting Hollywood as a very small club where everyone seems to know everyone and if you’re not part of the club it’s hard to get in. Cue some hilarious scenes of Carol trying to make an impression on Hollywood legends so she can get her foot in the door, and moments of deep mortification as everyone seems to know all about her personal life. Made all the worse by the fact that, if selected, she’d be breaking an industry norm and become the first woman to be given the role and she’s working in an industry that is not prepared to help her.
While this is a story that follows a similar structure to what we’ve seen before, Lake Bell still manages to make the audience care about a job that they may know little about. In a World…is a film about finding values in things that others may look down upon.