Cold War
Lovers Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the Cold War turns Eastern Europe into a vast and oppressive prison, a musical director and a talented singer fall in love and conspire to escape Poland. But escape to what?

This masterful film by Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski, (My Summer of Love and Ida), is based loosely on the story of his own parents, which gives it an extra dimension of tragedy: it’s a love story, but one bloodshot with doom and fatalism from the start. Wiktor and Zula meet through a project to preserve authentic peasant folk songs, which is quickly co-opted by the Soviets as a propaganda vehicle, and the couple’s search for somewhere they can be their authentic selves takes them to Paris, to jazz and rock’n’roll, and home again. For a lean 85 minutes, Cold War packs a lot of emotion without feeling overwrought. The black-and-white cinematography is moody and direct. The romance is passionate and doomed.

Cold War opens on Boxing Day. Watch the trailer.


Roma
Mexico City – the early seventies. A mother, her children and her housekeepers navigate divorce, unwanted pregnancy and civil unrest in this expansive, gripping film. In its quest for legitimacy and awards, Netflix has surpassed itself with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the tale of a family in seventies Mexico City. Cuarón steps away from the science-fiction inclinations of his last two films, Children of Men and Gravity, to present something more down-to-earth. Like Cold War, it’s a period drama based loosely on the director’s own family, shot in lavish black and white, but Roma is a very different film. With an ensemble cast and a focus on the minutiae of family life, this is a film about togetherness. It’s a theme that recurs in beautiful moments and vignettes. Rows of men practice martial arts in sync. A slightly inebriated family put out a forest fire on New Year’s Eve. A marching band, big and bold in the distance, sounds like a lumbering, atonal mess up close. The camera moves generously, taking it all in with that world-building verve that made Children of Men feel so real, treating every moment with dignity and significance. It’s one of the best films of the year. It’s a tearjerker too, so get ready for that.

Roma has a very short release period before it arrives on Netflix. If you’re lucky enough to find it playing in a cinema, it’s worth it.

Watch the trailer.

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Widows
When crook Harry (Liam Neeson) and his gang are killed while pulling a $2 million heist, his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is left with the bill. Pursued by a corrupt politician (Brian Tyree Henry) for her husband’s debt, she pulls together a team with the gang’s other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo) and plans one big job.

After Shame and the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, this isn’t an obvious path for director Steve McQueen. With Widows, McQueen retools the heist movie for a more thoughtful audience. In lieu of the slick glamour of films such as Ocean’s 8, here are characters with pathos and depth. And it’s right on the zeitgeist, focusing on women brushed aside and undermined by duplicitous men. With a huge ensemble cast (I haven’t mentioned star turns from Jacki Weaver, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya) it frequently feels overstuffed, pushing the heist to the sidelines. But it’s still essentially an action thriller. And it’s still fun.

Watch the trailer.


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
While we’re on Netflix, they’re giving cinema-lovers another reason to stay in with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a new western from the Coen brothers in the form of six distinct short stories of death, set on the American frontier. The vignettes veer between poignant and bizarre, hilarious and heartbreaking. Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs, a clean-cut, smiling, singing killer. James Franco robs a bank and gets hanged. Tom Waits plays a tenacious gold prospector. It’s their best and most memorable film since 2009’s A Serious Man.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is on Netflix now. Watch the trailer.


Climax
Dancing, hallucinogens and abject horror. The advertising for French director Gaspar Noé’s new film plays up his reputation as a purveyor of shock: “You hated Irreversible. You loathed Enter the Void. You cursed Love. Now try Climax.” Climax is, as that dare suggests, a fairground ride of despair, but a very accomplished one. From the opening dance scene you know you’re in for an intense 90 minutes. Noé doesn’t let up.

The plot is simple: on the eve of a crucial trip to the US, a dance troupe get a little too loose when someone spikes the sangria. If it sounds like a quirky prank, it’s not: it’s spiked with LSD, and we spend the film jumping between the characters as they suffer some traumatic trips, all confined to a dance studio while a blizzard rages outside. It’s stylised, choreographed chaos. Noé tries a little too hard to shock, with some gratuitously grizzly violence and implied violence, but that’s the game he’s playing. He wants us to hate it and love it in equal measure. Mission accomplished.

Watch the trailer.


The Favourite
Early 18th century, the court of Queen Anne. Suffering from an unnamed mental illness, and plagued with gout and a dozen other ailments, the Queen (Olivia Colman) isn’t much interested in the war in France, preferring to cuddle her rabbits and race ducks with the prime minister. She mostly lets her domineering confidante and lover Lady Malborough (Rachel Weisz) make government decisions. But then Abigail, a lady fallen on hard times (Emma Stone), gets a job as a maid at the Queen’s residence, and ruthlessly works her way between the Queen and her court favourite.

Costume dramas can be funny, but rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, strung up as they are in corsets and period dialogue. But stilted awkwardness is the stock-in-trade of director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), and his new film is an absurd triumph, full of sharp dialogue, painful slapstick and hilariously terrible women. The Machiavellian plots, the dialogue that veers between stately and blunt (“He was a balloon-shaped German man with a thin cock.”), and the grotesque opulence are all very, very funny, but it’s the performances that jump off the screen. Emma Stone can make you laugh with just a look, and this is Olivia Colman’s best role since Peep Show. Somewhere between the Queen of England binge eating cake until she vomits and Emma Stone’s Abigail seducing a man by repeatedly kicking him in the balls, I realised I was watching the funniest film of the year.

The Favourite is released on December 26. Watch the trailer.