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Moving pictures, #66

A mostly far eastern Moving pictures post this time, with films from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Plus some Italian melodrama, a classic piece of Disney, and a recent Hollywood blockbuster which generated a ridiculous amount of stupidity on release.

center_stageCenter Stage*, Stanley Kwan (1992, China). I couldn’t find any copies of this film for sale in the UK, and while it had apparently been released in the US at some point, it had also long since been deleted. So I bought a copy from Hong Kong… on Blu-ray. Bizarrely, Hong Kong is region A, because it counts as a “dependency” of, I assume, the US, despite being a British Crown Colony from 1842 to 1997 (region B) and before that part of Imperial China (there were, of course no Blu-ray regions then), and since 1997 a Special Administrative Region of China (region C). Fortunately, I have a multi-region Blu-ray player. As for the actual film… All I knew about Center Stage, AKA Actress, was that it starred Maggie Cheung and was a biopic of a famous actress in the 1930s Chinese film industry. What I hadn’t expected was that the film includes a framing narrative, to which it occasionally breaks, in which Cheung and the director discuss how she will approach the role of the actress, Ruan Lingyu, in the film which is Center Stage. So you have Cheung as Lingyu and Cheung as Cheung. It’s surprisingly effective. Especially since Kwan has made an effort to make the 1930s part of his film as convincing as possible. The end result is a character study of a tragic figure from China’s cinematic history as well as a commentary on that character study, and it’s all carried magnificently by Cheung, who deservedly won a best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival (surprisingly, the film was not entered for Cannes or the Oscars). The film looks exceedingly good, Cheung looks exceedingly good, and I’m surprised the only edition currently available is a Hong Kong Blu-ray. This really is a film which deserves to be seen more widely.

before_revolutionBefore the Revolution*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1964, Italy). Another film I watched solely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list although, to be fair, Bertolucci’s name was known to me – ever since seeing The Last Emperor at a cinema in Nottingham back in 1987, in fact. But the year, the country, the black-and-white film stock… led me to think Before the Revolution was an Italian Neorealist film – about which I have mixed feelings, inasmuch as I take the films as I find them rather than liking the genre – but Before the Revolution proved to be more Nouvelle Vague than anything else. A pair of young men, carefree to the extent you only see in New Wave films, but one drowns in a swimming accident and the other finds himself attracted to an older woman, an aunt, although I don’t think a blood relative, and it all seemed very Nouvelle Vague… I especially remember one scene, shot through the window of a car which was quite effective, but had more in common with Godard than it did, say, De Sica or Rossellini. Which is not to say that Before the Revolution was a bad film – just that it reminded me of Godard or Antonioni, and not any Italian Neorealist director, and while I much prefer the first two names, I found this a bit of a lacklustre copy. Given Bertolucci’s oeuvre, I suspect him of being a gifted copyist – The Sheltering Sky is a lovely-looking film, albeit not a great adaptation of the novel, but what is it that makes it a Bertolucci film? I wonder if 1900 was as close as Bertolucci got to a personal film, and even that felt like it borrowed from many sourcres. I can’t say Bertolucci has ever impressed me that much – he doesn’t seem to have an individual vision, and those of his films I’ve liked I’ve done so because of the films themselves. I suspect Before the Revolution deserves more attention than I gave it, but after watching a whole bunch of Italian Neorealist films it did seem a bit of a capitulation to the commercial forces they had set out to resist.

lady_trampLady and the Tramp, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1955, USA). I know I saw this once as a kid, but when I came to watch it again I realised I’d forgotten a couple of important things about it. One, it was released in 1955, at a time when Disney were on a roll with their feature films; and two, it’s set in 1909. I also keep on thinking it should be called “The Lady and the Tramp”. Which it shouldn’t. Because “Lady” is the name of a female cocker spaniel pup given to the wife in a middle-class US family. All goes well until the wife becomes pregnant, and Lady subsequently comes second in the family’s affections. The Tramp, on the other hand, is a mongrel who lives on the street, and he explains to Lady that when a baby arrives, the dog is no longer wanted. And so it proves. Lady and the Tramp spend time together, a sort of doggy romance. But one of their escapades goes wrong and she’s caught by the local, er, dogcatcher (even though she’s wearing a collar). In the pound, she learns about the Tramp’s other “girlfriends”, and so spurns him on her release. But then a rat sneaks into the house and threatens the new baby, and the two dogs’ successful attempt to kill the rat is misinterpreted by Lady’s owners… although they soon learn their mistake. And the Tramp becomes a member of the family and breeds with Lady. Happy ending. The animation is, as you would expect from 1950s Disney, and Geronimi and Luske, really very nice. The dog’s eye view is also done effectively. But the story suffers because it doesn’t have the fairy-tale quality that Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for example, both possess. And, to be honest, I’m not all that taken with animals as protagonists. Lady and the Tramp was better than I was expecting, but I’d class it as an also-ran in the Disney classics category.

boys_fengkueiThe Boys from Fengkuei, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1983, Taiwan). This is the second film from the Hou “box set”, and much as I was impressed by The Puppetmaster I find this film much more to my taste if not quite as obviously classic film material. If that makes sense. A group of youths in a fishing village leave school with little in the way of education or prospects. They spend of their time gambling and fighting. Three of them head for Kaohsiung, a major city, to look for work. One of the three falls in love with a young woman living in a nearby flat. Nothing quite works out. Like the other Hou films I’ve seen, The Boys from Fengkuei makes extensive use of static camera placement and long shots, which is, I admit, a style of cinematography I like. I like that distance, that sense of the screen as a window on the story… and while I can also appreciate the effectiveness of a close-up, I’ve only really seen it used all that effectively in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste – in other films, you just don’t notice it, which makes you wonder why they bothered to use it. Hou seems to like static viewpoints, usually carefully-chosen, and while it’s not as obvious, or stagey, a technique as that used by, say Peter Greenaway, it does impact the film. There is a scene, for example, where the “boys” fight, and the fight spills off-screen, so all the viewer sees is an empty alleyway with the noise of a violent fist-fight on the soundtrack. Hou also – and this I admit surprised me – does great soundtracks. I should have guessed from the first film of his that I’d seen, The Assassin, and its really quite wonderful closing credits music. But all of the films I’ve seen by Hou so far have excellent incidental music. Stick him on your list of directors worth seeing, because he surely belongs there. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite directors…

ghostbustersGhostbusters, Paul Feig (2016, USA). And so we come to the explosion of stupidity that was the remake of Ghostbusters. It seemed quite simple – remake Ghostbusters, a mildly amusing 1984 Hollywood comedy with something of a cult following, for the twenty-first century. Put a comedy dream-team on it. Solved. Except the dream-team picked was that responsible for Bridesmaids, a successful twenty-first century comedy… which meant the Ghostbusters central cast would be female. Normal people went, okay, cool, go for it. A handful of right-wing dickheads decided they didn’t like this, and they kicked up a stink. The level of stupidity in their complaints was hard to believe. Especially when you consider that the film about which they were complaining was pretty much fan service from start to finish. The thing about Ghostbusters (3) is that it’s a pretty ordinary film of its type. It has a handful of good jokes, but, as many twenty-first century comedies seem to do, it also relies overmuch on the characters developed by its cast in other films. In other words, if Melissa McCarthy plays the most sensible role in your film, then you have a problem. But when every Ghostbuster-related joke is a fan service, and everything around it is a stable of actresses playing their best-known characters… you don’t have an especially good film. It entertained. Just. But the one thing the film certainly didn’t deserve was the moronic criticism by right-wingers who objected to a female Ghostbusters. It’s such a feeble complaint, you have to wonder at the intelligence of those who supported it. (To be honest, I don’t wonder: I consider them all quite stupid.) If you enjoy the sort of comedies which have been released in the last five or six years, you will enjoy Ghostbusters. If you enjoyed the original Ghostbusters you will probably get added value from the fan service and references. It’s not an especially good film – but to criticise it solely because the central cast are female just makes you a complete fucking idiot.

world_cinemaThe Housemaid*, Kim Ki-young (1960, South Korea). I bought the Criterion box set of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a remastered version of A River Called Titas (on both DVD and Blu-ray). But there are a further five films in the set, including The Housemaid, a film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and which I’d not been able to find a copy elsewhere. (Eureka! released a UK edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project in 2013, but their version only includes three films – none of which are The Housemaid or A River Called Titas; they also called their edition volume 1 but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a volume 2. Bah.) Anyway, The Housemaid, AKA Hanyo… a Korean family hire a housemaid, but over time she gets a little too friendly with the husband. And then next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his child. As is his wife. Which puts him in something of a quandary. Well, at least that sort of quandary experienced by men with zero or low morals. Upset that her child will not be treated in the same way as that of the wife, the housemaid threatens one of the children with poison. and so the housemaid and the wife engage in a downward spiral of threats while the husband makes all the wrong decisions and so makes the situation worse. The Housemaid has been described as horror and erotic horror, although to me it played out like a drama, albeit a somewhat dark one. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 837


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Moving pictures, #50

Another odd selection this time around. None, sadly, from the 1001 Movies list, not even the Disney.

kingdom_bothThe Kingdom II, Lars von Trier (1997, Denmark). The Kingdom is a great piece of television (the original Danish version, of course; I’ve not seen the US remake), and though it was about as subtle as a punch in the face it worked really well (that’s part of von Trier’s genius, of course: punching you in the face and making you wonder why you never saw the punch coming). The title refers to Copenhagen’s most prestigious hospital, which was built on a bleaching pond and is haunted by the people who died in it. The first series revolved an old woman who refused to be discharged because she was in contact with a ghost, and needed to save the hospital from malicious ghosts. There was also a pathologist who wanted to research a patient’s cancerous liver, but could not get permission to do so from the patient’s family… so ends up having the liver transplanted into him temporarily after the patient’s death but it goes wrong and he ends up stuck with it. And there was a Swedish consultant who hated all the Danes in the hospital, and in fact the entire country. The Kingdom II is pretty much more of the same. One of the first series’ weirder plot threads was a pregnant doctor whose embryo grew at fantastic speed (and was apparently a reincarnation of one of the hospital’s ghosts), but the foetus was taken over by an evil spirit… who turned out to be Udo Kier. And in series 2, the baby has grown bigger and bigger and is now some weird human giant creature. The’Swedish consultant is back, and just as obnoxious as ever – although a seeming change of heart doesn’t last long. And there are weird ghosts and even weirder ways of dealing with them. The Kingdom II doesn’t quite have the shine of the first series, perhaps because the first series seemed genuinely weird and comparisons between the two are inevitable. There’s no rule that says sequels are always inferior – indeed, there are some that are superior to their predecessor. The Kingdom II doesn’t match the heights of The Kingdom, but it’s still worth seeing.

dads_armyDad’s Army, Oliver Parker (2016, UK). Sometimes, everything in a movie is understandable except the reason why it was made. This film is a case in point. Did we really need a new version of Dad’s Army, given that the television series regularly pops up on television? Obviously, we need to show the world that the UK is really a very pleasant and admirable country, full of tea and jam and bumbling old soldiers and everyone pulls together and we’re still the upright hardy folk who saw off the Nazis – although if you’re a dirty foreigner we apparently don’t want you, at least that’s the message coming out of the Conservative Conference, who seemed to have actually turned into the Nazis. Oops. But, I hear you say, it’s only a comedy, a remake of a much-loved sitcom from forty years ago. And why shouldn’t the British film industry recycle its past successes, since Hollywood seems to do it all the time? But, you know, just because Hollywood does it, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And no matter how polished this version of Dad’s Army is, or how polished its cast (there’s some serious thesping chops in there), and one or two of the jokes might evince a smile and perhaps even a chuckle or two, it’s still peddling the same old Little England shit, the land of jam and scones and those old Routemasters and and everything so fucking quaint. Which is total bullshit. And it’s one thing to see Angela Lansbury turning up and causing murder in Ye Olde Englande, another to spend millions of Pounds Sterling advertising the same lie in a pathetic globally-distributed comedy movie, and even worse for a government to base their entire policy for their term in office on the same shameful xenophobic bullshit.

one_moneyOne for the Money, Julie Ann Robinson (2012, USA). I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD and it looked like it was worth watching, so I stuck it on my rental list. It’s an adaptation of a Janet Evanovich novel, which is probably why it feels a bit like an Elmore Leonard film (not that she copies his style, just that they both write comedy crime/thriller novels). Katherine Heigl plays a young woman in need of cash who becomes a bail bond agent to earn some money. And the big fish she plans to land is a cop on the run, who’s wanted for murder, and who she dated in high school. Of course, he’s innocent – it’s why he did a runner, so he could prove his innocence. Of course. And her fruitless attempts to take him into custody help flush out the villains who stitched him up, so it sorts of turns into a buddy cop movie, with that extra frisson of will-they-won’t-they romance (of course they will, have you ever known them not to?). It’s a smart sassy thiller, with more sass than smarts (in film-land, a “smart” film is one that’s not irredeemably dumb… which I guess limits it to about 5% of Hollywood’s output then…). I enjoyed this film… but not enough to want to read the novel it was adapted from, despite being a big fan of Sara Paretsky and enjoying crime novels featuring female leads.

q_planesQ Planes, Tim Whelan & Arthur B Woods (1939, UK). This was an odd film – a comedy-thriller – a “mighty spy thriller” indeed – starring Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, about agents from an unnamed country, where everyone speaks with German accents, trying to steal British aircraft-engine technology by using some sort of science-fictional ray to blow up the planes’ radios and cause their engines to stop working. But it’s not Germany. Honest. Richardson plays the eccentric head of the intelligence services – who allows himself to be arrested in the opening scenes for apparently murdering someone – and Olivier is a somewhat earnest test pilot who doesn’t get the good flights because he’s mouthy and unapologetic and usually right. And there’s Valerie Hobson, who plays Richardson’s sister, she’s a journalist working undercover at the aircraft factory who helps unravel the conspiracy despite publishing everything she learns on the front page of her newspaper. Oh, and Richardson’s girlfriend, who keeps on ringing up to arrange dates but he never manages to make them, and when they finally get together she admits she’s married someone else. Very odd. But weirdly entertaining. It was pretty much complete nonsense from start to finish – and, surprisingly, Olivier and Richardson didn’t over-power their roles (well, okay, maybe Richardson did; but he did it well), although to be fair Hobson was probably the best of the three. Worth seeing.

make_mine_musicMake Mine Music, Kinney, Geronimi, Luske, Meador & Cormack (1946, USA). This is one of six “package films” Disney made during WWII to keep its feature film division active despite the loss of personnel to the armed services. It’s basically a series of unrelated cartoons strung together, each of which was inspired by a piece of music. Make Mine Music has ten segments, opening with a joke song about two hillbilly families, then covers, among others, ‘Peter and the Wolf’, a couple of Benny Goodman pieces, a story about two romantic, er, hats, and a tale of an opera-singing, er, sperm whale. Bits and pieces of the film have appeared over the decades as discrete cartoons, either released independently or as part of  a television programme. It was… fun. Some of the anmiation was particularly good, reminding me of Sleeping Beauty, some was more like you’d expect to find in a five-minute Disney cartoon. I’m glad I watched it, and I did enjoy it, but I doubt I’ll be rushing out to buy my own copy on DVD…

rivetteNoroît, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). Twice now I’ve watched this and I still can’t make head nor tail of it. It opens with Geraldine Chapman weeping over the dead body of her brother on a beach. He was killed by pirates who inhabit a nearby castle. But they don’t look like your average pirates, as they seem to prefer wearing flares and sequinned waistcoats. The pirates are also mostly women, and it all feels a bit Shakespearean, particularly a Shakespeare play that has been “modernised” to the, er, 1970s. It even quotes from ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ – “it is the Judas of the hours, wherein honest salvation is betray’d to sin” – so not quite the Bard, but certainly around his time. (I’m not sure if the plot of Noroît maps onto that of ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’.) There’s still something odd about the films in this box set, they feel like polished rehearsals of incomplete plays – despite the windswept castle at which most of the action in Noroît takes place, despite the often lovely landscape photography, Noroît still feels like it’s on a stage…. and that’s right from the start, when the film opens with Chapman raging over the dead body of her brother on a beach. The various staged fights only increase the likeness. Of course, it doesn’t help that the cast also put on a play for the pirate leader. A movie staged like a play is hardly unusual – there’s even a movie of a “black box” play, von Trier’s Dogville – but Rivette’s movies, the three from this box set I’ve seen so far, don’t feel like they were deliberately filmed to resembled stage plays. It makes for a weird disconnect, which means the films require quite a bit of concentration to follow. And that at least means the box set wasn’t a wasted purchase, as I’ll be rewatching the movies in it several times…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805


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Moving pictures, #26

MOAR MOVIES…

saragossaThe Saragossa Manuscript*, Wojciech Has (1965, Poland). Imagine the Arabian Nights set in eighteenth-century Spain but with a Polish cast speaking Polish throughout, and you might get some of the flavour of The Saragossa Manuscript. The film is based on an actual book, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, allegedly by Count Jan Potocki, originally published in 1805, although the book was added to in later years, bits were lost, and even the complete contents are not entirely certain. A plot summary would take up a lot of bandwidth, chiefly because it consists of stories nested within stories nested within stories, to such an extent it’s no longer clear which is the framing narrative. Mostly it’s based on the adventures of a Spanish nobleman in the eighteenth century, as written down in the aforementioned manuscript, which is discovered by a pair of officers from opposite sides in Zaragoza during the Napoleonic Wars. The first half of the film seems to consist of the hero of the story, an ancestor of one of the officers, being enchanted by ghosts and then waking up under a set of gallows; but in the second half, the stories become even more inter-nested, and the film begins to get much more interesting. So much so that by the end of it, I quite fancied having a copy of it. Wikipedia claims “multiple viewings of the film are recommended in order to comprehend the plot”, although I didn’t find it that hard to follow (once, that is, I’d realised it aped the Arabian Nights’ structure), but I’d still like to watch it again. Recommended.

first_manFirst Man into Space, Robert Day (1959, UK). I have no idea why I put this on my rental list – I’m guessing it’s because of the title. I’m not sure I’d describe it as “Best of British” as the cover claims, given that it’s set in the US, was filmed partly in the US, and features a mostly US cast hardly makes it especially British. But it was produced by a UK company and filmed by a British director. An astronaut pilots a rocket-plane into space, encounters some weird cosmic storm, and crashes back on Earth transformed into a monster… and promptly goes on a rampage. It’s fairly typical B-movie nonsense of the period, of course, although interesting inasmuch as the rocket-plane was the very real X-1, and stock footage of X-1 flights was used (at least for the in-atmosphere bits). True, the cockpit as depicted in the film bore no resemblance to the real X-1’s, and the X-1 never reached Mach 2.5 or flew out of the atmosphere (it wasn’t until the X-15 that either of those happened – and it held speed and altitude records for decades). I think the actual last flight of the X-1 captured on film was an appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot from 1957 as a Soviet “parasite fighter”, and actually flown by Chuck Yeager for the production. Filming for Jet Pilot took place between 1949 and 1953, but the film wasn’t released until four years later.

dancerDancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier (2000, Denmark). This was a “lucky” charity shop find, and I say “lucky” because I’m still not sure if von Trier is a genius or a complete charlatan. And I’m no nearer knowing after watching this… although I am starting to incline toward to the former. Dancer in the Dark is an unholy mix of made-for-TV true-crime drama and late twentieth-century music video. It’s a musical, but its star is Björk, which means every musical number (and she’s in them all) bears more resemblance to her music than it does musical film or theatre of the time. Now, I still consider Björks’s Post from 1995 a classic pop album – although I no longer own a copy (whereas Chapterhouse’s Blood Music, from 1993, I still own and think is the best shoegazer album ever made). Anyway, Dancer in the Dark… Björk plays a Czech emigré to the US who works in a factory. She is steadily losing her sight, but is saving up her wages to pay for an operation so her son will not suffer the same fate (plots like this DO NOT WORK in the UK, because we have the NHS – THIS IS A GOOD THING, DO NOT KILL THE NHS). Anyway, her boss finds out, she loses her job, she kills her landlord (at his request) and, wouldn’t you know it, she’s arrested and charged with his murder. Then there’s a court case, which owes more to The Thin Blue Line than it does Law & Order. The supporting cast is surprisingly high-powered – and in one notable scene, Björj plays against Catherine Deneuve in a prison visiting booth… and though Björk isn’t actually acting she somehow or other manages to hold her own against Deneuve. Unfortunately, that’s not true of every scene she’s in, and her gauche artlessness often works against the others’ much more polished performances. Still, von Trier is not a director who follows the rules, and you watch his film for that reason as much as for any other. [2]

once_chinaOnce Upon a Time in China*, Tsui Hark (1991, China). Well, there’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and even Once Upon a Time in Mumbai… not to mention many other variations, or the fact that Once Upon a Time in China is actually a series of films, comprising Once Upon a Time in ChinaOnce Upon a Time in China IIOnce Upon a Time in China IIIOnce Upon a Time in China IVOnce Upon a Time in China V, Once Upon a Time in China VI and Once Upon a Time in China and America. I think I’ve seen that last one too. I was, perhaps unfairly, expecting something like Hero or even Hark’s later Seven Swords. But Once Upon a Time in China felt very small-scale, more like those Hong Kong films I used to watch on VCD back in the 1990s. Jet Li plays a martial arts instructor and apothecary who finds himself caught in the middle of a fight between the local milita and a criminal gang, while Americans are trying to move into the country, looking for slave cheap labour to use back home. Some of the fight scenes are cleverly done, particularly the final one in the godown, with the combatants on huge ladders. Of the twenty Chinese films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I’ve now I’ve seen around half. One or two I loved, but most, like this one, seemed little better than those VCDs I used to watch. Oh well.

descendantsThe Descendants, Alexander Payne (2011, USA). This is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the combined list given on listchallenge.com, so it must have appeared on an earlier, or later, edition of the list. I’m baffled as to why. Clooney plays a laid-back Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a coma aftet a boating accident. According to the terms of her living will, it’s time to turn off her life-support, so he gathers in their two daughters (and the older one’s dim-witted boyfriend). Also at stake is a large parcel of land on the island – Oahu, I think – which the family wants to sell for a huge amount to a developer. Clooney is not against the sale, but when he learns his wife was having an affair it sort of complicates matters. And… they put this on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list? Seriously? It’s a not very interesting family drama about a bunch of unlikeable characters – Clooney is not very good at playing unlikeable, obviously, but he’s so passive in this he’s not very sympathetic. Not worth seeing.

101_dalmatians101 Dalmatians, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman (1961, USA). I’m not sure why I’ve been watching so many Disney films recently. Some are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I found myself admiring a couple of them enough to buy copies for myself… but several have also appeared on Amazon Prime and so I thought I might as well give them a go. I suspect I saw 101 Dalmatians way back in the 1970s when I was a kid, but I have no memory of doing so (much as I didn’t for The Rescuers – see here), and it’s impossible to tell if what I do know of the film is from having seen it or just simply picked up from more than five decades of commentary on it. Anyway, I spent a Sunday afternoon watching 101 Dalmatians… and was surprised to find it a considerably more charming film than I’d expected. I hadn’t known it was set in the UK, although I should have guessed since I sort of knew that Dodie Smith was a British author. And, of course, a lot of successful Disney properties of the 1960s were based on UK books and set in the UK. Rod Taylor (an Australian) was an odd choice for Pongo, the male lead, but he was good in it. Cruella De Vil was somewhat OTT and, while the rest of the cast were standard Disney types, the dogs were good and surprisingly not annoying. And the art was good too. Better than I had expected.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 769


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Moving pictures, #10

Here we go again, more movies watched by yours truly. Only two from the list this time around.

drugstoreDrugstore Cowboy*, Gus Van Sant (1989, USA). Even if you show how degrading junkie culture is in a movie, the very fact it is in a movie is in some way celebrating it. And there is seriously nothing to celebrate about junkie culture. Drugstore Cowboy is apparently based on a memoir, and depicts how a drug addict, and habitual robber of pharmacies, tries to go straight after one of his gang ODs. Matthew Dillon is a good-looking bloke; both Kelly Lynch and Heather Grahame are extremely attractive – a junkie might look in the mirror and see a Hollywood star, but that’s not what everyone else will see. Not only do films like Drugstore Cowboy sanitise and beautify their subject, but they also legitimise the lifestyle. I have no problem with people taking drugs, of whatever class (the drug, that is) – it’s their body and they’re free to abuse it how they like, using whatever substance they choose. But, short of legalising all non-ethical pharmaceuticals, which will likely never happen as long as governments remain broadly right-wing, the culture that illegality has created, not to mention the industry and power-structure, is not a fit subject for celebration in movies. Which sort of renders any criticism about this film as a film per se sort of moot. Nevertheless, its presence on the list didn’t seem justified.

bedknobsBedknobs And Broomsticks, Robert Stevenson (1971, USA). Disney have apparently allowed a whole bunch of their films to be streamed free via Amazon Prime, so I’ve been working my way through the ones I’d never actually seen before. I didn’t mention my watches of Pinocchio or The Love Bug as I’d seen both as a kid, and besides I wasn’t impressed enough with them to want to write about them. I thought I might have seen Bedknobs And Broomsticks before, but as soon as I started watching it I realised it was all new to me… Except, well, it wasn’t. The animated section, set on the Island of Naboombu, I’d certainly see before. I even remembered the undersea sequence and the song ‘The Beautiful Briny’. So I must have seen that at some point. The rest – Angela Lansbury as a witch, the evacuee kids, the whole Portobello Road dance routine, even Bruce Forsyth as a spiv, never mind the actual story in which they hunt for the final parts of the spell for “substitutiary locomotion” – well, that was all completely new to me. Apparently, the film had been planned as an epic to capitalise on the success of Mary Poppins – I’d watched Saving Mr Banks over Christmas, but I don’t recall ever sitting all the way through Mary Poppins, although I probably have done – but was cut down from its planned 3-hour length, and eventually released as 117 minutes long. There’s currently a 139-minute “reconstructed” version available on DVD. I watched the theatrical release version on Amazon Prime. It was all a bit Hollywood England, and very nineteen-seventies (even though it was set during WWII), but better than I’d expected – but if I had to pick ten best Disney films… I could probably manage about three or four… this wouldn’t be one of them.

demyLa naissance du jour, Jacques Demy (1980, France). And so continues my journey through Demy’s oeuvre, as represented by the intègrale Jacques Demy DVD collection I bought earlier this year. La naissance du jour is a television movie adaptation of the novel of the same name by Colette. Watching it, I found myself wanting to read the novel – which, to me, a sign of the success of an adaptation. The main character, Colette herself, is living alone in a house and the film depicts her relationship with her neighbour, Vial, a a studly young man she sort of fancies, as well as her friends in the area. It’s set in the 1920s, roughly at the time of writing, and appears to be autobiographical – indeed, Colette spends a lot of time writing something in longhand, which might well be the novel La naissance du jour. It’s one of those typically French films in which the cast sit around a table outside eating their dinner and pontificating on love – and if that’s not the entire film, it ‘s certainly a pivotal scene. I hadn’t expected to enjoy La naissance du jour, and it didn’t feel especially Demy to be honest, but I did like it – and I suspect that was more a consequence of the source material than Demy’s adaptation. Nonetheless, I’m still glad I bought the collection.

justineJustine, George Cukor (1969, USA). The Alexandria Quartet is one of my favourite novels – as the title indicates, it’s properly four novels but is most often found these days in an omnibus edition… and Durrell rewrote chunks of it for the omnibus edition anyway. Only one attempt has ever been to adapt the quartet for cinema or television – it would make an excellent television mini-series, it must be said – and that was this one, Cukor’s 1969 movie, which sort of munges together the plot of all four books into the first and uses its title. The end result is hugely unsatisfying – and not just for the casting of Michael York, who could be out-acted by a plank of well-seasoned oak – but for a series of casting decisions, and a script, that does neither the film nor the book any favours. And yet… in Anouk Aimée, they managed to find the perfect Justine. Go figure. And speaking of casting… John Vernon as Nessim Hosnani and Robert Forster as Narouz Hosnani is just plain indefensible white-for-black casting. But Dirk Bogarde, much as I love him, is totally the wrong person to play Pursewarden – he’s just not dissolute enough. George Baker, on the other hand, while he’s far too bluff for Mountolive, it sort of works in the movie. Having said all that, the major character in The Alexandria Quartet has always been the eponymous city. I have never visited Egypt – although I’ve always wanted to – but the city as revealed in the film certainly resembled the Alexandria I had imagined from Durrell’s novels. It’s a shame so little else in the movie did.

cinderellaCinderella, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1950, USA). Cinderella is generally reckoned to be one of Disney’s best animated feature films, and being a fan of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, I was keen to watch it. Happily, Disney have made a whole bunch of films available on Amazon Prime – a situation of which I have taken advantage of, so to speak. I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Cinderella before – familiarity with Perrault’s story is not enough to explain memories of the Disney mice… Which is not to say I ‘d remembered everything from the movie. I had, in fact, been expecting not to like it much, having almost convinced myself that Sleeping Beauty was some sort of weird Disney aberration… except, well, it has to be said… okay, the mice are really irritating… but the animation in Cinderella is really quite lovely. I’d discussed Disney animated feature films earlier that day with David Tallerman, and texted him that night while watching the movie to say how much I was enjoying it. (He, incidentally, was watching Pinocchio that night, and enjoyed it a great deal more than I had.) I have by no means seen all of Disney’s best-known animated feature films, but I have seen a number of them. And so far, to my mind, Sleeping Beauty is easily the best, by quite a long way. But Cinderella is in second place. Fantasia holds a tentative third – albeit based on last watching it a couple of decades ago. A few years ago, Pornokitsch posted a “year of Disney” series of posts by Dreampunk.me – and while I’ve no desire to embark on anything remotely similar, I ‘ve seen a number of the films covered in the posts and… I was surprised at the lack of love for both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. And I hated Frozen. But I’d otherwise agree that Treasure Planet (a recent watch – see above re Disney films free on Amazon Prime – but not mentioned on this blog) is a lovely-looking animated film, but that’s about all it has going for it. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I may at some point – thanks to Disney and Amazon’s “generosity” – end up in a situation where I have watched more Disney feature films than I ever thought likely; and, given my love of lists, I will likely order them according to some criteria or other which makes perfect sense to myself… But at this point in time, I can recommend both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella as excellent films. Later, I may do the same for others from Disney.

cinema_paradisoCinema Paradiso*, Giuseppe Tornatore (1988, Italy). My mother admitted to me this was one of her favourite films. so I bought her a copy for Christmas – and she lent to me and now I’ve seen it and… Yes, it’s a good film, but I doubt it will ever become one of my own favourites. This is no way different to my comments above regarding Disney films. To think a film is good is one thing, but to think a film is great requires you to love it in a way that can’t be explained as you would explain a film you think good. It’s the point where objectivity and subjectivity battle it out and subjectivity beats off all comers (while it sits on objectivity’s shoulders, of course). There are movies I love, and I can think of no rational reason why I love them. None of which is relevant. Cinema Paradiso is about the cinema in a small town in Sicily. A young boy becomes an unofficial apprentice to the projectionist, and when the latter is injured during a fire which guts the cinema, he becomes the projectionist in the newly-rebuilt cinema. The film is framed as the boy’s reminiscences, now that he is a grown man and a successful film-maker, which leads to some odd scenes set outside what is essentially a very long flashback. It’s a good film, and one that likely belongs on the list, perhaps more for revitalising Italy’s film industry than for the film itself – though I’d likely think that, given I’m more of a fan of Italian Neorealism than I am sentimental films like this. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 730


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Moving pictures, #38

There’s probably another two or three of these posts to come before the year is out. I’ve yet to decide if I’ll carry on with them next year – I might choose to just write about a single film in a post, as I’ve done in previous years. We’ll see. Of course, there’s still a good 300+ films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But meanwhile…

sleep_bSleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959, USA). There was a trailer for this on a rental DVD, I seem to remember, and something about it persuaded me it would be worth watching. I might well have seen the film as a child, but I have no memory of it. A Blu-ray copy appeared in Amazon’s Black Friday sales, so I bought it. And… it’s probably one of the most Technicolor movies I’ve ever watched, second only to The Adventures Of Robin Hood. So, of course, I loved that about it. I also liked that the songs weren’t intrusive – the cast didn’t break into singing per se, the songs sort of grew out of the background music. And the style of the animation is that sort of stylised 1950s, er, style which I find much more appealing than the normal Disney style. So, despite the over-done Disney DVD cover, Sleeping Beauty is actually a gorgeous piece of animation. But, interestingly, it’s an odd take on the story, because it’s told through the viewpoints of three meddling middle-aged women, the good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. They hide Princess Aurora from bad witch Maleficent, although, of course, fairy tale curses have a way of coming true… But that sleeping bit, it’s only like part of the final act, it’s the shape of Aurora’s life which is the backbone of the film. And it works really well. As does Maleficient’s actually quite scary transformation into a dragon when she tries to prevent Prince Philip from reaching the sleeping Aurora. Without watching all the other Disney animated features films, and going only on what I remember of them, I think I can safely say Sleeping Beauty is the best of them. Although I would like to watch The Jungle Book again…

nightofthecomet-bdNight of the Comet, Thom Eberhardt (1984, USA). I suspect this may be the most eighties film made during the eighties. I remember first seeing it in the mid-eighties on television – it was introduced by either Jonathan Ross or Alex Cox, as part of a cult film series, I forget which; but I’ve always fancied a copy of it… and then late last year Arrow released a dual-format edition. So I bought it. And… it’s pretty much how I remembered it and, as I mentioned earlier, so very eighties. It’s not just the soundtrack – little of which was actually familiar to me even though I remember much of the decade, although the songs did sound very much of the time. Nor the clothing. But I seem to remember Valley Girls appearing in several cult films at the time – the other one that springs to mind is Julien Temple’s Earth Girls are Easy – and the two main characters of this, played by Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, are pretty much perfect casting. There’s a sequence in the film which more or less defines it for me – and certainly proved the most memorable – and yet has nothing to do with zombies. (Oh yes, the plot is: a comet flies close to Earth, all those who did not spend the night in something with steel walls turned into dust… or a zombie.) Anyway, the two girls decide that since they’re now apparently the only inhabitants of Los Angeles they can do what they like… which includes trying out everything which takes their fancy in a department store – all to, of course, the strains of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Fun’. Anyway, the pair have their ups and downs, their moments of jeopardy, being rescued and as well as rescuing others – they’re good strong female leads… and it’s a shame films like Night of the Comet are not bettered remembered. Worth getting hold of.

early_cinemaThe Great Train Robbery*, Edison Manufacturing Company (1903, USA). To be honest, I don’t remember much about this – it was one of about twenty or so films on a DVD collection of early cinema, Primitives and Pioneers – a mixture of US, French and British movies, all of which were identified by the company which made them rather than the person who directed them. Some of them were quite good – ‘Explosion of a Motor Car’ by the Hepworth Manufacturing Company was pretty good, if surprisingly, and comically, gruesome. Some of the others were mere fragments. However, one thing which did stand out – and I suppose The Great Train Robbery is as good an example as any – was the desire by the film-makers to tell stories using this new medium. So rather than documenting the world around them, they staged little vignettes and scenarios. A train being robbed, a woman’s baby being stolen from its pram, even the use of fantasy (hand-coloured too) in some of the early French films. In fact, while there’s little to say about the movie which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the actual collection itself is totally worth watching.

blueBlue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche (2013, France). There was apparently some fuss when this won the Palme d’or at Cannes, although I was not aware of that until after I watched it. But having now read some of the criticisms of the film, I can understand what the critics meant. The film is based on a well-regarded French bande dessinée about a young woman’s sexual awakening and subsequent lesbian relationship with a blue-haired artist. And, of course, the homophobia she experiences – from family as well as school friends. Much has been made of the sex scenes in this film, and it’s certainly true they play far too… straight to be convincing. It’s hard to explain, and I’m no real position to judge the veracity (although plenty who are have said what I am about to), but they don’t ring true, in the same sort of way that sexual encounters in pornographic films don’t ring true as real sex. The two leads, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, are excellent, but the whole films still feels like a mistreatment of its source material and the lifestyle on which its source material – Julie Maroh’s 2010 Le bleu est une couleur chaude – is based. I can understand why the film has proven controversial, and I can’t help but agree with those who find fault with it. I’ve seen it now, but, you know, it wouldn’t have bothered me if I never had… and I can’t really recommend it to anyone.

happyHappy People, Werner Herzog & Dmitry Vasyukov (2010, Germany). The subtitle of this film, “A Year in the Taiga”, pretty much tells you all you need to know about this documentary. Assuming, of course, you know what “taiga” means. I admit it, I think Herzog is a genius, and while not all of his films are great, he’s never made a dull film. And that’s as true of Happy People as it is of any film he’s made, even if it’s just a documentary about the inhabitants of Bakhta, a small village in the middle of Siberia, which can only be reached by air or river (and the latter only during the summer when the river isn’t frozen solid). It’s a hard life that Herzog and Vasyukov document, but appealingly simple. True, the values and attitudes of the village’s residents are equally simple, but they seem to suit the lifestyle. There is, for example, one moment where one of the native Ket people accidentally burns down his house because he’d been drunk and left a cigarette burning. But he and his mother are more concerned about the loss of their home’s fetishes than anything else. There’s a sad overtone to much of the proceedings inasmuch as the Ket’s traditional lifestlye has been overwritten by the USSR, but the film’s title is no lie and all those involved seem to be inspiringly happy despite the hardship of their lives. Another charity shop find that’ll be a keeper, I think.

purpleThe Purple Rose of Cairo*, Woody Allen (1985, USA). I am not a fan of Woody Allen’s films. Actually, I can’t stand them. But this one was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I sort of had to watch it. (He has several – and far too many – films on the list.) From what I knew of the film, I guessed it would be less irritating than most of his oeuvre – he’s not in it, for a start. And the central premise sounded quite good: a character from a film steps out of a cinema screen and runs away with a lonely woman, only for the actor who plays the character to come searching for the pair. That description, however, proved somewhat incomplete. The woman, played by Mia Farrow, is a battered spouse. And she goes to the cinema to escape her husband as much as she does to watch movies. On the plus side, the idea of a character stepping out of a film, leaving the remainder of the movie’s cast to figure out how to proceed, is handled well and proves mildly amusing. The fish-out-of-water romance by the film character and Farrow is less amusing and trades a little on cliché. And when the actual actor turns up and proves to be self-centred and career-minded, well, that is an actual cliché. My opinion of Allen’s films remains completely unchanged having seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, and I still don’t understand why so many of his movies are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 688


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.