While serving as a staff member at the Glasgow Film Festival, I got plenty of opportunities to usher in several screenings, meaning I got to sample a lot of strange and interesting films that I can guarantee I probably wouldn’t have seen in a wider release. Since I’m still a film studies writer at heart, I’ve complied this little retrospective of every film I saw at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival and FrightFest Glasgow, sharing my general thoughts and wisdom (and lack thereof).

Here’s a few rules: With the exception of the Reflective Retrospective films I saw (in this case, Brazil and Children of Men), these musings will be spoiler-free. Critical scenes and endings may be discussed, but not in a manner that specifically gives away anything that happens. Most of these films haven’t received a wide release as of this writing, and hopefully through these reflections I’ve compiled it can be gleaned which ones suit your interests.

Dive: Rituals in Water – Dir. Elín Hansdóttir, Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir, Hanna Björk Valsdóttir

As my first film of the festival, this was an adorable one to start. Dive: Rituals in Water was billed as the ultimate feel-good film of the festival and there’s a very good reason for that. If you like the idea of watching babies being cute for over an hour, this documentary starring Snorri Magnússon will give you your fill. After teaching young children for years how to swim, Magnússon showcases his unusual methods to help in developing babies to swim with their parents from a very young age. It’s cute, educational and has you going ‘aww!’ every two minutes.

Echo (BERGMÁL) – Dir. Rúnar Rúnarsson

Echo is one of the more experimental films, consisting of 56 individual scenes to form a portrait of Iceland’s social and political atmosphere. None of the scenes or characters connect to each other and the conversations between them vary; some are mundane pleasantries between friends, some are angry political arguments between family members, some concern immigration, agriculture, labour laws, as well as sexual and social politics. The unifying narrative thread is that they all take place around Christmas time. As far as experimental filmmaking goes, this was an interesting watch as it was unconcerned with narrative and story structure, instead focused on capturing the emotional and political state of a country at a decidedly unstable point. Despite only clocking in at 79 minutes, the slow pace and the mundane nature of some scenes while others resonate deeper has a hypnotising effect with their contrast. It’s storytelling with the purpose of capturing a moment in time, which makes it an interesting and engaging experiment.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am – Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I was genuinely thrilled to be able to catch this film because, in spite of knowing that Toni Morrison is a total badass, I was not as familiar with her work as I would like to have been. The documentary follows every aspect and reaction to her work as she carved her own place in literary history. This is a documentary that has the rare luck of Morrison herself narrating and explaining her perspectives that led to her books, as well as the varied reactions they garnered at the time of release. Covering her own life and the sociological circumstances behind most of her work, the film is an open and honest examination of one of modern literature’s greatest writers.

The Painted Bird – Dir. Václav Marhoul

The Painted Bird was one of the films I specifically asked for going in. Full disclosure: I knew it was going to be a doozy. I had looked it up the night before and all the early reviews I could find made note of its incredibly disturbing content based off the book by Jerzy Kosiński (a book originally claimed by Kosiński to be autobiographical but was later found to be almost entirely fictional). I’ve seen many a Euroshock film (films that take advantage of Europe’s lack of censorship laws to make some of the most disturbing and grotesque films ever made e.g. Cannibal Holocaust, Martyrs, Salo, A Serbian Film, etc) because I have a strange fascination with art that is not made to be liked. So many artists and filmmakers create films with the intention to either entertain or move the audience emotionally and I personally think it’s interesting to view films with other ambitions, even if they are just to shock or disgust.

However, just because they’re different or shocking does not always make these films worthwhile. In the case of The Painted Bird, it had easily the most walkouts of any of the films I attended (five in total, I honestly expected more). I have a very high tolerance for this kind of content, and perhaps that is the reason I couldn’t feel deeply for it. Take away the shock or disgust many of these scenes intend to provoke and there’s little else left to feel. In the story of a young boy and his interactions with various horrible characters following the death of his aunt in Poland during Nazi occupation, the film finds more poignancy in its more silently horrifying moments than it does with the over-the-top shock factor, which sadly takes up the majority of screen-time.

The cinematography is generally pretty stunning, and the black and white greatly enhances the nightmarish feeling of the boy as he navigates through all the horrendous situations that he finds himself in. Spiritually, it has more in common with Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See than it does Salo or The Human Centipede, but sadly doesn’t achieve the same horror or depth. There are small moments to be found amongst the brutality of many of the more infamous scenes that manage to find emotional weight, with many of them being completely silent and conveyed by expression alone. However, they come too few and far between scenes that are so brutal and nasty as well as only serving to add to the pure misery that permeates the whole film. It might a well be renamed “A Series of Unpleasant Events”.

The Painted Bird is very difficult to recommend to most people, but I can’t fully say I regretted seeing it for the few moments of beauty it had. It largely comes down to whether the average audience member believes over three hours of some of the most brutal and just plain gross content they will probably ever see is worth it just for a few profound moments. I remember the ending credits music being strangely gorgeous and it took the mixed feelings I was having and double-whisked them.

Brazil – Dir. Terry Gilliam

Brazil was one of those heavily respected, artistic and important British films that I could appreciate as a film student on every level save for a personal one when I first saw it. I firmly regarded it as a good film that I didn’t have a huge interest in re-watching once the credits rolled. However that was a while ago so I decided to attend the retrospective screening to see if I liked or disliked it more after the years. I found my feelings remained mostly the same.

Taking out my personal distaste for director Terry Gilliam, I respect the ingenuity and the craft of the film more than I appreciate the essence of the film itself. The acting from all the main players is still delightfully odd and there’s lots of awkward laughs to be had. I sincerely see from all angles how impressive a film it is. However, it still fails to grab me in any kind of profound manner due to its passive protagonist and that it simply hits most of the satirical points already made in the original 1984 novel with little to differentiate it save for a quirky British coat of paint. The only moment of true narrative catharsis that I love is the original ending, which ends the story perfectly as opposed to the terrible ‘Love conquers all’ ending. Brazil remains a very good film; it’s simply not one that I find any value in returning to after you’ve seen it once.

Les Misérables – Dir. Ladj Ly

The final act of Les Misérables left the cinema I was in pretty stunned. While the majority of the film consisted of a harsh yet fairly wacky story involving corrupt police, racially segregated gangs, every slur in the modern language used frequently, and a stolen lion, the conclusion takes the previous events in a radically intense direction. However, unlike a film discussed further down this list, Les Misérables’ ending feels like a natural progression to the previous tensions established throughout the whole film, with the inciting incident being the final straw in gang-related racial tensions against the state. It’s like following a long line of gunpowder until you reach the final massive explosion.

The Truth (LA VÉRITÉ) – Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

The pairing of director Kore-eda in his first French film with French acting legend Catherine Deneuve (one of the true French legends in my opinion) elevates The Truth beyond the standard fare. While the story is a small yet sensitive domestic story, Deneuve’s magnetism makes every scene infinitely more engaging, and the result is a tender yet not too melodramatic piece about familial relations and the nature of show business.

Children of Men – Dir.Alfonso Cuarón

It’s almost cliché to say that Children of Men has aged incredibly well since it first came out. There are so many parallels and added poignancy to the film since its release in 2006, it’s almost surreal to believe it wasn’t made sooner. But I believe that is the true enduring quality of Children of Men; some films will simply always be relevant.

It’s a testament to how good the writing of the film is that not one line of dialogue is wasted. Every line of exposition is directly relevant to the story being told and Cuarón rightfully condemns the practice of pointless explaining just to fill screen time (which is particularly refreshing in an era when some films go out of their way to explain every detail of their circumstances and themes because there are certain audience members who get very angry that their hands aren’t being held through the whole process). Unlike Brazil, Children of Men takes a sobering yet furiously hopeful look at its apocalypse. The world has gone mad in a way that’s all too easy to see manifest in our current times. While the infertility crisis that plagues the film’s setting has specific ramifications, it could be replaced with many pandemics or just the knowledge that the world around us feels like it’s dying little by little each day due to the cruelty these events can bring out in the worst of people. However, the film’s beautifully bittersweet conclusion carries such a grand weight under the simplest and kindest of actions. The action scenes are still just as exhilarating, the acting is pitch perfect and the soundtrack is fantastic.

Children of Men was a very good film when it first came out in 2006. In 2020, it might very well be one of the greatest films ever made.

Nobadi – Dir.Karl Markovics

Nobadi was another film that I heard was generating a lot of controversy at the festival. As well as inspiring several walkouts a la The Painted Bird, Nobadi was apparently a controversial inclusion from the very start with some of the festival staff hating it and others thinking it was brilliant. Unlike The Painted Bird, I barely knew anything about it going in.

Throughout most of the film, I was mildly invested but not engaged, as the slow pace and bleak tone began to wear down. The story of an old man (Heinz Trixner) hiring an undocumented immigrant worker (Borhanulddin Hassan Zadeh) to help him bury his deceased dog in his garden is an intriguing premise that becomes stretched too thin very quickly despite being one of the festival’s shorter films. The majority of the film does set up its conclusion rather well, but does so at a dreary pace until the ending rolls around. I wasn’t quite sure what was inspiring multiple walkouts until the final third, in which things take a turn for the gruesome. Unlike The Painted Bird, which firmly established its content and tone from the very beginning, Nobadi is a slow burn. The final act takes an unexpected swerve from the rest of the film, and in doing so it renders the previous events extremely hollow. It subverts expectations, but not in a way that would make it meaningful or insightful. It just ends on a rather sour and gruesome note and leaves the viewer to deal with it. If it were trying to get by purely on the shock value of the ending, it doesn’t feel worth slogging through the first eighty minutes just to see the final ten.

A Ghost Waits – Dir. Adam Stovall

The debut film of director and writer Adam Stovall, A Ghost Waits was the final film I saw at the festival. As much as I had enjoyed my time at the festival, I was also rather burnt out by the end of the week and wasn’t able to see many of the films available during the FrightFest weekend. But I did make an effort for this one, not least because I bumped into the director himself by pure coincidence!

A Ghost Waits was a very charming watch from beginning to end. Stovall’s love for the horror genre comes out in full force through both theme and several homages to The Shining, the Universal monster movies, Beetlejuice and more. It begins with the story of Jack (MacLeod Andrews), a down-on-his-luck guy responsible for repairing and cleaning a house which has the reputation of horrifying away any families or people that try to stay in it. Through circumstance, Jack is forced to stay in the house where he comes across weird visions and strange happenings designed by the resident ghost Muriel (Natalie Walker) to scare him away. However, when he refuses to leave despite being thoroughly freaked out, the two begin to communicate as her frustration with his lack of reaction grows.

The concept of ‘the monster movie’ has undergone some significant re-evaluation over the years in studies of horror cinema. Many monster movies such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, Bride of Frankenstein and The Fly have warranted analysis of them as reflections of cultural anxieties in the contemporary culture. In the past decade however, films dealing with monsters in an allegorical sense have veered more on the introspective side as opposed to anticipation of an external threat. There is more creative self-awareness as to what these monsters are meant to represent in the film.

One of the best examples I can think of in this regard is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, in which the film’s ‘monster’ is a genuinely misunderstood creature with a great deal of love and compassion who is treated terribly by the world around him and only through the selfless love of another person like him do they both manage to be free with each other. In the case of A Ghost Waits, the sweet connection that builds between Jack and Muriel as they become more comfortable with each other carries echoes of this sentiment. Through a lot of humorous hijinks (including an improv scene with a toilet), they come to an understanding that life hasn’t treated either of them fairly in a conclusion that’s equal parts dark and heart-warming. While their circumstances are different, both are at the same point in their lives (or afterlife, in Muriel’s case) where the world they inhabit takes no interest in them, leading them to find interest and eventually meaning in each other. The cultural anxiety present in A Ghost Waits is simply loneliness and the desire for purpose, which both Jack and Muriel resolve with each other.

A Ghost Waits is a darkly funny yet also sweet film created by a director who clearly loves mixing horror and comedy to create something personal. It was a good way to end the week.