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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.

films
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.

documentary
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.

narrative
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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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. 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 cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; 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 animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Moving pictures 2017, #22

Two from the US in this post, although one is an independent film and the other Disney. I’m trying to work my way through the classic Disney films, for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time. To be honest, it’s been quite entertaining – and I’ve been surprised by what I’ve enjoyed…

The Sword in the Stone, Wolfgang Reitherman (1963, USA). I’m pretty sure I read TH White’s novel of the same name when I was a kid, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Disney adaptation of it. Until now. And it was… serviceable. Disney was still flying high back in 1963, but I expected more of The Sword in the Stone than it actually delivered. It didn’t help that all the supporting roles were played with a variety of British accents but the role of Arthur sounded like your typical petulant American teenager. Which is, I guess, their target audience. The animation was pretty good, without being flashy, and there were one or two moments which reminded me of Sleeping Beauty (still my favourite Disney)… But it all felt a bit like a bad adaptation – and I’m going on distant memories of the book and, er, being British and the Matter of Britain being a, er, British thing, so that may be totally unfair – and for all the nice bits in the film it kind of ruined it a bit for me. It didn’t feel timeless, in the way Sleeping Beauty or Snow White do, and instead felt like a 1960s adaptation of the source material. That also took liberties with the legend. The animation was mostly lovely, the jokes based on Merlin’s character and crockery handled well… But… It never really quite shone for me. I’m tempted to put it in my top ten of Disney films, but maybe around number seven or eight, although I’m having trouble filling the rest of the ten…

Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru). I didn’t actually pick this for my rental list, but it’s the second disc in The Milk of Sorrow DVD release and, for whatever reason, LoveFilm sent it me the week after The Milk of Sorrow. I’m still trying to decide if it’s the better film of the two. I certainly liked it more. The title is the name of a young woman in the village of Manayaycuna (which apparently means “the town no one can enter”) and her experiences during the Holy Time festival. During that period – Good Friday to Easter Monday – the villagers believe God cannot see sins. A traveller from Lima arrives and is locked away, but Madeinusa helps him escape in return for taking her to the capital. It doesn’t go as planned, of course. Everyone is using everyone else, and though the villagers of Manayaycuna live miles from anywhere, they’re not the simple yokels they appear to be. Madeinusa’s sister hates her, and actively scuppers her plan to escape. And it all ends badly for everyone concerned. The lives depicted are totally convincing, despite being set in an invented village, and some of the idiocyncracies of the village are so mad they feel like they can only be real. I’m a big fan of dramas that have a documentary feel, and both of Llosa’s films are good at that. After seeing The Milk of Sorrow I wanted to see more by Llosa; after watching Madeinusa, I’m defnitely going to watch more by Llosa. Recommended.

Samaritan Girl, Kim Ki-duk (2004, South Korea). It was David Tallerman who turned me onto Kim Ki-duk, although looking at Ki-duk’s filmography I don’t think all of his films are going to appeal. I certainly thought 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring very good, but was less taken with The Bow. He’s probably a director whose oeuvre is still worth exploring, however. Samaritan Girl was much like those other films, while at the same time completely different. It matched their seeming lack of narrative, while still following a clear plot. But then Hollywood really doesn’t get narrative, and its stupidly slavish devotion to the three-act structure, or is it the one about rescuing the cat, I forget which story guru is current, is a clear indication of creative bankruptcy. Fortunately, Hollywood is not the be-all and end-all of cinema. The title of Samaritan Girl refers to one of two schoolgirls, who acts as ponce for her friend. The two want to visit Europe and one of the two girls is prostituting herself to pay for the trip. But during a police raid, she jumps from a hotel-room window and later dies from the fall. So the titular girl decides to meet up with all of her friend’s sexual partners and refund their money – after having sex with them. But her father is a police detective, and he accidentally discovers what she is up to, and ends up killing one of her clients… The cover art to the DVD is amongst the most misleading of any DVD cover art I’ve seen. Samaritan Girl is a well-drawn drama about two teenage girls and the desperate lengths they go to… which then turns into a tense thriller as the father of one commits murder. There’s nothing salacious in it. And, er, no nuns. Ki-duk was a good call. I’m not convinced every film Ki-duk will appeal, but the ones I’ve seen so far have been very good.

Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt (2008, USA). I came across Reichardt’s name on Alternate Ending, an excellent film blog, and though US indie cinema is not my thing, I added some of Reichardt’s films to my rental list because I really need to watch more films by female directors. The title refers to a young woman who is drifting about the US, and her dog. And when she is arrested for vagrancy, her dog is sent to the local pound. And then adopted by a family before Wendy can get herself released. And that’s about it. The film stars Michelle Williams, who has been flavour of the month in US cinema for a year or two now, and to be honest there’s little in the film that really stands out. It’s a well-played drama, and Williams is good without actually shining in the role – but the story is so low-key the film seems sadly lacking in drama for much of its length. I’ll be watching Reichardt because I think her importance to US cinema is under-estimated, but there’s not much in Wendy and Lucy that suggests any promise of greatness. It’s an enjoyable and subtle drama, but not especially memorable.

Austeria, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1983, Poland). The title is apparently a term used by Polish Jews to refer to an inn. And in this case, it’s toward the end of the WWI, and is chiefly concerned with the Germans fleeing through the area, pursued by the Cossacks. The Jews have already left, but the innkeeper insists on staying on. And… The Hateful Eight, this is not. In a good way. For a start, there’s more than eight people staying in the inn. And there are also lots of Jewish rituals – to such an extant, they actually break the world of the film by presenting a service so much better subscribed, and better resourced, than could possibly be the case. Bits of Austeria had a Tarkovskian feel, in that way Tarkovsky dramatised inevitability, and its acceptance, so well. In other respects, Austeria felt like a typical Polish historical drama – it is, it must be said, easier to judge the verismilitude of UK historical dramas because it is the history I grew up in (well, actually, I didn’t; as I grew up in the Middle East), unlike US historical dramas, because the US doesn’t have a history… which is a long-winded way of saying that Polish history, indeed Middle European history, is mostly a blank to me. Which means I’m going to find a film in such a setting more convincing than someone who is a product of that history. I thought Austeria  made a good fist of its period, but my judgement means little. Kawalerowicz was a name new to me, and I’ve explored Polish cinema, until I watched Pharoah (see here), but he looks to have an interesting oeuvre. Austeria was one of the better films from the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets…

Night Train, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1959, Poland). I’ve no idea how I ended up watching two Kawalerowicz mvoies in a row, I guess it was just the way they came out of the box. And this was a much earlier film too – black-and-white, as well. It’s set entirely aboard a train, as a man argues asbout his compartment and then finds himself involved in a murder. Given the British approach to trains – we invented them, we are now apparently incapable of operating them in a way that works for their passengers – I’m always somewhat bemused by films set on trains in other countries. Yes, we had sleepers in the UK, but that was long before I was born, while many European countries still operate them. But much as I’d like to complain about British trains, and the Tories who created the current railway situation, and the people stupid or racist enough to vote for the Tories, because, let’s face it, if you vote for a party and they get into power and start doing really shit things, and the Tories certainly have, then you are responsible for that, but I’m supposed to be writing about Night Train. Which was Hitchcockian in the sense that De Palma’s film are Hitchcockian – ie, they emulate the master. But Kawalerowicz was clearly frying other fish, and though Night Train has the appearance of a Hitchcockian thriller, and is too straightforward to be any kind of  allegory for Poland’s political situation of the time, it still manages a flavour all its own. Night Train is not a film I’d have sought out on its own merits, but it’s one of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema so I watched it and I’m glad I did.

1001 Movies You Must See  Before you Die count: 860


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Moving pictures 2017, #21

Six films from six different countries, which is quite good… and even the US one is not that embarrassing. Honestly.

Dances with Wolves*, Kevin Costner (1990, USA), Yes, unbelievably, I’d never seen Dances with Wolves. Since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I’d always planned to watch it, but I had it as low priority on one of my rental lists. But then I found a copy for a quid in a charity shop… I’d been expecting a revisionist Western and, yes, that’s very much what it is… but not precisely in the way I’d expected. Costner plays a monomaniacal Cavalry officer who insists on being assigned to the furthest outpost in US territory. Shortly after settling alone there, he encounters his neighbours, a village of Lakota Indians. He visits them in the interest of peaceful relations, and gradually learns their language. He also marries a Lakota widow. But then the US Army turns up, and decides Costner is a traitor because he has gone “native”. Unfortunately, there is such a mass of cultural material generated by the US in which the Native Americans are painted as villainous savages, and the white Americans as noble pioneers, that it’ll be centuries before the US truly accepts it committed racial genocide on all the cultures which shared the North American continent prior to their arrival. So, really, we shouldn’t be calling these films “revisionist” because they depict the Lakota as actual human beings and the occupying white Americans as vicious scumbags, because that’s probably much closer to the truth than the genre usually reckons. It is also fucking shameful that science fiction bases so many of its narratives on stories of Western pioneers and their so-called courage and fortitude in colonising distant territory, when it was usually their advanced weaponry and duplicity that won the day. Dances with Wolves was not a great film, although it won a huge raft of awards, but it was a lot better than I’d expected it to be. I actually quite enjoyed it.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962, Russia). This was a rewatch, prompted by me upgrading my Tarkovsky DVDs (which went to a good home) to Blu-rays. Ivan’s Childhood was Tarkovsky’s first feature film for a studio. The title refers to a boy who becomes a runner for the Red Army on the Eastern Front during WWII. There’s a scene in the film which captures me every time: Ivan has just arrived at an outpost, and the commanding lieutenant is not sure what to make of him, despite the boy’s claim to importance. At Ivan’s insistence, the officer rings headquarters and is properly humbled. He then offers the boy a hot bath. Evereyone who meets Ivan wants to do right by him, which by their lights means sending him to school and officer training. But he wants to stay at the front, directly contributing to the war effort. To be honest, there’s not much on this Blu-ray release which justifies the upgrade – it’s a bloody good film, if not Tarkovsky’s best, there’s the rest of his oeuvre to compete for that, and to be honest I can’t say it looks better on Blu-ray than on DVD because it’s a fifty-five-year-old film. Upgrading was a no-brainer – Tarkovsky is one of the best directors ever – and if it’s prompted me to rewatch his films (again), then it’s done more than intended. In fact, I now want to watch them again again.

The Milk of Sorrow, Claudia Llosa (2009, Peru). My first film from Peru. And a female director too. (Incidentally, I’ve started tracking the gender of the directors whose films I watch now, but it’s embarrassingly male-heavy at present.) The Milk of Sorrow takes place in an area occupied by indigenous people – Quechua is spoken during the film more than Spanish, in fact – and the title refers to a belief that women who were abused or raped transmit their feelings through their milk to their female children. The film follows a young woman who is accused of suffering from this as she tries to avoid her mother’s fate. I had not come across Llosa before encountering this film – which was pretty much a random Peruvian film picked because I’d never seen a film from that country – but on the strength of The Milk of Sorrow I want to see more by Llosa. (And so I did, as it turns out The Milk of Sorrow was a two-disc set with Llosa’s Madeinusa, which will be covered in a later Moving pictures post). Some films are just good; some films are good and you want other people to watch them. Many of the recent Chinese films I’ve seen fall into that later category. As does The Milk of Sorrow. Highly recommended.

Innocent Sorcerers, Andrzej Wajda (1960, Poland). Another from the second Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. I’ve yet to get a handle on Wajda’s output – I really like Man of Marble and Man of Iron, although the latter feels more like a teleplay than a feature film; and the latter is also in the first box set of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which is good as it’s apparently not available in the UK, to go with the Second Run DVD release I have of Man of Marble; but I was not all that taken with his best-known film, Ashes and Diamonds. In other words, I pretty much have to take each Wajda film as I find them. And this one was… fun, in a sort of 1960s black-and-white-jazz-soundtrack sort of way. A bit like a John Cassavetes film but more to my taste. There’s a young doctor with improbably blond hair, and a young man in sunglasses who looks like the protagonist of Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s all very New Wave, but filtered through a very Polish lens. As previously mentioned it’s a lot like Cassavetes’s films but also completely unlike them – it feels more polished for a start, less reliant on ensemble acting, with a bit more Godard in its DNA than Cassavetes was wont to show. The films suffers from unsympathetic characters – but then so do Cassavetes’s films – and very little happens during its 87 minutes. It’s considered an oddity in Wajda’s oeuvre, and it’s easy to understand why. Worth watching, but lacking something that might make it a film worth remembering.

Day for Night*, François Truffaut (1973, France). I had to buy a copy of this as it’s apparently not available for rental from either LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso. But it turned out to be an excellent film, so never mind. (It was also very cheap.) Truffaut plays a director making a film in the south of France starring a British movie star, played by Jacqueline Bisset. The entire movie is a series of in-jokes about movie-making, and the personalities involved, and it works really well. My attitude to Truffaut’s films is definitely improving. There are some great set-pieces in Day for Night, especially the one with the cat, and the cast are thoroughly convincing in their roles. The alcoholic dowager actress is fun, and the various relationships which develop among the cast and crew are amusing. Apparently, Graham Greene was an admirer of Truffaut and scored himself a walk-on part as an insurance agent. Truffaut, who admired Greene’s writing, only found out later that one of the insurance agents was Greene. As meta-cinema goes, it’s all a bit obvious – and was obvious in 1973, Vertov did it fifty years earlier with Man with a Movie Camera, for example – and some of the jokes were clearly at Hollywood’s expense, but it all seemed so genial, rather than than génial, and Bisset’s depiction of a fragile actress seemed just right for her role in the film and the “film”. My third favourite Truffaut so far.

Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China). Yet more Chinese cinema. I’ve yet to see any evidence to contradict my claim that China currently has one of the strongest cinemas of any nation. Admittedly, I’m seeing the films which get international releases, and not the purely domestic stuff, but China has a stable of amazing directors, active from the mid-1990s onwards, who have produced some of the best films of the past ten or so years. Which is not to say there are not some excellent historical films – I’m a big fan of Spring in a Small Town (1948), and The Goddess (1934) is also very good. Suzhou River is an earlier work, inasmuch as it was released at the turn of the century, and it shows a bit in its MTV-style cutting, but it’s still an excellent film. It also takes an interesting approach to narrative, opening with a voiceover in which the narrator explains how he came to love a young woman who plays a mermaid in a Shanghai bar. It then tells the story of Mardar and Moudan, a courier who ferries a rich man’s daughter about town, before being forced to kidnap her… Years later, Mardar returns to Shanghai, and stumbles across the mermaid, who he thinks is Moudan. There is, as previously mentioned, a few too many MTV-style jump-cuts, but in all other respects this is a very good Sixth Generation movie. I’ve found myself buying several of the Chinese films I’ve watched on rental after seeing them, and I think I’ll be looking for a copy of this one too. (Damn, I just went and bought one on eBay for a tenner.)

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 860