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2017, the best of the year: films

A couple of years ago, I thought it might be a good idea to try and watch all the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition). This year I also decided to try and watch a film from as many countries as I could. Both challenges have been going quite well: I’ve watched 897 of the 1001 so far, 56 of them seen for the first time this year; and I’ve watched movies from 53 countries… although only Thailand, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Venezuela, Mongolia, Georgia, Vietnam, Peru, Singapore, Jordan, Jamaica, Estonia, Cuba and Romania were new to me in 2017.

It also occurred to me in 2017 that most of the films I watched were directed by men. So I started to track the genders of the directors whose films I watch in an effort to see more films by female directors. Unfortunately, female directors are hugely outnumbered by men, especially in Hollywood, and I managed only 43 films by women during the year. Having said that, a couple of those female directors became names I plan to keep an eye on, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo.

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I watched 602 films in 2017, although only 532 were new to me this year. I also decided in 2017 to watch more documentaries, and ended up watching so many that I thought it best to split my film best of the year lists into two, one for documentaries and one for “fictional” films… except I’m not sure what to call the latter, but I think “narrative cinema” is the preferred term.

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1 I am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba) [1]. I loved Humberto Solás’s Lucía after watching it, and I wanted to see Tomáz Guttiérez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment a second time, and there was this box set from Mr Bongo that included both, as well as I am Cuba and Strawberry and Chocolate. So I bought the box set… and was blown away when I watched I am Cuba, a documentary commissioned by the Soviets to promote Cuba, but which was so innovative it was never actually released. Kalatozov reportedly strung cameras on wires, but even knowing that it’s hard to work out how he achieved some of his shots. And this was in 1964, when there was no CGI. I am Cuba also presents the island as a near-utopia, and while the USSR and its satellite nations were never that, they at least aspired to it – which is more than can be said of the West. The American Dream isn’t utopia, it’s a deeply mendacious justification for the success of the few at the expense of the many. Even now, 53 years after I am Cuba was made, Cuba remains poor, but has one of the best free healthcare systems on the planet, and the US is rich and its healthcare system is unaffordable by the bulk of its population. Some things are more important than giving a handful of people the wherewithal to buy their own Caribbean island.

2 The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not watched a film by Guzmán, why not? The Pearl Button is a meditation on the universe, water, the history of Chile, especially the Pinochet dictatorship, and the genocide of the country’s indigenous people. It’s a mix of stock footage and gorgeously-shot film, all tied together by the calm voice of Guzmán. He describes how Pinochet’s goons would torture people and then dump their bodies offshore from helicopters. He interviews supporters of Salazar, president before Pinochet’s coup, who were put in concentration camps. He speaks to the handful of survivors of the Alacalufe and Yaghan tribes of Patagonia, which in the late 1880s were infected with Western diseases, and the survivors hunted for bounty, by settlers. He discusses Jeremy Button, a a Yaghan tribesman taken back to Britain on the HMS Beagle in 1830 (it was when returning Jeremy Button to Patagonia a year later that Darwin first travelled aboard the HMS Beagle). The Pearl Button is not only an important film because of what it covers, but a beautifully-shot one too. You should watch it.

3 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China) [2]. This year I went on something of a China/Taiwan cinema kick. I forget what started it off, but I discovered lots of new names to watch and lots of excellent films. Zhao Liang I had, I think, put on my rental list because his films sounded like Jia Zhangke’s , who was already a favourite. But Zhao makes documentaries, and Behemoth is about coal in China, the mines and those who live on their periphery and survive by gleaning. Zhao’s earlier work has been very critical of the Chinese authorities – meaning his films are not wholly official – but they are also beautifully framed. And in Behemoth, he goes one further and uses split-screen, but also arranging his screens in such a way they’re not initially obvious as split-screen and then suddenly turn kaleidoscopic. It’s not a technique I’ve seen before, and it probably wouldn’t work in most situations, but it’s absolutely brilliant here. Zhao Liang is a name to watch.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France) [4]. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s films for many years and own copies of much of what he’s directed during his long career. I’d heard about Francofonia some time in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 it appeared, and not until 2017 it was released in the UK – and only at Curzon cinemas, but, annoyingly, only the Curzon cinemas in London. FFS. I’d liked to have seen it on a big screen. But I had to console myself with the Blu-ray. Which was pretty much as I expected – a typical Sokurovian mix of documentary, meditation, narrative cinema and autobiography – although the production values were a distinct cut above his previous work. It’s a good entry in Sokurov’s oeuvre, if not one of his best ones, but even merely good Sokurov is still so much better than most film-makers can manage. It’s also been heartening seeing how well it has been received… because that means we might see more films from Sokurov. Because I want more, lots more.

5 Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). I loved Koyaanisqatsi when I watched it last year, and I later learned that its director of photography, Ron Fricke, had made a pair of similar non-narrative films himself: Baraka and Samsara. They’re basically footage of various parts of the planet, with only the most tenuous of links and no over-arching story. The emphasis is entirely on the imagery, which is uniformly gorgeous. Of the two, I thought the second, Samsara, much the better one.The footage is beautiful, the parts of the world it covers fascinating, and it’s one of the few films out there which gives you faith in humanity. I quite fancy having my own copy of this.

Honourable mentions: The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK) astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Baraka, Ron Fricke (1992, USA) gorgeous non-narrative cinema from around the world; Festival Express, Bob Smeaton (2003, UK) 1970 tour across Canada aboard a train featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others; Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA) Johnson’s life stitched together from outtakes from her documentaries and privately-shot footage; Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria) affecting fly-on-the-wall film of an ambulance crew in Sofia’s beleagured healthcare system; Petition: The Court of Appeals, Zhao Liang (2009, China) filmed in the shanty town outside Beijing where petitioners lived while waiting the years it took for their appeals to be heard, if ever.

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1 The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). I loved this film – it’s perhaps a stretch to call it narrative cinema as it’s also partly a documentary. Anyway, I loved this film… so much I went and bought everything by Ben Rivers that was available (no surprise, then, that his two other feature-length films get honourable mentions below). The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – the title is taken from a Paul Bowles story, which partly inspires it – opens as a documentary of Olivier Laxe filming Mimosas. But then Bowles’s story intrudes, and Laxe, a real person, and his film is indeed real and has been released… Laxe’s story morphs into the plot of Bowles’s short story. This is brilliant cinema, an unholy mix of documentary, fiction, literary reference, art installation and narrative cinema.

2 Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). I knew Watkins from The War Game and Punishment Park, both mock documentaries about very real horrors; so when I watched Privilege it came as something of a surprise. True, it’s similar, in as much as it’s a mock documentary, set a few years ahead of when it was made; but it also seems a more tongue-in-cheek film, and plays up the ridiculousness of its premise. The segment where the star is filming a government commercial for apples, for example, is hilarious. In the movie, Watkins posits a fascist UK in which a pop star is used as a symbol to make unpleasant government policies more palatable. We’ve yet to see that happen here, if only because politicians foolishly believe they have media presence. They don’t. They’re as personable as a block of rancid butter. And often as intelligent (BoJo, I’m looking at you; but also Gove, Hammond, Davies, Rudd…) We should be thankful, I suppose, because if they ever did decide to use a media star with actual charisma, we’d be totally lost. On the other hand, satire apparently died sometime around 2015, so perhaps Watkins may prove more prophetic than he knew…

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia) [3]. I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and stuck it on my watch list. It was later recommended to me, so I sat down and watched it, and… it was excellent. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematography is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). 2017 was a bit of a Pasolini year for me. I bought a boxed set of his films on Blu-ray, and worked my way through them – although a number I’d seen before. Arabian Nights feels like an ur-Pasolini film, in that it does so well some of the things some of his films were notable for – a non-professional cast acting out elements of a story cycle in remote locations. The title gives the source material, but the look of the movie is pure Pasolini – although much of it comes down to his choice of locations in North Africa. Of all the Pasolini films I’ve seen, this is by far the prettiest; and if its treatment of its material is somewhat idiosyncratic, 1001 Nights is far too complex a source for honest adaptation.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China) [5]. I “discovered” Jia in 2016, but it was obvious he was a director to keep on eye on, and so I sought out his other works. Including this one. Which I thought worked especially well – not that this other films are bad, on the contrary they’re excellent. But something about this one especially appealed to me. It’s set at a theme park containing famous buildings from around the world. The movie follows two workers there, one a dancer and the other a security guard. The film is a sort of laid-back thriller, in which the cast move around the artificial world of the theme park, trying to make ends meet, and trying to keep their relationship together. The World has a documentary feel to it, and often seems more fly-on-the-wall than narrative drama. But I think it’s its literalisation of the term “microcosm” that really makes the film.

Honourable mentions: Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic) grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia)  languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India) more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China) grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China) cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru) affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan) a lovely piece of Japanese animation; Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France) a thinly-veiled retelling of the Virgin Mary Godard turns into a compelling drama; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand) the best of Weerasethakul’s atypical fractured-narrative films I’ve seen so far, mysterious and beautifully shot; O Pagador de Promessas, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil) the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’or, an excellent piece of Cinema Novo;  Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France) enigmatic meditation on memory presented as a laid-back domestic drama; The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA) pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s B-movie supernatural thriller that also manages to be feminist; Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK) see above.

 

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Films do furnish a room

In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…

I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.

After watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (see here), which I had rented, I went and bought everything available by the director, Ben Rivers. Which is A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell; see here) and Two Years at Sea. Totally worth it. A director whose career I will be following from now on.

An international bunch here. Splendid Float is Tawianese (see here), Kurotoage is Japanese (see here) and Se Eu Fosse Você 1 and Se Eu Fosse Você 2 are so-so Brazilian comedies (see here).

The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #50

Not so much of a geographical spread this time, with two films from the US. One of the US films is especially timely, despite being more than seventy years old.

Keeper of the Flame, George Cukor (1943, USA). An American hero, Robert Forrest, is killed in a car crash, and the nation mourns. Journalist Spencer Tracy is intrigued by the response of the family, especially widow Katherine Hepburn, and decides to dig deeper… only to discover the dead man had been using his wealth to build a fascist organisation bent on seizing control of the country. Sound familiar? This is not a great film: Tracey is coasting, Hepburn was desperate after a couple of duds, and the final act is muddled and relies too much on a massive infodump. But the idea of a populist leader courting fascists to gain power – I’m talking about Trump, just in case you’re too dim to spot the resemblance – is certainly something that resonates now. Forrest’s death is initially presented as an accident – he died when a bridge on his estate gave way during a fierce storm… but was the bridge sabotaged? The focus on the truth behind Forrest’s death pretty much dictates the plot for much of the film’s length, but it’s a red herring – he was killed because of his plans, and that’s where the film’s focus should have been. Disappointing.

Kurotokage, Kinji Fukasaku (1968, Japan). When I saw this film was based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, I thought the name was a Japanisation of Edgar Allen Poe. But it turns out there really was a Japanese writer called Edogawa Rampo, although, yes, it was a pen name and it is indeed a rendering of Poe’s name. Rampo was a seminal writer in Japan’s mystery genre, and the story of Kurotokage (AKA Black Lizard) is one of his. The title refers to the head of a criminal organisation, played in the film by female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, who kidnaps a jeweler’s daughter as part of a plan to steal the jeweler’s most famous piece. It’s the sort of 1960s thriller tosh the Italians churned out by the yard and the Americans managed to avoid because New Hollywood got in the way – none of which means it’s not entertaining. Isao Kimura as the detective Akechi is smooth and perhaps too much of a stereotype, but Maruyama plays a good villain; and the improbable convolutions of the plot manage to stay just the right side of sense. And it all looks very 1960s, Japanese-style, which is a plus. Wikipedia claims the film is not available on DVD, and it certainly took me several years before I found a copy – but yes, there is a DVD release, Japanese but with English subtitles, it just takes a bit of searching to find. Not a great film, but one worth seeing.

Melody Time, Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson (1948, USA). During WWII, Disney trotted out a series of anthology films designed chiefly to keep its studio of animators in work. Which is not to say that every segment in this particular film feels like makework. It’s all very dated and of its time, true, and some of the animation is not as good as other works from Disney’s heyday. But a lot of it is very good, even if it’s sometimes unsure of what register it should be in – so the story about the two lovers who go ice-skating can’t decide on melodrama or comedy; and it’s not the only one. The animation is mostly of the same sort of design as that of Sleeping Beauty, probably my favourite Disney film… but the last segment of Melody Time‘s seven sequences is a mix of live action and animation, featuring Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. It comes across like the sort of kids’ programme you’d expect 1040s American television to have produced – albeit in colour – with an earnest adult celebrity earnestly patronising a group of credulous kids that were clearly cast for their looks and their ability to look and sound credulous. I actually enjoyed the film, and took it for what it was, an historical document,

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK). So, after watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, I went and bought everything else Rivers had done that was available on DVD. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is actually a collaboration with American film-maker Ben Russell – and the DVD includes Russell’s 2013 short, Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness follows musician Lichens on an island off the Estonian coast, in a forest in northern Finland, and as vocalist at a gig in Norway for a black metal band created for the film. The print is crisper than Rivers’s earlier Two Years at Sea – I’m guessing he didn’t use the same production technique and develop it at home – although there’s a similar love of static shots of steaming forests. This is another film where the landscape plays an important role, and I am a big fan of films that make effective use of landscape. I said in an earlier Moving pictures post that in a Rivers film plot was treated as an “emergent phenomenon”, and while A Spell to Ward off the Darkness was clearly and consciously constructed to tell a story – it has three parts! – it displays that same plotlessness. So there’s that dichotomy between a deliberately-designed narrative and the appearance of no narrative – and I like that narrative design can include the possiblility of no narrative, that some people actively seek to tell stories in ways that seem to disobey most rules of narrative. With someone like Rivers, I find I value his work for its cinematography – often excellent, but occasionally clichéd – and for its refusal to follow cinematic narratives.  I’m interested in narrative structures, both in film and fiction, which probably explains why I find Godard so fascinating and commercial fiction so dull. Rivers is that odd beast, an artist working in narrative cinema – which presents its own set of problems and its own reasons for appeal. I shall certainly be following his career from now on.

Splendid Float, Zero Chou (2004, Taiwan). Not sure where I came across mention of this film, but I had to buy a Chinese DVD from eBay in order to see it. And… yes, it was worth it. A young man spends his days as a Taoist priest and his nights as a drag queen on a travelling float. One night, he meets a fisherman and the two fall in love. He later learns the fisherman has died in mysterious circumstances, and determines to discover the truth of his death. But this isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more a study of the priest’s grief. It would feel like a Taiwanese version of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – an over-rated film, I think – if it focused chiefly on the eponymous, er, float. But it doesn’t. While it presents a mystery regarding the fisherman’s death, it doesn’t make a serious attempt to resolve it. As a Taoist priest, the young man is asked to officiate at a ceremony to pacify the young man’s spirit – and it’s there where the heart of the film lies. For the ceremony to be effective, it needs an article of clothing worn by the deceased. The mother and grandmother have forgotten to bring something; the priest happens to be wearing a T-shirt given to him by the fisherman when last he saw him. There’s a slight weirdness in that the Taoist priest is presented a bit like an ambulance chaser, ie, occupying an office, with a manager, and having to chase up business in order to ensure everyone’s wages are paid. Chou is highly-regarded as a documentary film-maker, although she has also made nine feature films. There’s a joy to Splendid Float, despite its subject, which many films of its like fail to achieve. I might start looking for more of Chou’s films…

Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). After damning Godard with faint praise in a previous Moving pictures post, I found the cinematography in Je vous salue, Marie really very fetching. In fact, I think it might be one of my favourite Godard films – after Le mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (and no, I don’t know why I keep on using the translated title for the latter). The story is a pretty blunt retelling of the Virgin Birth, with college dropout boyfriend Joseph and Uncle Gabriel, a rich uncle who jets in and tells Marie she will become pregnant. The film was unpopular with the religious lobby, chiefly because of full-frontal nudity in such an obvious Biblical retelling. One irate viewer at Cannes apparently threw a shaving cream pie at Godard. There’s some lovely nature photography in the film, much more noticeably than in any other Godard film I’ve seen, and although it’s a terrible cliché to use nature’s variety as illustrative of God’s purpose, Godard frames the epiphany entirely from the title character’s viewpoint. I’ve now watched Je vous salue, Marie several times and I’m still trying to work out if it’s Godard’s masterpiece. Le mépris is an obviously excellent piece of film-making, and it’s plain from the first frame. Two or Three Things I Know About Her I admire because it breaks so many of the rules of narrative cinema. But Je vous salue, Marie… I tweeted while watching it that Godard had done more to expand the language of cinema than any other director, and, okay, the comment was prompted by watching this film after a glass or two of wine… But, ignoring those directors from the very early days of film-making who basically wrote the language of narrative cinema, then, yes, I think Godard has done more to expand narrative cinema than any other director of narrative cinema. US experimental and avant-garde cinema, such as that by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren or Bruce Baillie, doesn’t seem to have impacted commercial cinema much, if at all; European avant-garde directors tended to get subsumed into the mainstream. Of course, these days, there are also artists who use video, or video installations (the distinction is important), as their medium, such as Richard Mosse, Ed Atkins or Cécile B Evans, all of whose work I’ve recently found fascinating. Je vous salue, Marie is Godard doing commercial narrative cinema after many years away from it, and I’m still not sure what to make of it – its use of the female experience, its Biblical story-line, its nudity, its nature photography, its classical music soundtrack, its topic… There’s too much in there I’ve seen explored by other directors I admire, and while I don’t believe one or the other is an homage to one or the other, or a reference, or even a straight borrowing, it intrigues me they’ve all pulled the same tools out of the toolbox to tell different stories. Je vous salue, Marie is not one of Godard’s best-regarded films: I think that might be wrong.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880