Ten of the Best Films to Stream From Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Pin It
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, 2021
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, 2021(Film still)

Josh Slater-Williams lists the best films you can rent as part of this year’s GFF – from the absurdist dark comedy debut feature of Greek director Christos Nikou to a drama about two men tasked with watching a kidnapped child

The 17th Glasgow Film Festival has had to go fully online thanks to lockdown measures but, on the plus side, this model means that you can catch some of the best new films from around the world from the comfort of your home, wherever you are in the UK. And though the selection is a lot smaller than a traditional in-person edition in the Scottish city, the curation remains strong. In alphabetical order, here are ten of the best films you can rent as part of this year’s GFF, which runs from 24 February to 7 March.

Apples, 2020

A number of films shot pre-Covid but released since have ended up accidentally timely, either due to featuring literal pandemics as plot points or thanks to themes of general hopelessness and uncertainty. The absurdist dark comedy debut feature of Greek director Christos Nikou, Apples has several of these qualities, plus a dreaded brain fog symptom. Amidst a global pandemic that causes sudden amnesia, a recovery programme looks to help patients build new identities when they’ve not been claimed by any concerned family.

Black Bear, 2020

Employing a fascinating diptych structure that may well frustrate many, Lawrence Michael Levine’s vaguely horror-adjacent Black Bear stars the always excellent trio of Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon. A meta, sharp look at how bringing loved ones and oneself into an artistic vision can have toxic consequences, it’s a heady mix of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Dreams on Fire, 2021

Far from the sort of film you might expect to have its world premiere through a Scottish film festival, Dreams on Fire is a Canadian-Japanese co-production that’s something like Step Up crossed with a workplace drama. The feature directing debut of Philippe McKie, it’s an electric, hypnotic look at Tokyo’s various underground dance subcultures (from hip-hop and go-go to fetish-centred acts), as lead character Yume (Bambi Naka) struggles navigating the city’s gig economy while following her dream.

First Cow, 2019

A decade on from her revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt returns to Oregon territory of the early 1800s once more. While a subtle commentary on capitalism and the lack of contentment it provides, First Cow is also just a terrific, charming odd couple movie, following a loner cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) as they collaborate on a baking business venture that involves sneakily sourcing milk from the lone cow in the area, which is the property of a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones). Few filmmakers imbue intimate personal stories with such a profound sense of history at the same time.

The Old Ways, 2020

Christopher Alender’s visceral Veracruz-set chiller The Old Ways presents a compelling spin on the standard formats of exorcism and body horror movies. For one thing, it’s largely told from the perspective of the supposedly possessed party: Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales), a Mexican-American journalist returning to her ancestral home for a potential story, only to be imprisoned on suspicion of hosting a demon.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, 2021

Co-directed by Poly Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell, alongside Paul Sng, the intimate I Am a Cliché explores the life and legacy of the first woman of colour to front a successful British rock band (X-Ray Spex). Central to the film’s narrative is Bell herself, who grew up with someone quite different from the iconoclastic figure of her mother’s public image. Sensitively tackling issues of mental illness, the doc also allows the singer’s own thoughts to be transmitted, through diary entries and poems she wrote, audibly performed by Oscar nominee Ruth Negga.

Riders of Justice, 2020

Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen’s latest is a pitch-black comedy that’s curiously reminiscent of a (considerably) more violent riff on some of the same themes as the recent Andrew Garfield-starring Under the Silver Lake (2018) – namely amateur sleuths burrowing down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and coincidences to try explaining away, or avenging, a sudden absence in their lives. Mads Mikkelsen shines as a soldier led to believe his wife’s death in a train crash was not purely down to fate.

Sweetheart, 2021

Not long after Claire Oakley’s horror-tinged Make Up (2019), Sweetheart is another debut feature from a British filmmaker (Marley Morrison) that concerns a lesbian coming-of-age romance at a holiday park. This one is decidedly lighter in spirit, however, though its dramatic beats are no less potent. Dragged from Luton to the coast against her will, socially awkward 17-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow) is brought out of her shell by the slightly older Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a lifeguard. Funny, tender and unafraid of accurately presenting the annoyances of teenage angst, Sweetheart marks out its stars and director as major talents to watch.

Underplayed, 2020

Stacey Lee’s lively documentary Underplayed is broadly an examination of gender inequality in the contemporary electronic dance scene, though it also hops around time to pay tribute to early pioneers in electronic music, such as Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos (soundtrack composer on The Shining and A Clockwork Orange). When it comes to the modern-day content, Lee filmed over a full summer festival season, following a number of hopeful rising talents alongside some of the very few female names who’ve cracked the prestigious Top 100 DJs list (Rezz and TokiMonsta among them). Play loud.

Voice of Silence, 2020

Shoplifters (2018), Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s Cannes prize-winning drama, saw a makeshift family of small-time crooks take in a child, who becomes a participant in their thievery. Korean filmmaker Hong Eui-jeong’s wild Voice of Silence plays something like a riff on that same loose story setup, albeit with a much trickier tonal tightrope and a far more extreme type of criminal activity. Here, two men who clean up after an organisation’s murders are suddenly tasked with watching a kidnapped child for a few days, only for their client who’s blackmailing the parents to get murdered himself.