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2017, the best of the year: films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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2017, Best of the half-year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

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

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

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

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


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Moving pictures 2017, #3

Why do I do it? I know superhero films are rubbish, and I know that watching them just irritates the shit out of me… but I still end up sticking them on my rental list. I suppose they’re easy films to watch drunk, and shouting at the screen can be reasonably entertaining when in that state – yes, yes, old man shouts at clouds, I know. But at least I’m doing it in the privacy of my own home…

xmen_apocalypseX-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer (2016, USA). So Bryan Singer kicks off the X-Men franchise, with the smartest superhero movie seen up to that time and, to be fair, I think it still stands as one of the best examples of the genre even today. As does the sequel. But not the third; no, the third was shit. Then Singer tries to reboot Superman, but that doesn’t go too well. So he goes back and reboots the superhero franchise he kicked off in the first place: the X-Men. And I guess X-Men: First Class was sorta fun inasmuch as it spoofed the 1960s and the earlier X-Men movies, and the new cast, it must be said, were pretty good picks across the board. But the retconning of the X-Men universe was a bit weird, and the final showdown over the Cuban Missile Crisis was just plain stupid. That was followed by – oh dear – X-Men: Days of Future Past, which pretty much made recent human history, never mind the future, a by-product of a grudge match between Magneto and Professor X. And so we come to X-Men: Apocalypse… which has nothing to do with an apocalypse per se, although one is plainly on the cards, but is so called because Apocalypse is the name of a supervillain. Because if you’re a supervillain, you pick a name that’s as fucking world-ending as you can possibly get. Apocalypse is from Ancient Egypt, and we know this because that’s where the film opens. Inside a pyramid. Which is a temple. Except, as any fucking fule kno, the pyramids were tombs not temples. Apocalypse is having his mind transferred into the body of a mutant who, like Wolverine, can self-heal even fatal injuries. But it goes wrong, and Apocalypse and his supergoons are buried beneath the pyramid. Cut to present-day Cairo, and a CIA agent has tracked a member of an apocalyptic cult to a secret underground temple… Apparently, in some five thousand years, Apocalypse’s pyramid has become buried under tens of metres of bedrock, not that any pyramids were actually built on land that Cairo now covers… Never mind that Cairo in the 1980s, which is when this movie is set, was a pretty secular city and resembled a busy Western city way more than it did a North African shanty town. But there are prejudices to be reinforced here, and a peaceful and secular Middle East is not one of them. And after that, I pretty much lost the plot. Apocalypse is revived and tries to end the world, as you would if you had chosen that word as your supervillan moniker. The X-Men fight him. The X-Men’s mansion is completely destroyed. But they rebuild it later, brick for brick, using their superpowers. See, that’s what they should have done: the X-Builders. They’d have proven way more use to society as builders than prancing around in Spandex and levelling cities as collateral damage in some sort of superhero pissing contest.

hometownUnknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke (2002, China). Jia became a name I planned to watch after seeing his 2013 film, A Touch of Sin. Happily, he has a back-catalague that is mostly available in the UK on DVD, including the three films in this Hometown trilogy DVD box set – Pickpocket, Platform and Unknown Pleasures. The last is set in Datong, an industrial city in north China, near the border with Inner Mongolia. Two young men have been doing nothing since they graduated from school. Bin Bin spends his time watching television with his girlfriend, Xiao Ji rides his motorbike around town. Then they meet Qiao Qiao, the singer/model spokesperson for Mongolian King Beer, and Xiao Ji enters into a relationship with her – which gets him into trouble with her gangster boyfriend. Bin Bin tries to join the army but fails the medical. In desperation, the two decide to rob a bank, but it goes badly wrong. Jia was apparently inspired by Datong’s many derelict buildings and factories, but then realised the streets were filled with people who were just as much victims and relics of faded past glories. It is not, to be brutally honest, an original concept in the slightest, and there are no doubt hundreds, if not more, films which have similar stories. But Jia’s film has a rawness – a consequence of shooting it on digital video in nineteen days – which US movies, independent or Hollywood, typically lack. (Plus, I like watching films set in other parts of the world.) Despite the speed with which it was put together, Unknown Pleasures is a tight story, with an escalating plot, that opens by documenting the aimlessness of Bin Bin and Xiao Jia, ramps up when an explosion partly destroys a local textile mill, and then deepens the two characters’ troubles when Qiao Qiao’s boyfriend has Xiao Ji beaten up. The final scenes of the film, with the bank robbery and its aftermath, just oozes despair. A good film, but not a cheery one.

everest_silenceThe Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK). George Mallory made two attempts to reach the summit of Everest, the first in 1922, the second in 1924 – which forms the subject of this film – and, during this later attempt, he disappeared while trying for the peak. Not that the film makes a secret of it, mentioning on an intertitle 35 minutes in that he and fellow climber Irvine “were to meet their deaths”. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but it’s still not known whether he made it to the summit. He might well have done, beating Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing by twenty-eight years. It seems unlikely, however, as The Epic of Everest bluntly explains that the pair simply disappeared from sight while being watched from 4,000 feet below. What is undoubtedly remarkable is that Mallory’s expedition was filmed – although the cameras could not be taken higher than 23,000 feet. The cinematography, despite being black-and-white, despite, you imagine, the crudity of the equipment, is astonishing. Even the first twenty minutes, in which the expedition travels to Everest, visiting several Tibetan villages en route, is beautifully photographed. Once the expedition reaches the mountains and climbs above the snowline, it’s mostly shots of people standing around in front of tents pitched at the feet of great slopes of snow and ice, while tiny figures in the background trudge up a white incline. True, it’s the scenery which impresses more than anything else… until you remember it all took place ninety-three years ago, when motion pictures were only a couple of decades old, television would not appear for another decade, and even human flight had been first achieved only a quarter of a century earlier. This is your actual history, it’s like real time travel. Get yourself a copy – fittingly, it comes bundled with The Great White Silence, Ponting’s film of Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole…

world_cinemaRedes, Emilio Gómez Muriel & Fred Zinneman (1936, Mexico). This is the last of the films in the Martin Scorcese World Cinema Project Volume 1 box set – can we have a volume 2, please? Anyway, Redes… The title apparently means “fishing nets”, but the English title is given as “The Waves”. It’s a documentary-style semi-fictional story of a Mexican fishing village in the 1930s, and for the time it was made it’s an astonishingly accomplished piece of work. Watching Redes, it’s hard not to be reminded of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the same sense of futility underlies the movie’s story, as the fishermen’s livelihood is threatened by a capitalist entrepreneur who owns the boat and sets the prices for the fish. When one fisherman’s son dies because he cannot afford healthcare (and this is in 1936, remember, not 2017), the fisherman persuades his fellows to revolt. Apparently, this is not a story that goes down well in some quarters in the US, much like the excellent Salt of the Earth from 1954 didn’t (especially with Pauline Kael), and I’ve seen an online review of Redes which accuses it of being Communist propaganda and then looks for faults to pick in the film-making and acting… It’s true Redes shares many characteristics with Italian neorealism, although it predates it by a number of years, but it seems the height of hypocrisy to praise those characteristics in an Italian neorealist film but condemn them in Redes. Bah. This is an excellent film, watch it. More, it’s only one of the films in a truly excellent box set, which any self-respecting cineaste should own.

garden_of_wordsThe Garden of Words, Makoto Shinkai (2013, Japan). David Tallerman told me to stick this on my rental list, but he’d neglected to mention it was anime. Although, to be fair, I should have known anyway, as I’ve seen Shinkai’s earlier Voices of a Distant Star. And while I tend to associate anime with alien invasion- and mecha-type stories, such as the excellent Neon Evangelion series, which is, er, both, I should know that it’s not always sf, it’s not always about giant robots or aliens… Especially since it’s the ones that are not genre, like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and From Up On Poppy Hill, that I like best of Studio Ghibli’s output. The animation in The Garden of Words is really quite gorgeous – it doesn’t have that painterly element that so drew me to Only Yesterday, but instead an almost photo-realist aspect that, at times, seemed to improve on nature. A schoolboy ducks his lessons to draw shoes, as he plans to be a shoe designer, at a park in Tokyo. In the pagoda he normally frequents, he meets a woman in her twenties, and the two become friends. He learns she was a teacher at his school, but had resigned after being bullied. The pair’s friendship is helpful to each of them, but it comes to an acrimonious end.  They forgive each other, but go their separate ways. This was better than I had expected, and way better than I had expected once I realised it was anime. I will be exploring more of Shinkai’s oeuvre, I think.

eye_in_the_skyEye in the Sky, Gavin Hood (2015, UK). I remember seeing this advertised on the sides of buses a year or two ago, and I vaguely recall hearing goodish things about it, so when it popped up free to view on Amazon Prime, I took the oportunity to watch it. And yes, it’s… mostly good. It takes a a difficult topic and tries to give an objective take on it. The only problem is, it tries to make a moral grey area out of something that is pretty much black and white. The British have tracked half a dozen Al-Shabaab (a real Jihadist group) leaders to a house in an Al-Shabaab-controlled suburb of Nairobi. Some of the leaders are Brits, one is an American. The UK government plans to take them out, by firing a Hellfire missile from a Reaper drone, piloted by a crew in Nevada. But then a young girl from a neighbouring house sets up a table to sell bread within the blast radius of the Hellfire and… Pretty much the entire movie is arguments for and against the legality of killing a small brown girl in an attack on known and wanted terrorists – and just to make sure everyone knows they’re terrorists, two of them are filmed preparing suicide bomber vests by a tiny camera drone disguised as a beetle… As far as the US government is concerned: hell, what’s one little brown girl to them? They’ve killed plenty already. (To be fair, it’s the US drone pilot who derails the mission when he demands a second “collateral damage assessment” because of the presence of the girl.) The Brits are considerably less eager to cause her death, I mean, kill her, and look for ways to save her, even if it jeopardises the mission’s objectives. Of course, what the film glosses over is the entire edifice on which the film rests: the law. They are looking for legal ways to murder people. The UK is not at war. Kenya is certainly not an enemy country. Terrorists may well be “the enemy”, but given that they’re not combatants of a nation against which the UK has declared war, it’s hard to see how they can be legally declared enemy combatants. Especially since a) any atrocity they have provenly committed would make them liable for arrest and due judicial process, but not summary execution, and b) anything they might have planned has not yet occurred and so is not an actual crime. But, you know, no one cares about logic or morality or legality when it comes to terrorists, or even brown people. Well, most white people don’t. They’re just scared. And racist. Having said that Eye in the Sky‘s story was built on shaky ground, it handled its plot points well… up to the bit where a government minister has a go at the Army general in charge of the operation, played by Alan Rickman, who responds with, “Never tell a soldier about the cost of war”, which is just self-serving bullshit, because if soldiers really cared about the cost of war they’d be trying to find ways to avoid them instead of finding enemies under every rock.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843