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2016, the best of the year

It’s been a funny old year. Not only have we hit that time when the icons of our youth are in their (late) sixties, seventies and eighties, and so coming to the end of their lives… but some of the British people had a fit of madness and voted to leave the EU in the dumbest referendum in British political history… And then the US went one better, as it always has to, and voted in as president Donald Trump, an orange-skinned baboon, a man who makes Nigel Farage look like a mostly-harmless over-educated clown. Trump doesn’t even have his arse officially in the Oval Office yet, and he’s already abusing his powers. We’ve had ten years of damaging and unnecessary austerity here in the UK, and we’re looking down the barrel of a deeper recession, thanks to the morons and racists who voted Leave. But I think the next four years in the US might well be worse than anything we experience…

On the personal front, the day job got really busy around March, when a colleague left the company and a major project he was working on was dumped on my desk. As a result, I’ve not had much energy or enthusiasm for anything other than just consuming culture… which has meant lots of blog posts on films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and, er, films I’ve watched. I did manage to publish a whole four stories in 2016, however; ‘Geologic’ appeared in Interzone in January; ‘Red Desert’ and ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ appeared in Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of my alt space stories; and Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum I published as a pendant to the Apollo Quartet… but only the last was actually written in 2016. I also worked on the third book in my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason, in fits and starts. So, overall, not a very productive year.

Fortunately, some of the films I watched and some of the books I read made up for it. A new favourite writer and two new favourite films is not bad going for a single year. And a number of other “discoveries”, both writers and directors new to me in 2016, I thought so good I will be further exploring their oeuvres. But. There can only be, er, five. In each category. Yes, it’s that time of the year – ie, pretty close to the end – when I look back over the aforementioned consumed culture – of which there has been quite a bit, particularly on the movie front – and pick my top five in books, films and albums. And they look something like this…

books
Not a very good year for genre fiction, it seems. Not a single category science fiction novel makes it into my top five. And one gets bumped from the half-year top five (those are the numbers in square brackets) to the honourable mentions. Four other genre writers also make my honourable mentions – Charnock, Whiteley, Duchamp and Park – although I’ve been a fan of Duchamp’s and Park’s writing for many years.

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012) [1]. Erpenbeck was my discovery of the year. I forget who recommended The End of Days, but I loved it… and then later bought everything else by Erpenbeck translated into English (she’s German). The End of Days re-imagines the life of a Jewish woman born in the early years of the twentieth century in Galicia, and follows her through several variations on her life, as she variously moves to Vienna, becomes a communist, moves to Austria, then settles in East Germany. Erpenbeck’s prose is distant and factual, a style that appeals greatly to me, and I especially like the “facticity” of her protagonist’s many lives. The End of Days is not as readable, or as immersive, a novel as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book it resembles in broad conceit, but I much prefer Erpenbeck’s novel because I love the authority of its reportage-like prose, and I find the life of its protagonist much more interesting than that of Atkinson’s. I think The End of Days is a superb novel – I’ve already bought everything by Erpenbeck published in the UK, and I eagerly await whatever new works might appear.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990) [2]. Sebald is a genre all to himself, and his novels defy easy summary. They also – particularly in this case – tread that fine line between fact and fiction which I find so appealing, even more so when the fact is autobiography. (In hindsight, I could have included Vertigo as an inspiration for Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, but then Austerlitz had partly inspired Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so…) The novel is divided into four parts, all first person narratives – the first is by Stendahl and describes his entry into Italy with Napoleon’s army, the second is by an unnamed narrator presumed to be Sebald and covers two trips he makes to a village in the Alps, the third is about Kafka, and the final section recounts the narrator’s return to his home village and his reflections on the changes, and lack of change, he sees there. Despite its discursive nature, there’s a deceptive simplicity to Sebald’s prose, which tricks the reader into thinking the story carries a smaller intellectual payload than it actually does. I don’t know of another author who writes at such length, and so indirectly, on a topic and yet still manages to make it all about the topic. Sebald did not write many novels – only four, in fact – but I suspect by the end of 2017 I will have read all of them.

nocilla3 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I’m pretty sure it was David Hebblethwaite who mentioned this, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. It was almost as if it had been written for me – a fractured narrative, split into 113 sections, some of which are factual, some of which hint at further stories. There’s a sense the novel is a work in progress, inasmuch as it’s an approach to narrative that has not been tried and tested – indeed, it led to a “Nocilla Generation” of writers in Spain. I suspect Mallo is guilty of over-selling his concept, but then narrative structure is one of my interests and I should think most writers – including myself, of course! – often think they’re being much cleverer than they actually are… What Mallo has created here may not be wholly new, but it is different enough to be worth keeping an eye on. And yes, I still find it a little disappointing that “Nocilla” is just a Spanish brand-name for a Nutella-like spread. It’s like when I thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was a really poetic title until I learnt Teen Spirit is just the brand name of a deodorant…

rites_of_passage4 Rites of Passage, William Golding (1980). I found this in a local charity shop and bought it on the strength of Golding’s reputation and a half-remembered reading of Lord of the Flies from my school days… In other words, I went into Rites of Passage pretty much blind. I will happily admit I’m not over-fond of journal narratives, and the early nineteenth century is not a period that really interests me (especially in British history), but… this novel was so superbly put together, its control of voice, its management of story, so stunningly good, that after reading it I immediately decided I’d like to read not only the rest of the trilogy, of which this book is the first, the others are Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, but also anything else by Golding. Fortunately, I’d also bought The Inheritors and The Spire when I bought Rites of Passage, so I have those two books on the TBR to look forward to…

golden_notebook5 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962). I’d bought this a couple of years ago on the strength of its reputation – and having read several Lessing novels… but it sat there on my bookshelves unread for quite a while because, well, partly because of its reputation, but also because of its size… But I took it with me on a train journey to Scarborough… and discovered it was a great deal less polemical than I’d expected, hugely readable, and fascinating in its depiction of the life of protagonist Anna Wulf (and her fictional/meta-fictional counterparts). The nested fictional/meta-fictional narratives are no longer as excitingly experimental as they were in 1962, so in one respect the book’s impact has been somewhat blunted by time – although, to be honest, I much prefer literature which plays such narrative tricks. Having said that, this diminution in shock factor solely from structure shows how readable and coherent the various narratives actually are. It is slightly sad and frightening that The Golden Notebook enjoys the reputation it does when you think what a reader must be like, and believe, in order to be shocked and horrified by the novel’s content. Even more worryingly, I suspect more people these days will reject the novel due to its politics – Wulf is a member of the Communist Party – and so completely miss its commentary on sexual politics. But I thought it was bloody great.

Honourable mentions: Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015) [3]; A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015) [4]; Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016) [5]; Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008); Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015); The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley (2015); Never at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011); Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015); Blindness, Henry Green (1926); and Other Stories, Paul Park (2015).

Quite a few books from my best of the half-year got bumped down to honourable mentions, but I suspect their authors will not be too upset given what replaced them. Three of the honourable mentions are from small presses – Unsung Stories, Aqueduct Press and PS Publishing – and it’s about fifty-fifty category sf versus mainstream. The gender balance is 2:3 in the top five for female:male, but 8:7 including the honourable mentions. That’s not too shabby. All books mentioned above are, of course, recommended.

films
A bit of a change in this list from July, but then I’ve watched a lot of films this year. Some of the ones in the top five below have even become favourites, which makes 2016 an especially good year in that respect. Of course, my taste in movies has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but even so…

river_titas1 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). I watched Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star back in 2014, after, I think, seeing it mentioned in Sight & Sound, but it wasn’t until this year I saw the only other film by him available on DVD in the UK, A River Called Titas. (Ghatak’s Subarnarekha is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I had to source a copy via alternative means in order to see it.) I have no idea why I love A River Called Titas as much as I do. It tells the story of a young woman during the 1930s in a village on the bank of the eponymous river, who is married against her will, then kidnapped, rescued by strangers, and subsequently builds a life for herself and her new child in another village not knowing who her husband ever was… until she one day stumbles across him. But he has lost his mind. Then they die, and the film follows their son and the woman who adopted him. It’s based on a novel by Adwaita Mallabarman, which I now really want to read. The BFI DVD is not a brilliant transfer, which is a shame as the composition of some of the shots is beautiful. I’ve watched this film five times already this year – and the final watch was of the Criterion remastered edition, which is such a huge improvement over the BFI print – so much so that it was almost like watching a new, and much better, movie.

lucia2 Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (something of a familiar refrain, I admit), and I knew nothing about it when I put it in the DVD player – indeed, I knew nothing about Cuban cinema. But I loved it. It tells the stories of three women, all called Lucía – the first in the 1860s, the second in the 1930s and the third in the 1960s. It’s a long film and it covers a lot of ground, but it’s a wonderfully human movie. The Mr Bongo transfer is pretty poor – but it’s the only DVD of the film I can find, so can someone please remaster it?  – and the film is black-and-white, so the poor quality is not as noticeable as it might otherwise be… The acting feels appropriate to each of the historical periods, although it does tend to drift into melodrama at times… but when I started watching this I’d never have guessed I’d love it, so much so that Lucía has, like A River Called Titas, become a favourite film.

autumn_avo3 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan) [1]. I’d seen Ozu’s Tokyo Story back in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to explore Ozu’s oeuvre. I admit it, I bought An Autumn Afternoon because the cover of the Criterion edition (although I actually bought the BFI edition pictured) reminded me of Antonioni’s Red Desert, a favourite film. And while An Autumn Afternoon was nothing like Red Desert, it is a beautifully observed domestic drama. Ozu had a tendency to use the same actors in different roles, which did intially confuse – Chishu Ryu is playing the patriarch of which family in this film? – but I also think An Autumn Afternoon has the clearest illustration of inside and outside in Japanese culture of all of Ozu’s films I’ve so far seen. There’s a lovely matter-of-fact courtesy among the characters, despite the fact it’s obvious they know each so well they’re extremely comfortable in each other’s company; and it’s the interactions between the characters which are the true joy of Ozu’s movies. The plot, when you think about it, is almost incidental. There’s an effective scene in An Autumn Afternoon, in which Ryu encounters a petty officer from a ship he captained during WWII. It is not, in and of itself, a particularly shocking discovery about Ryu’s character, but it is a powerful reminder that for much of the twentieth century WWII defined a great many peoples’ lives, on both sides of the conflict… and that is something we should not forget.

robinson4 Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I forget who mentioned Keiller to me, but I received his London as a Christmas present last year and, having thought it was very good, bought myself Robinson in Ruins, a belated sequel, in 2016. The central conceit, that the films are narrated by a friend of the titular Robinson as secondhand reportage, still occurs in Robinson in Ruins – the original narrator, Paul Scofield, died in 2008, and Vanessa Redgrave takes his place in Robinson in Ruins, and, I thought, she actually worked better. The idea that Robinson had spent the intervening years in prison gave the film a freshness, because we’re seeing what it depicts through Robinson’s eyes. But, more than that, its commentary on Tory politics and finances, at an almost Adam-Curtis-like level of detail and interconnectedness, gave the film an added bite Keiller’s earlier films had lacked. This is not the bite of a Great White, it must be admitted, more the savaging of a tenacious spaniel, but the fact it exists only illustrates how much more of this type of cinema we need. Having said that, Redgrave’s narration is erudite, interesting and perfectly played; and Keiller’s imagery is often beautifully shot. More, please.

entranced_earth5 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil) [2]. I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (where have we heard that before?), although I knew nothing about Rocha’s movies – or indeed about Brazilian cinema. I loved it. So much so I bought all three of Rocha’s films available on DVD in the UK – Entranced Earth, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Rocha was a leading light of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which sought to bring realism and social conscience into Brazilian films. Entranced Earth has bags of the latter, but not so much of the former. It’s an often hallucinogenic account of an election in an invented South American country, between an established candidate and a populist candidate (back when “populist” didn’t mean orange-faced fascist or goose-stepping Mr Blobby), but neither candidate is ideal – as an investigating journalist discovers. The narrative is non-linear, some of the photography is brilliant (a shot from the top of a TV aerial stands out), and the films wears its politics proudly on its sleeve. Kudos to Mr Bongo for distributing these films in the UK – even if the transfers are not of the best quality – but Rocha made four feature films and five documentaries, so it would be nice to see those too… not to mention actual UK releases of films by another Brazilian Cinema Novo director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos… or indeed any other Cinema Novo director…

Honourable mentions: Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA) [3]; Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile) [4]; Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India) [5]; Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania); Nuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland); A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China); 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania); A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand); Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France); and Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India).

Only a single US film in the lot, which I consider an achievement – although I’ve been accused of “going too far in the opposite direction”. But I do like classic Hollywood movies, and I love me some 1950s Rock Hudson melodramas, but… that doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re good films. The above is a pretty eclectic mix, from 13 different countries, of which India manages three entries (which came as a surprise, although I do really like the work of those three Indian directors). If anything, I’m hoping 2017 will be even more of a world cinema year, and I’ll find interesting films from countries whose cinemas I have yet to explore.

Oh, and for the record, my top ten favourite films, as of this post, currently looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) 2 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India); 3 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA); 4 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy); 5 Lucía, Humbert Solás (1968, Cuba); 6 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia); 7 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland); 8 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany); 9 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine); 10 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA).

music
It’s been a, er, quiet year for music for me. I went to Bloodstock Open Air, as I have done since 2007 (minus 2009 and 2010), and enjoyed it a great deal. It was excellent to see Akercocke back together again (and I saw them a second time a couple of months later in Sheffield), but I think the stand-out performance of the weekend for me was Shining, who I’d never even heard of until I saw them at Bloodstock in 2014. That was pretty much it, gig-wise, for 2016. I also saw Arch Enemy, who I’d last seen at Bloodstock in 2007, but their set felt a bit lacklustre. Akercocke were better second time around, playing a small nightclub rather than a giant field in Derbyshire. And then there was a one-off gig by Anathema in Holmfirth, and they were as bloody good as they ever are (and yes, they played my two favourite songs, ‘Closer’ and ‘Fragile Dreams’).

I’ve not bought that many albums this year, either as MP3 downloads or olde stylee silver discs, although a couple of my favourite bands have had new releases out. Partly because I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve been so busy there I’ve sort of got out of the habit. I’ve also been carded once too often by couriers because I didn’t hear the doorbell over the music when I’ve been at home. But the year has not been a total dead loss, because I did actually buy some music, and a lot of it was very good indeed. And, amazingly, my top five are all 2016 albums…

no_summer1 A Year with No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016) [1]. I discovered this group when I saw them play live at Bloodstock in 2014, and I enjoyed their set so much I bought their album. This second album has been long-awaited, and it’s particularly good because it’s not more of the same. It is, if anything, even more progressive than the band’s debut, Mantiis. There must be something about the Spanish metal scene that leads to bands which generate these complex soundscapes from drums, bass, guitars and synth, more so than the metal of any other nation – not just Obsidian Kingdom, at the progressive end of the scale, but NahemaH, a favourite and now sadly defunct band, from the death metal end of the scale, not to mention Apocynthion somewhere in between. Whatever it is, I welcome it: A Year with No Summer is a listening adventure from start to finish, and never gets tiring.

on_strange_loops2 On Strange Loops, Mithras (2016). And speaking of long-awaited albums… Mithras’s last album, Behind the Shadows Lie Madness, was released in 2007. There was an EP, Time Never Lasts, in 2011, but it’s been a long wait for a new album-length work from this favourite band. This is pretty much down to the band’s perfectionism, a trait with which I can certainly empathise – and releasing on your own label, or self-publishing, as least gives you the freedom to release when and only when you feel the work is fit for release. Happily, and after all this time, On Strange Loops is definitely worth the wait. It is, of course, more of the same – massively intense and intricate death metal with ambient interludes. It works because of the contrasts and because the muscianship is of such a high level. Mithras toured this year, but I didn’t get the chance to see them perform, which I regret. Maybe next year.

rooms3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016) [3]. A friend had this on their wishlist on Bandcamp, so I gave it a listen as we often like a lot of the same stuff. I liked it. A lot. Back in June, I described Todtgelichter’s music as “a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal”, and I still think that’s the best description because, well, it doesn’t sound at all like black metal but it does sound like the band were at some point a black metal band. If that makes sense. I don’t know; perhaps it’s the sensibility with which they construct their songs. It’s not particularly heavy, inasmuch as the guitar sound is more like heavy rock turned up to eleven than your actual metal guitar, but the whole is metal. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (Googles quickly, discover Zappa didn’t coin it, oh well). But the point remains – there is something in Todtgelichter’s music which appeals to me, and I can’t quite identify what it is. But they made my top five for the year.

belakor-vessels4 Vessels, Be’lakor (2016). I’ve been a fan of Australian melodic death metallers Be’lakor since first hearing their 2012 album Of Breath and Bone. It taken four years for a sequel – happily not so long for me, as I found their earlier works, The Frail Tide (2007) and Stone’s Reach (2009) during the years in-between – but Vessels is easily as good as, if not better than, Of Breath and Bone. It’s not just that Be’lakor create polished melodic death metal, as there as many varieties of that as there are bands who profess to play it (not to mention bands who profess not to play it but do), but more that they create layered songs with intricate but melodic guitar parts, with strong melody lines carried by the vocals. It’s a winning combination.

atoma5 Atoma, Dark Tranquillity (2016). A new album by a favourite band, so it’s no surprise to find it here – but it’s at number five because it’s a recent release and I’ve not listened to it as much I’d have liked to. It sounds very much like a Dark Tranquillity album, of course, although nothing on the few listens I’ve had struck me as “anthemicly” stand-out in the way tracks on earlier albums have done, like ‘The Wonders At Your Feet’, ‘Lost to Apathy’, or ‘Shadow in Our Blood’, but, still, this is Dark Tranquillity. They’ve been creating excellent death metal since 1989, and they’ve never stood still, which is one reason why I treasure them so much. Dark Tranquillity are the moving line which defines melodic death metal.

Honourable mentions: Afterglow, In Mourning (2016) [2]; Eidos, Kingcrow (2015) [4]; Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016) [5]; Departe, Clouds (2016); and Pure, In the Woods (2016).

An odd year for music. A few favourite bands released new albums, not all of which I bought. I went to very few gigs – ten years of Austerity has noticeably reduced the number of bands I’d like to see performing in Sheffield, now they just play Leeds or Manchester. Even the local metal scene seems to have been affected: some of the bigger bands have called it a day, others have not performed as often as in previous years. I’ve certainly listened to less music, and less new music, and bought less music, in 2016 than in previous years. Partly that’s because I’ve spent less time exploring metal on Bandcamp and other sites, but also because I’ve spent less time listening to music than in other years. And partly because fewer bands I want to see have performed locally. Let’s hope 2017 proves a better year musically…

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Moving pictures, #60

Look at that! Another group of films without a single one from the US. And not a bad film in the lot, either. I’m getting better at this.

au_revoirAu revoir les enfants*, Louis Malle (1987, France). The Malle films I’ve watched so far – all of which were a result of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – I’ve not found that impressive. Which is not to say I’d totally written him off – after all, I might well have said the same of Claude Chabrol, but then I watched A Story of Women and Le boucher, and revised my opinion – but let’s just say my expectations were not especially high when I put Au revoir les enfants into the player. Malle appears three times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there was always a possiblity one of his films might strike my fancy, and… Au revoir les enfants did: I thought it a well-shot and well-played French movie. The story is apparently semi-autobiographical. Set at a boys’ boarding-school in 1943 in occupied France, a class tough, who wets his bed at night, wakes up and discovers one of the school’s three new pupils praying in Hebrew. The priest who runs the school is hiding Jewish children from the Germans. The two boys become friends, but then the Gestapo raid the school and take away the three boys and the priest. They were denounced by the kitchen hand, who had been fired for selling school food supplies on the black market. There’s nothing in particular about Au revoir les enfants that stands out, it’s just a well-made drama, its cast are good, and it tells a story that – in these times more than ever – needs to be told. It’s not a film that deserves to be forgotten or ignored. Recommended.

black_coalBlack Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan (2014, China). Streaming is apparently not a total dead loss. I was looking for something to watch one night and spotted this on Amazon Prime: a recent Chinese thriller. So I gave it a go. It was excellent. When I lived in the UAE, I watched a lot of Hong Kong action films, especially Jackie Chan ones, on VCD (who remembers VCD?), but I watched very little, if anything, from mainland China. And then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made wu xia commercially successful internationally, and it was followed by a raft of historical Chinese epics / wu xia movies, the bulk of which looked absolutely gorgeous. But, of course, China’s film industry produces more than just historical epics and wu xia, and in the last couple of years I’ve seen several such films – for example, I thought Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin so good, I stuck all his other films on my rental list. Black Coal, Thin Ice reminded me a little Zhangke’s film, but it also reminded me a little of a French thriller from 2000, Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers). Black Coal, Thin Ice opens with the discovery of a dismembered body at a coal plant. ID found nearby identifies the body as that of Liang, a coal worker. While apprehending a suspect, there’s a shootout and only detective Zhang and his partner Wang survive. The case is closed. The film skips ahead five years. Zhang is now a drunk, and working as a security guard. He bumps into Wang, who is still a detective, and learns that two further murders have occurred since that first one, both with the bodies dismembered. All three victims were linked to Liang’s widow Wu. Serial killer movies are nothing new, of course, and in recent years many have moved from focusing on the drama of the chase, and eventual arrest, onto the psychological effects of the investigation on those hunting the serial killer. Black Ice, Thin Ice falls firmly into the latter category, but it scores by not sensationalising its story, and by characterising Zhang as a failure from the start – it’s not the investigation which traumatises him, it was the shoot-out before they even knew they had a serial killer, when they thought they had closed the case. The cinematography is lovely, although the settings are wholly urban or industrial, and the performances low-key. Recommended.

tokyo_storyTokyo Story*, Yasujiro Ozu (1953, Japan). Watching Ozu’s films is a bit like watching a long-running family drama series, except the actors play different parts, although in broad outline their characters are the same. And it’s all set within the same generation, over a fifteen year period beginning in the early 1950s. So, in Tokyo Story, Chishu Ryu, who also plays the lead in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, plays one half of a retired couple, with Chieko Higashiyama, who plays the mother in Early Summer (and in which Chishu Ryu plays, er, her oldest son), visit Tokyo to stay with their adult children. One of whom is a widow (she’s actually a daughter-in-law). Single women seem to feature heavily in Ozu’s films. It’s the daughter-in-law who spends the most time with the old couple. On their return to their home in Onomichi, they stop off to see another of their children in Osaka, where Higashiyama takes ill. When the two get back to Onomichi, Higashiyama’s illness worsens and she dies. The family gather for the funeral, but again it’s the widowed daughter-in-law who provides the most support. She points out she is less busy than the others as she has no family of her own, and so Ryu tells her she should remarry as soon as possible. If it’s not a familiar plot, it’s a familiar refrain. I’ve remarked before that Ozu’s films are very domestic, very inside, and the fact they’re chiefly family dramas is a reflection of this. And at the time Ozu was making films, it seems one of the issues which exercised family patriarchs was making good marriages for their daughters. True, this is a Japanese film, but it’s also more than sixty years old, and I suspect “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” is more of an explanation of its concerns than any differences in Japanese and British culture. It also possesses bags of charm, but not because – he says, trying desperately hard to think of UK and US examples – it presents a charming lifestyle, as in, say, All That Heaven Allows (extra points for shoe-horning my favourite film into the post), or any random Rock Hudson rom com from the fifties, or The Man Who Loved Redheads, or Josephine and Men… in which the lifestyle defines the characters. In Ozu’s films, the lifestyle remains essentially unchanged from film to film, and the characters are defined by their relationships (which is good, given Ozu’s penchant for using the same actors in different roles). I first watched Tokyo Story back in 2009, long before I started using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I likely did so after seeing it praised somewhere, perhaps in Sight & Sound… At the time, I enjoyed it, but didn’t bother furhter exploring Ozu’s films. Now, however, I’m getting quite hooked on them. I don’t think I’d count Tokyo Story among my favourites by him, but it is, of course, recommended.

great_african_1Faraw! (une mère de sable), Abdoulaye Ascofaré (1997, Mali). Somewhere or other I’d come across mention of ArtMattan Productions’ DVD series Great African Films, in four volumes so far, and I immediately wanted copies. But their website design seems stuck in the 1990s, and when I emailed them to ask if they’d sell copies to a buyer in the UK I never received a reply. So I ended up purchasing a copy of their first volume – which includes Faraw! (une mère de sable), from Mali, and Harumbaya, from Burkina Faso – off someone on eBay. Annoyingly, it proved to be ex-rental, but I went back and checked the seller’s description and, yes, they did mention that, I’d just missed it. Oh well. The two discs played fine, anyway. Faraw! is set in north east Mali, a desert region, where the twentieth century has made few inroads. A mother, apparently based on Ascofaré’s mother, has trouble making ends meet – her husband is an invalid and his pension is all the income they have, her daughter is rebellious, and the two young sons are more likely to cause trouble than help. In desperation, she approaches the handful of Europeans living in the village, offering the services of herself and her daughter as cleaners. But the Europeans want more from the daughter than just washing and sweeping, so the mother turns them down in disgust. She visits an ex-suitor, and he gives her a donkey. She uses this to fetch water from a spring, and then sells the water to women in and around the village, so earning enough to feed her family. The film ends with a bizarre dream sequence, in which the title character makes a triumphant entry to the village. There’s a freshness and honesty to Faraw! you no longer see in Anglophone movies. While it was obviously made on the cheap, the cast are entirely convincing in their roles (except, perhaps, the Europeans), and Aminata Ousmane – this is apparently her only film appearance – fills the screen with a fierce maternal determination that pretty much defines the movie. It was totally worth hunting down this DVD. Recommended.

east_bucharest12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania). I mentioned to a Romanian friend I’d been watching lots of films from various countries, so he said, of course you’ve watched some Romanian films… and I was a little bit embarrassed to realise I hadn’t. I immediately added a bunch to my rental list and this was the first one to arrive. I’ve certainly watched a film made in Romanian – East Germany’s Im Staub der Sterne was filmed partly in the country – but never an actual Romanian film. And the fact it proved to be 12:08 East of Bucharest was pure chance. It starts out a bit grim, following the life a drunk in the town of Vaslui, who can barely remember what he gets up to each night, and spends the following morning begging for a drink from his regular bar. Then he makes his way to a television studio to appear in a programme about the day 16 years before when a revolution overthrew Ceauşescu’s brutal regime. He was a teacher at the time, and he claims to have been present in the square when Ceauşescu fled the town hall. Except not everyone remembers it like that. And during the live celebration, people ring in and disagree with the teacher, and the other two panel members, over their claims to involvement in the revolution. So what starts out as grim turns blackly comic before becoming a weird sort of farce in which the three on the TV panel argue back against those who call into the television studio, insisting that the role they played during that year is true. The end result is a black comedy that is really quite funny, makes pointed commentary on Romania’s history, and remains very Romanian (I was unaccountably amused by the many mentions of Timişoreana beer). Recommended.

flickering_truthA Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand). And yet another gem found on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure what possessed me to start watching it, but I’m glad I did. It documents the attempt to rescue the Afghan Film Archives in Kabul after the depradations of the Taliban. The films are in poor condition, and not all have survived – but there are some historically important documents in there. A Flickering Truth is ambivalent toward its protagonist, Ibrehim Arif, who had been imprisoned by the Mujahideen but had fled Afghanistan to settle in Germany – and there’s a suggestion throughout the film that his projects are as much selfish as they are altruistic. It’s true that he does a great deal to rescue the archive, but he also has his critics – although whether they are motivated by the fact he fled to Germany is left to the viewer’s own interpretation. It’s fascinating stuff, and the footage shown from the archives is even more fascinating. I’ve seen Osama, which gives a good indication of what life was like under the Taliban; but many people seem to have forgotten what life was like in that part of the world before Islamism rose in response to Western interference. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan… these were all secular states. – until the Cold War ended and the USA decided to try its hand at foreign affairs in the Middle East. (Which is not to ignore their previous meddling, and how successful it was…) (Nor am I absolving the UK of blame, although it tended not to fuck things up as badly as the US.) (Not that that is anything to boast about…). A Flickering Truth was excellent stuff and reminded me a little of both Kandahar and the aforementioned Osama. Recommended.

1001 Films You Must See Before you Die count: 823