We asked our film and media lecturers for their top recommendations for students to watch before starting a degree. Here are 10 films chosen by Dr Tanya Horeck.
1. For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts, UK/Syria, 2019)
For Sama is an urgent documentary told from the first-person point of view of female director Waad Al-Kateab as she attempts, with her family and friends, to survive the siege in Aleppo, Syria. At once deeply personal and fiercely political, the film is addressed to Al-Kateab’s daughter, Sama, who was born during the military conflict. I plan to teach For Sama on my documentary film theory course for a long time to come.
2. 13th (Ava DuVernay, USA, 2016)
Directed by Ava DuVernay, 13th is a political documentary about the mass incarceration of African Americans in the US. Told through various talking heads (including the magnificent Angela Davis), the documentary illustrates how the long history of racism in the US and the ongoing criminalization of Black men, works to perpetuate social injustice on a mass scale. It is a smart, incisive, and devastating documentary. Watch it alongside DuVernay’s When They See Us (both available on Netflix).
3. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, USA, 2019)
The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, Booksmart is a funny, feminist, and queer take on the teenage coming of age film. It is a delight to teach. While it wasn’t a commercial success, it was a critical one, and rightly so because it does some fresh and interesting things with the teen genre.
4. American Honey (Andrea Arnold, USA/UK, 2016)
American Honey is British director Andrea Arnold’s first film set in America. It’s a road movie that follows a group of marginalized young people as they travel across the midWest selling magazines. There are so many gorgeous, tactile and affecting moments throughout this film. One of its set piece scenes is set in a Wal Mart, where Jake (Shia Labeouf) dances to Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ (‘in a hopeless place’) as he tries to woo a young woman named Star (Sasha Lane). Need I say more?
5. The Falling (Carol Morley, UK, 2014)
Directed by Carol Morley, The Falling (2014) stars Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh in their debut film roles. It is a mysterious, sensuous film set at an English all-girls school where the girls, one after the other, begin to have fainting spells. Mark Kermode suggests that the film confirms Morley’s ‘distinctive cinematic voice’ and I would have to agree. A beguiling film.
6. Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, USA, 1991)
This is the only film on my list by a male director (Ridley Scott), though its Oscar-winning screenplay was written by female scriptwriter Callie Khouri. Released in 1991, the film continues to have cultural resonance and it is fascinating to return to it in the wake of the #metoo movement. It contains remarkable performances from Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis and it boasts what is surely one of the greatest ‘a star is born’ moments in cinematic history with Brad Pitt’s appearance on the screen as Thelma’s love interest, J.D.
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, USA/UK, 2011)
There are other films by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay that I could have easily chosen but I’ve decided to go with We Need to Talk About Kevin – her adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver. It’s essentially a horror film about motherhood and while it is certainly topical in the wake of America’s school shooting problem, it is ‘not an issue film’, as Ramsay notes. Refusing to ever judge the mother (played by Tilda Swinton), the film articulates its emotions through strong visual imagery dominated by the colour red.
8. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 1991)
How’s this for a startling fact: As of 2020, Kathryn Bigelow remains the only female director to have won a Best Director Oscar in Hollywood history (she won in 2010 for The Hurt Locker). Point Break (1991) remains one of my favourite Bigelow films: not only does it feature Bigelow’s trademark thrilling action sequences, it also stars a young Keanu Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah and contains some first-rate homo-erotic bonding with surfer Bodhi (played by Patrick Swayze).
9. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, Canada, 2019)
This is one of the most powerful viewing experiences I’ve had in a long time. Shot in 16mm, and told in real time with one long (for the most part) unbroken take, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a Canadian indie film about domestic violence. The film quietly and intimately immerses viewers in the encounter between the two indigenous women at the heart of the story, Rosie (Violet Nelson) and Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers). Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, Array, acquired the rights to The Body Remembers, and it is now available for viewing on Netflix.
10. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2012)
Stories We Tell is a film that will always be on any list I have to write because it is a film that has my heart. Canadian actress turned writer/director Sarah Polley tells the story of her family and their secrets through a series of interviews and re-enactments. It breaks my heart every time I watch it.
By Dr Tanya Horeck
Reader in Film, Media and Culture
Tanya's expertise includes digital violence and spectatorship; gender, sexuality, and feminism; theories of violence and affect; and crime and representation.