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2017, the best of the year: films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Moving pictures 2017, #37

To people visiting this site after following the link from the Apollo Quartet audio book humble bundle (here), apologies. I normally write about science fiction and writing and critcism and sometimes even space exploration and technology… but for the past 18 months the $dayjob has sort of taken over and this blog has sort of turned into a film blog. I like films, I’ve always liked films. And I like to think I have good taste in films. I especially like films from other cultures, or from directors with very distinctive visions – auteurs, if you will. So, sadly, I’ve been blogging a lot about films for the last year or so. Normal service will be resumed at some point. Then I’ll starting writing criticism and stuff about science fiction, I’ll have the bandwidth to to invest in that sort of stuff. But, for now, it’s movies mostly. But they are good movies. Mostly.

King Kong*, Merian C Cooper & Ernest B Schoedsack (1933, USA). Everyone knows the story of King Kong – you know, giant ape, “was beauty killed the beast” – although it’s likely from one of the remakes. The one I remember best is the Jessica Lange one from 1976… although, I say “remember”, but all I can actually recall is the basic story – you know, giant ape, “was beauty killed the beast”… This 1933 edition is the original, made by the guys who actually invented King Kong. A film director known for making adventurous and dangerous films is about to embark on his latest project, shooting on an island whose location he refuses to reveal. He has decided his project needs a love interest but can find no actress willing to accompany him on his expedition/shoot. Desperate, he goes looking for a suitable star on the night the ship he has chartered is due to depart… and stumbles across homeless Fay Wray, who is more than happy to accept his somewhat vague offer of employment. The ship sails to an uncharted island somewhere in the Pacific, where the natives worship a giant ape called Kong, and sacrifice young women to it at intervals. When the natives catch sight of Wray, they know Kong just gonna love her. (Why? Kong is a gorilla. Surely he lusts after, well, other gorillas?) The natives kidnap Wray and leave her for Kong. First mate on the ship and male love interest charges off to rescue her. There’s lots of stop-motion photography of Kong fighting dinosaurs. For 1933, it’s pretty effective. The hardy Americans manage to capture Kong, and take him back to New York to exhibit him to an eager audience… This is pure pulp, and unashamedly so. And, I guess, it could qualify as seminal, given that King Kong himself has become a cultural icon. And I can certainly understand the argument that seminal movies, as well as ones that are just plain excellent, belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You die list… And, let’s be fair, King Kong is pretty trashy, but it’s entertaining trash and it never claimed to be anything more (unlike some of its remakes kof kof). I’ve now seen it, I’m glad I’ve seen it, I’ll likely never ever see it again, but that’s okay.

The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi (2016, Iran). The title refers to Arthur Miller’s play, as the film’s two leads are rehearsing for a production of it in Tehran in which they play the chief roles. The film opens with their family fleeing from their apartment building as the tenants are afraid it is about to collapse – a wall has fallen over, and building standards are apparently so poor in Iran it’s not uncommon for the entire building to follow suit. Forced to find another home, they turn to a fellow cast-member, who offers them a recently-vacated apartment in his building. So they move in. The other tenants in the building, remembering the previous tenant of the apartment, are a little worried, because, well, because of what happens. One evening, on her own in the flat, the wife takes a shower. The entryphone buzzes. Thinking it’s her husband returning from the supermarket, she presses the button and unlocks the front door. It is not her husband. And when he does arrive home, he finds his wife is missing and there is blood in the bathroom. She’s in hospital, having been assaulted. She doesn’t know who her assailant was. But he’d been surprised by neighbours, and ran off, leaving his pickup truck behind. So the husband uses it to track the man down… You can imagine how this would go if it were made in Hollywood, with either Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson… Happily, it doesn’t do that. The wife wants to forget about the incident, the husband wants revenge. And when he identifies the attacker, he sets out to have his revenge, only for that to go not as intended. I know of ‘Death of a Salesman’, but I’m not that familiar with it, so how it integrates into the story of the film is lost on me. I suspect the two stories resonate off each other, but I’m guessing – you don’t see enough the play in the film to judge. I was less than taken with Farhadi’s film prior to this, The Past, which felt like an ordinary French drama, but The Salesman is much, much better, a return to the films Farhadi had been making before.

Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria). The title is a bit of a fib, as this documentary doesn’t follow the actual last ambulance still operating in the Bulgarian capital, although the fleet is a fraction of what it once was. It’s the age-old story: a civilised society creates free healthcare for all… but then in come the capitalists and rentiers and plutocrats and they know people will never refuse to pay for medical care so they defund and destroy the public system, then mendaciously claim it doesn’t work, and so privatise it, thus earning themselves great profits. This should be made a crime. It’s no better than selling arms – worse, in fact, because people can choose not to pull the trigger, but they cannot choose not to be ill or injured. It’s past time for a change in attitude: profiting from healthcare is the action of scumbags. Anyway, Sofia’s Last Ambulance follows a single ambulance over several days. The camera remains focused throughout on the crew, and the patients are never revealed. Many of the scenes show them sitting in the cabin of their ambulance. Judging by the way the vehicle bounces around, the roads in Sofia are also in a shocking state. There are several scenes also set in the back of the ambulance, including one where a man involved in a RTA is in severe pain and keeps on sitting up, despite being repeatedly told not to – so much so, the paramedic tells him, “If you don’t lie down, you’ll leave your leg here on the stretcher!” (or words to that effect). The scariest part about Sofia’s Last Ambulance is that it’s a pretty good indication of what the NHS will look like post-Brexit, post- a decade of Tory cuts and corruption and robbery and lies. I’m actually starting to look back on Thatcher’s government with fondness, that’s how incompetent, malicious, corrupt and damaging both Cameron’s and May’s governments have been, and still are being. Their excuses are so thin, only a moron would swallow them. Bah. Sofia’s Last Ambulance: an excellent documentary. The UK’s Conservative government: a bunch of criminals that has repeatedly abused human rights.

Children of Heaven, Majid Majidi (1997, Iran). While there’s no mistaking Iranian cinema, I do sometimes have trouble distinguishing its directors – well, mostly. Children of Heaven, for example, reminded me of The Apple, but that was directed by Samira Makhmalbaf. And while Kiarostami possessed a singular vision, it was evident more in the structure of his films than in the shots he framed or the stories he told. Of course, there’s always a danger in confusing characteristics of a nation’s cinema with the visions of individual directors. After all, not every film made in India is three hours long and features singing and dancing. And while I’ve seen a number of films from Iran – twenty-one, at the last count – I doubt that’s enough to get a true handle on the film-making traditions in the country. After all, in this Moving pictures post alone, there are two Iranian directors, Majidi and Farhadi, and both create very different films, but both of which seem, to me, very much portraits of their country. In Children of Heaven, a young boy and his younger sister are forced to share a pair of ratty old plimsolls – because the sister’s shoes were stolen when the boy was on way hone from picking them up from the cobbler. The shoe-sharing results in the boy being late for school several times, and also several amusing incidents with the girl losing one or the other plimsoll (as they’re too big for her). But then she spots her old shoes on another girl’s feet, and follows her home. But she can’t work up the courage to claim her shoes back, and the girl seems in innocent of the theft anyway. The boy’s school then announces there is a nation-wide children’s 4-km running competition, the third prize for which is a holiday and a pair of Adidas trainers. The boy enters, and wins a place on his school’s team. He wants to win third prize, so he can have the trainers, and his sister then have the ratty plimsolls for herself… For a film whose two leads are under the age of ten but operating in an adult world, it comes as no surprise that Children of Heaven is big on charm. There’s not a great deal in the lives of the working-class Iranian in Tehran that’s actually charming per se – their father has to beg for work, and goes round pressing on entry buzzers at big houses asking for gardening work. and, to be fair, the whole plot hinges on the fact the family cannot to keep the two children properly shod. But the two kids are absolutely fantastic in their roles, and seeing how well they handle their parts actually makes the movie quite uplifting. They’re all in tears at the end, and they’re not tears of happiness, but it’s nonetheless a happy ending. I forget now why I added this film to my rental list, but it really is very good. Definitely worth watching.

Once upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011, Turkey). I forget also why I added this to my rental list – or rather, I forget who recommended it and when. I’ve watched less than half a dozen films from Turkey, but I know Ceylan’s name from Uzak, which I watched back in 2012. And I remember it as being very good. Which ended up making Once Upon a Time in Anatolia something of a curate’s egg. It feels in part like an attempt at a Tarantino film (but why would anyone want to do that?), and follows a plot that could take place just about anywhere… yet it’s still peculiarly Turkish. The police have driven two murders out into the country to dig up the body of their victim. But the murderers are having trouble remembering precisely where they buried it. Meanwhile, the police talk among themselves, sometimes in Tarantino-esque dialogue, sometimes in the sort of elliptical hypothetical story more common in East European/West Asian films and stories. Eventually, the murderers take the police to the right place, and they dig up their victim. But then they realise they have no body-bags, and the corpse won’t fit in the boots of their cars. Ths is a film in which the story being told is actually incidental to the dialogue – the hunt for the murder victim’s buried body just provides structure, everything is in the conversations between the principals. And the problem with such films is that because the dialoguie skips all over the place, there’s no real structure to the story. Once upon a Time in Anatolia works because the hunt for the body is surreal enough, and yet real enough, to provide a framework for the dialogue. And some of the dialogue also links back into the framing plot – such as the one about the man whose wife died of mysterious means on the day she said she would die, and how an autopsy revealed she’d had a heart attack but not how she’d been able to predict it – and that connects to the autopsy of the murder victim and its findings. A good film. I think I’ll add the rest of Ceylan’s oeuvre – he’s made seven feature-length films, all of which are available – to my rental list.

Eroica, Andrzej Munk (1958, Poland). Munk’s Passenger is an incomplete classic of cinema, but he apparently managed to finish three movies, of which Eroica is the second. Though the the title refers to a piece of classical music – by Beethoven – its alternative title of “Heroism”, while obvious in the way US publishers like to be obvious, does explain its story better. The film consist of two separate stories, both of which take place in Poland during WWII. (There was apparently a third segment, but Munk cut it, and it eventually appeared on Polish television fourteen years later.) In the first story, a con-man deserts from his home guard unit and returns home to discover his wife has taken up with the commanding officer of the Hungarian company garrisoned locally. The Hungarian tells him he’s willing to change sides, and bring his men and artillery over to the Poles. So the con-man – called Dzidziuś, which Google translate tells me means “baby”, but which the subtitles translate as “Babyface”, an odd name for a man in his thirties – must walk to Warsaw to tell the Home Army about the Hungarian’s offer. And then head back home to offer terms, and then back again to give the Hungarian’s response. The second story is set in a POW camp. A Polish officer allegedly succeeded in escaping, the only one to do so, and his success has been good for morale. Except, he didn’t escape, he’s been hiding in the attic all the time. But those who know this can’t reveal it because he would then be taken by the German guards and, of course, it would be bad for prisoner morale. Meanwhile, the other prisoners make assorted fruitless attempts to escape. The story focuses on a group of officers sharing a single bunk-room – the camp comprises stone buildings, rather than the wooden huts more commonly seen in such films – as seen thrugh the eyes of two new prisoners assigned to the room. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the alternative title applies, although they’re typically Polish, and blackly comic, definitions of the term: the man who performs heroic deeds simply in order to have an easier life, and the hero whose reputation rests on a deed that was a lie. Another solid entry in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema volumes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 873