With lockdown 2.0 in full swing, it's likely you'll need some epic films to keep you occupied. So settle down with a cuppa, grab a blanket and take a look at our roundup of some of the best winter films out there.
Best new winter films
Director Ben Wheatley takes on Daphne du Maurier’s classic tale of the shy young woman who finds herself living in the shadow of her husband's first wife - the Gothic mystery famously filmed by Hitchcock in 1940. It’s not a task for the faint-hearted. Like his film’s heroine, he’s following in the footsteps of an adored predecessor. Unlike her, he’s far from overawed. Nor, it has to be said, are his stars. Lily James, much less timid than mousy Joan Fontaine in the original, puts her own stamp on the central character; Armie Hammer is less stiff than Laurence Olivier as aristocratic patriarch Maxim de Winter, but every bit as tormented; while Kristen Scott Thomas delivers a masterclass in icy passive aggression as housekeeper Mrs Danvers (the Judith Anderson role). Sensitively rather than slavishly observing the tale’s 1930s period setting, Wheatley’s film is very much a fresh adaptation of the book rather than a remake, with its own individual tone. Hitchcock’s Gothic gloom (and Expressionist cinematography) is missing; instead, there are hints now and then of hallucinatory nightmare. As the narrative’s haunted romance unfolds, Wheatley ratchets up the tension and, towards the end, pulls off a thrilling piece of plotting that would make the Master of Suspense himself sit up in admiration.
Director: Ben Wheatley
12, 122 mins
Available on Netflix
Joining Helen from The Archers and Yasmeen from Coronation Street as a victim of gaslighting, Elisabeth Moss’s heroine Cecilia can’t convince anyone that her abusive ex, brilliant tech entrepreneur Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), is terrorising her. The world believes he committed suicide. Cecilia knows he’s still alive and is using his scientific genius to make himself invisible. Anchored by another awesome performance by Moss, this urgently topical reworking of the HG Wells tale is a terrifically gripping thriller – and a brilliant metaphor for hidden coercive control. Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell, screenwriter of the Saw and Insidious movies, puts us in Cecilia’s shoes right from the start. With Benjamin Wallfisch’s nerve-jangling score amplifying the tension, we’re with her every step as she stages her meticulously planned nocturnal escape from Adrian’s cliff-top modernist mansion with the aid of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and takes refuge at the home of her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Her relief, however, is short lived. Odd, unnerving things start happening. For Cecilia it means one thing: despite the news of his suicide, Adrian is alive and invisibly haunting her. Of course, no one will believe her - the plight of deeply traumatised gaslighting victims everywhere. ‘This is what he does,’ Cecilia despairs. ‘He makes me feel I’m the crazy one.’ We’re with her, though, scanning every corner of the screen for potential threat as Whannell’s camera slowly pans across empty space, and willing her on as she finds the resolve to fight back against a menace no one can see.
Director: Leigh Whannell
15, 124 mins
Available on DVD & Digital; and on Sky Cinema
West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin puts his trademark traits - razor-sharp wit, rhetorical flair and political insight - to very good use in this enthralling dramatisation of a notorious US trail. And he gets juicy performances from a star-studded cast. Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong appear among the defendants, charged with conspiracy to incite a riot after protesting the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention; Mark Rylance is their shambling but shrewd lawyer; Joseph Gordon-Levitt the conflicted prosecuting attorney; and Frank Langella the blatantly biased judge. Indeed, the whole trial is a travesty from the start, trumped up with vengeful spite by the Nixon administration. Even more of a travesty is the presence among the defendants of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was only in Chicago for four hours on the day in question and nowhere near the riot. Baron Cohen’s hilariously unruly Abbie Hoffman, co-leader with sidekick Jerry Rubin (Strong) of the radical youth movement the Yippies, is a prankster and provocateur, only too happy to turn the trial into anarchic political theatre. By contrast, Redmayne’s preppy, buttoned-up Tom Hayden (future husband of Jane Fonda and a long-running California politician) takes a far more sober approach to the trial. Sorkin captures both strains of the trial brilliantly. There’s uproarious mockery when Baron Cohen’s Abbie lets rip; gripping courtroom-drama tension as the defendants stand their ground; and fierce outrage at the authorities’ viciousness - particularly when it comes to Seale’s shameful, inhumane treatment during the trial, and when it comes to the thuggery of the Chicago police during the demonstrations themselves. Sorkin pointedly returns to the chilling moment when the riot-club-wielding cops take off their badges and name tags. The events the film depicts took place more than 50 years ago. Brought back to life here, they couldn’t be more timely and immediate.
Director: Aaron Sorkin
15, 129 mins
Available on Netflix
The wild expanses of the west coast of Ireland provide a beautiful backdrop to some decidedly murky goings on in this rollicking black comedy thriller starring Olivia Cooke as a whip-smart young woman looking to avenge her mother’s death. The bodies and the laughs pile up as Pixie pursues her goal, pitting her against murderous local gangsters and a deadly cabal of drug-dealing priests. Along for the ride, and way out of their depth, are likely lads Harland (Daryl McCormack) and Frank (Ben Hardy) - one a wimpy sociology graduate, the other a cocky chancer. By themselves, this duo doesn’t stand a chance. Pixie, though, is more than a match for all the men combined. Directed by Barnaby Thompson from a script by his son Preston, and with roles too for Colm Meaney, Dylan Moran and Alec Baldwin, Pixie takes the road movie genre into fresh territory. It recalls the Coen Brothers in some of its dark and sardonic moments but boasts a sensibility all its own. And in Cooke’s County Sligo femme fatale it has a heroine for the ages. ‘She won’t just break you,’ declares one of Frank and Harland’s worldlier (if equally misguided) pals. ‘She’ll take a Kalashnikov to your heart.’
Director: Barnaby Thompson
15, 93 mins
Two South Korean families, one rich and gullible, the other poor but resourceful, come together under the same roof in this brilliant, darkly comic satire, a teasing upstairs/downstairs parable about haves and have-nots, status and aspiration. Living in a stunning designer mansion, the Park family ooze wealth, chic and privilege from every pore. The penniless Kim family live in a smelly basement. Yet one by one the Kims, son, daughter, father and mother, manage to insinuate their way into the Parks’ lives and home, adopting new guises and pretending to be unrelated. Director Boon Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) keeps us thoroughly enthralled as the story unfolds, deftly calibrating shifts in tone between satire, screwball farce, black comedy and horror, and also nimbly balancing our sympathies between the two families, one parasites, the other unwitting hosts. The result is a masterpiece. Fittingly, the film made Oscars history as the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for best picture, and also scooped the 2020 Oscars for best director, best screenplay and best international feature film.
Director: Boon Joon Ho
15, 132 mins
Available on DVD & Digital; and on Amazon Prime Video
Frances Hodgson Burnett's much-loved children's novel about a neglected girl's discovery of an equally neglected garden receives an enchanting new telling in this beautiful family film. Director Marc Munden and screenwriter Jack Thorne (co-author of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) have updated the action from the Edwardian period of the book to the aftermath of World War Two, bringing the story closer to today's viewers and reinforcing the mood of grief and loss that underpins the narrative. They have tweaked Burnett's original tale in a few other ways as well, but the heart of the story remains the same. Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is a sullen, unloved orphan who gets sent from Partition-era India to her uncle's gloomy Yorkshire estate following the death of her parents during a cholera epidemic. Snobbish and entitled, 10-year-old Mary resents everything about her new home until she comes upon an abandoned garden in the grounds and sets about bringing it back to life with the help of her sick cousin and a local boy. Filming in different gardens across the UK, from Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset to Wales, Yorkshire and the Forest of Dean, Munden provides lush visual wonder while his cast firmly keep any hint of sentimentality at bay, with Colin Firth and Julie Walters both playing effectively against type as the heroine's embittered hunchbacked uncle and the estate's stern, no-nonsense housekeeper. But the film belongs to their young co-star, Egerickx, who makes her character's transition from spoilt and petulant girl to good-hearted saviour every bit as magical as the garden's transformation.
Director: Marc Munden
PG, 100 mins
Available on Sky Cinema
Elisabeth Moss is brilliant and fearless in the role of legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson in this offbeat biopic cum psychodrama set in buttoned-up 1950s New England. Best known today for her chilling short story ‘The Lottery’ and novel The Haunting of Hill House, the reclusive Jackson isn’t someone with whom you’d want to share a house. She’s boozy, mean and wracked with writer’s block. And her condescending, skirt-chasing professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) is hardly ideal company, either. Yet newlywed Rose (Odessa Young) and her aspiring academic husband Fred (Logan Lerman) find themselves living cheek by jowl with the couple in their ivy-covered home after Fred takes up a post at elite liberal arts college Bennington in Vermont. ‘I’m a witch. Didn’t anyone tell you?’ announces Shirley to Rose, who finds herself relegated to the role of household skinny (despite being far sharper and smarter than her husband) and unwittingly a source of inspiration for Shirley’s next book. Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and directed by Josephine Decker, Shirley proves a queasily enthralling psychological drama. And with Moss and Young on superb form, it’s a film that doesn’t just provide a warts-and-all portrait of its eponymous subject - it’s also full of revealing insights into the sorry lot of women in sexist 1950s America.
Director: Josephine Decker
15, 107 mins
Available on Curzon Home Cinema
Pious palliative nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) has a mission: to save the soul of her dying patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). A former dancer, choreographer and minor celebrity, the hedonistic Amanda looks on the uptight Maud’s quest with amused irony and, at times, fond indulgence. A tale then, surely, of religious repression versus worldly sensuality? First-time writer-director Rose Glass’s striking psychological thriller is, however, far more ambivalent and disturbing than that. Set in a bleak and tacky British seaside resort, Saint Maud gives us an altogether unnerving depiction of spirituality and sexuality. Maud’s self-mortifying religious fervour actually covers the emotional scars (and some physical ones) of a troubled previous existence - and Clark’s soul-scouring performance brilliantly conveys this painful duality, while Ehle’s brittle charisma makes her character a perfect foil.
Director: Rose Glass
15, 84 mins
A young boy in WW2 Germany has a buffoonish Adolf Hitler as an imaginary best friend. The premise sounds the acme of bad taste, but this irreverent satirical comedy turns out to be a touching parable about good and evil, hate and love. The setting is the final months of the war and 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a naively enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. He is blindly loyal to the Nazi regime, but too timid and soft-hearted even to kill a rabbit (hence his nickname). Reassuringly, his imaginary friend the Führer (played with madcap humour by the film’s writer-director, Taika Waititi) pops up regularly to give him pep talks and advice. When Jojo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic, he is naturally horrified. Will contact with reality expose as nonsense the prejudice and dogma he has been taught? Waititi, maker of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok, is taking big risks with this free adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies. Yet remarkably he pulls off his film’s exuberantly absurd humour without losing sight of the real horrors of the Nazi era. The performances tread this fine line, too. Sam Rockwell’s one-eyed captain, Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo chief and Rebel Wilson’s ludicrous aide are simultaneously cartoonish and chilling, while Johansson brings warmth and soul to her role. Davis, whose Jojo is surely the trickiest part of all, is simply terrific. Is Waititi’s film provocative? Yes. Silly? Undeniably. But it is also surprisingly tender and moving.
Director: Taika Waititi
12, 104 mins
Available on DVD & Digital; and on Sky Cinema Premiere from 13 November
America’s culture wars get very gory in this darkly comic action thriller that reworks that old chestnut The Most Dangerous Game to pit conservatives versus liberals in a fight to the death. The people being hunted are a dozen reactionaries, rednecks, climate-change deniers, conspiracy nuts and Trump fans. And the people doing the hunting are a bunch of rich, entitled, Clinton-voting highbrows - archetypal representatives of the ‘liberal elite’. Highly pleased with themselves, the latter are the ones behind a text message we see early on that reads: ‘Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables.’ And this appears to be the fate in store for their victims, who have been shanghaied from all points of the US and wake from drugged sleep to find themselves in a remote clearing, and in the gunsights of unseen foes. As the carnage begins, director Craig Zobel and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse take perverse delight both in staging fiendishly nasty kills and in upending our expectations. No sooner have we latched on to a particular figure as a potential hero or heroine than he or she gets bloodily despatched. The filmmakers play further tricks as the film unfolds, but leave us in no doubt that the most vivid figures on either side are Betty Gilpin’s Crystal, the most quietly resourceful of the hunted, and Hilary Swank’s Athena, imperious leader of the hunters. Other than them, the characters are deliberately shallow and cartoonish - and so is the satire. But Zobel and co. aren’t really interested in debating politics. They are in the business of delivering thrills - and in this they succeed admirably.
Director: Craig Zobel
15, 90 mins
Available on DVD & Digital; and on Sky Cinema Premiere from 14 November
Oscar-nominated Cynthia Erivo delivers a stirring performance as iconic American abolitionist Harriet Tubman in this heartfelt historical drama. But, to be honest, she's better than the film. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) has us gripped by Tubman's daring escape from slavery in the pre-Civil War South as she makes the 100-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia and freedom, rejecting her given name of Araminta Ross and renaming herself Harriet Tubman. And, although the storytelling is occasionally formulaic and predictable, Lemmons keeps us enthralled as Tubman plays a leading role in helping other slaves gain their freedom via the legendary Underground Railway, returning to the South on a series of audacious undercover missions. But the movie falls apart in its final third, departing from history in an implausible bid to turn Tubman into a gun-toting superhero.
Director: Kasi Lemmons
12, 126 mins
Available on DVD & Digital; and on Sky Cinema
Stripped down to sports bra and knickers, a formidably lithe Kristen Stewart channels the indomitable spirit of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley as the heroine of this sci-fi horror thriller cum disaster movie that crosses Alien with The Abyss. Stewart's Norah Price is an engineer on an underwater mining station six miles below the ocean surface that is witnessing strange sightings and unexplained tremors. Sure enough, disaster strikes, leaving Norah and a handful of other survivors, including Vincent Cassel's resolute skipper, TJ Miller's tubby joker and Jessica Henwick's panicky biologist, to walk a mile across the sea bed to another mine outpost and possible safety. Unfortunately, some very deadly, decidedly Lovecraftian monsters are lurking in the deep... Underwater is certainly derivative and falls back on clichés at regular turns - from the slow-motion pauses at moments of heightened action to the familiar swipes at corporate greed and hubris. Go in with the right expectations, however, and you'll find that it still manages to crank up the tension to an enjoyable degree.
Director: William Eubank
15, 95 mins
Available on DVD & Digital; and on Sky Cinema
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A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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