The Story of Looking (2021)

Where’s it on? Cinemas nationwide and digital platforms including BFI Player

Made during the pandemic, Mark Cousins’ latest documentary is one of his most inspiring yet. It joins him at home in his bed on the day before he’s due to undergo eye surgery on a cataract in his left eye – a critical juncture that finds the cinephile filmmaker reflecting on a lifetime of looking. Jumping freely between film clips, paintings and his own footage shot around the globe, it curates a typically idiosyncratic, ruminative and impassioned catalogue of moments and associations, which demonstrate the profound richness of our visual experience. Life is cast as an adventure in light, colour, landscapes, bodies and visual culture. It’s a lockdown film that makes you see the world anew.

Talking About Trees (2019)

Where’s it on? BFI Player

The famous “I’m ready for my close-up” final shot of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd (1950) is a reference point in The Story of Looking, and by coincidence it’s also re-enacted in the opening scene of this wise and defiant Sudanese documentary. Its subject is four ageing directors whose careers were cut short when the 1989 coup d’état effectively put the stops on filmmaking and cinemagoing in Sudan. No less than Mark Cousins, these men have cinema in their blood (the glimpses of their own films are spellbinding), and Talking About Trees follows their persevering attempts in the present day to host a free screening – the locals ask for Django Unchained – in a derelict outdoor cinema in the city of Omdurman. Suhaib Gasmelbari’s film is now on BFI Player as part of a small celebration of contemporary Arab cinema.

The Voyeurs (2021)

Where’s it on? Amazon Prime

Here’s another story of looking – but more the anxious, paranoid impulse favoured by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. It’s a curtain-twitching mystery in the grand tradition of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), with the retro flavour of a 90s erotic thriller updated to the social media age. A young couple moves into a spacious Montreal apartment and begins to spy on a couple in the block opposite. At first, they’re titillated by their neighbours’ sexual antics, but things inevitably take a darker turn, director Michael Mohan offering up plenty of witty moments and narrative surprises that help you ride along with the increasing silliness. 

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Back in cinemas for its 80th anniversary, the 1941 version of Dashiell Hammett’s mystery novel The Maltese Falcon is still luxurious entertainment. One of the first major film noirs, it set a template for the subgenre with its snarky private-eye hero (Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade), its treacherous femme fatale (Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy) and its visual emphasis on shadows and dark urban spaces. It was the film that fixed Bogart as a lead player after years in supporting parts, and launched former screenwriter John Huston’s illustrious directing career. The plot hinges on the hunt for the eponymous bird statuette – a priceless artefact that brings into Spade’s orbit those immortal ne’er-do-wells Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

Where’s it on? Cinemas nationwide

Themes of re-enactment, performance and identity have dominated the work of writer-director team Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor since their haunting 2008 debut Helen. Rose Plays Julie, which finally arrives in cinemas having premiered at the London Film Festival back in 2019, is their most effective film yet – a provocative, questioning, enigmatic thriller about a woman’s attempts to discover the truth about the parents who gave her up for adoption as a child. First stalking her mum online, then channelling a series of guises to confront them in turn, Rose’s attempts to get to grips with the circumstances of her conception play out as a cool, disquieting mystery. But it’s the layers of performance and the film’s unflinching excavation of buried trauma that keep you puzzling over this exceptional film for nights after.