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The year in moving pictures

In 2015, I decided to try and watch as many films as I could on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, started subscribing to a second DVD rental library, and bought myself an Amazon Fire TV Stick. As a result, I watched 571 films during the year, of which 115 were rewatches (some more than once). In among those were 170 from the aforementioned list.

The bulk of the movies I watched were DVDs or Blu-rays I’d purchased myself. (I bought a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch Region A Blu-rays.) But I also watched quite a number from Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. See below.

2015_films_by_source

Kinopalæst is the cinema in Denmark where I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Light is the cinema in Leeds where I saw SPECTRE. Yes, they were the only two films I saw at the cinema. I did quite well on my Amazon Fire TV Stick – 48 movies, all of which were included free with Amazon Prime.

In terms of genre, drama seems to have done especially well, although admittedly it’s a broad term and perhaps some of the films I’ve categorised as drama might better be labelled something else. Anyway, see below.

2015_films_by_genre

The two Bollywood films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – or rather, one of them was: the other, Deewaar, proved to be a 2004 film of that title and not the 1975 one on the list (although both starred Amitabh Bachchan). Although last year I rented several of the plays from the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection from the late 1970s/early 1980s, the one Shakespeare movie this year was Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which I thought very good.

By decade, the films I watched pretty much follows the same graph for books read: the current decade is the most popular (surprisingly), and there’s a steady increase through the decades which peaks at the 1960s. See below.

2015_films_by_decade

The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century were a result of watching some early Dreyer silent movies and a DVD collection, Early Cinema – Primitives and Pioneers, because one of the films on it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

By nation makes for an interesting graph. Although I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which includes movies from many different nations (but over half are from the US, sadly), I’ve been a fan of world cinema for years and many of my favourite directors work in non-Anglophone cinema. See below.

films_by_country

The high number from Russia is no doubt due mostly to Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director; for Denmark because of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and for Germany it’s probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only two from Sweden – I obviously need to watch more Bergman…

Speaking of favourite directors, Sokurov comes out top for 2015 with 33 (most, it has to be said, were rewatches). Second is Jacques Tati, a 2015 “discovery”, at 15, then James Benning, another 2015 “discovery”, at 13. The remaining top ten goes as follows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (12), Alfred Hitchcock (11), Carl Theodor Dreyer (10), Lars von Trier (8), Sergei Eisenstein (6), and lastly George Stevens, Michael Curtiz, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jean Cocteau (5).

I finished the year having seen 703 movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a quite large pile of DVDs and Blu-rays on my To Be Watched list. I plan to keep on with the list in 2015, although I think I’ll take it a bit slower, perhaps spend some evenings each week reading rather than film-watching. Plus, it’s getting to the stage now where I have to purchase titles in order to watch them as they’re not available for rental. We’ll see how it goes.

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Moving pictures, #28

More films. Just the one from the US, so a reasonable spread. And a few more from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, of course.

pressurePressure, Ron Scalpello (2015, UK). There are many deep sea films, but few of them are about saturation diving. And most of them are complete bollocks anyway. I watched Pioneer this time last year but that was more of land-based thriller than a diving film, although saturation diving did feature heavily in it (see here). But Pressure is very much a diving film. It’s set almost entirely in a diving bell 650 feet (that’s about 20 atmospheres) below the surface of the sea off the coast of Ethiopia. A severe storm strikes and sinks their support ship. So they’re stuck on the sea bed, with no way to decompress and only a limited supply of heliox. Rescue is almost undoubtedly on its way, but the storm may delay it and there’s no telling when it will arrive. Pressure gets most of the details right – it certainly looks like it’s using the right technology – although for obvious reasons it ignores the helium squeak. And toward the end it all gets a bit silly – one diver seems to explode while trying for the surface, but the same fate does not befall hero Danny Huston, even though he doesn’t apparently make any decompression stops en route. (And at that depth, decompression would be measured in days or weeks.) Still, it was good to see a film based on a topic that interests me, and I’ll take what it gets right and overlook what it gets wrong.

cleoCleo from 5 to 7*, Agnès Varda (1962, France). I am ambivalent about the Nouvelle Vague. Some of its films I love, some I simply don’t see the point of. I thought this might fall into the latter, given that it covers the titular hours of the, er, titular character, as she waits for the results of a medical test which she thinks will tell her she has cancer. The film opens, in colour, with Cleo at a tarot reading, but changes to black and white as she leaves and goes about the rest of the day. But, completely unexpectedly, I found myself really loving this film. It helps that Cleo, played by Corinne Marchant, is a likeable protagonist and centres the film; but more than that, there’s the final third in which Cleo meets soldier Antoine in a park and the two talk and mildly flirt – it works really well. The dialogue feels natural, though it covers topics totally in keeping with the film’s themes, and the two have a natural chemistry on screen that plays. It’s hard not to compare it to a pair of Godard films, both black and white – Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée (see here and here) – both of which chiefly comprise women and men in conversation (Godard, incidentally, appears in Cleo from 5 to 7, in a silent film-within-a-film shown to Cleo during the two hours). Neither, however, compares well to this film, which manages to make those conversations not sound like the pretentious twaddle you’d expect of Rive Gauche students but like the natural conversational topics two might people might accidentally fall into. I rather fancy getting a copy of this on DVD or Blu-ray…

shepitkoThe Ascent*, Larisa Shepitko (1976, Russia). Another director completely unknown to me, and one of her films is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but none are available for rental in the UK, so I ended up buying a Criterion Collection DVD containing two of her films, and… The Ascent is set during the Great Patriotic War (WWII to me and thee) during the German invasion of Russia. It is, of course, cold and the ground is heavy with snow. A pair of Russian soldiers are sent to fetch food from a sympathetic farmer, but are captured by Germans. They are interrogated, and one agrees to join the local police – ie, become a collaborator. The film has a stark simplicity, helped by the snowy landscape, that plays to the story’s strengths; and while there’s not that much that’s subtle about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the film’s verisimilitude gives its story a moral authority it might otherwise lack. To be honest, there’s not much about The Ascent that makes it stands out. It’s well-filmed, it treats its subject well, and it makes its points cleverly and with subtlety. It’s a good film, but I’m borderline on whether it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must SeeBefore You Die list, possibly because I suspect Shepitko made more interesting films or because “good” should not be sufficient reason for inclusion. Worth seeing, nonetheless.

warbirdsWarbirds, Kevin Gendreau (2008, USA). I knew this was trash just from the packaging alone, but it mentioned WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), the US equivalent to the UK’s ATA (which was not actually a female-only organisation but just comprised mostly women pilots), so I thought it worth a go. That was a mistake. The WASP crew of a B-29 are ordered to deliver their aircraft, with important passengers, to an island in the Pacific, but they are shot down en route. If the WASPs are anything like the ATA, then the aircraft they flew had no guns fitted, and generally a single pilot was sufficient for the trip. Anyway, the WASPs and secret Army brass end up stuck on an island occupied by the Japanese – except the Japanese have almost all been killed by… giant pterodactyls. Yes, it’s that silly. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that this film had been made by the Global Asylum, but apparently not.

leni_riefenstahlOlympia, 2 Fest der Schönheit*, Leni Reifenstahl (1938, Germany). I watched this first half of this a few weeks ago, and though it covers the same subject – the 1936 Berlin Olympics – I suspect it was split into two films simply due to reasons of length. Like the first film, Fest der Volker (see here), it shows the various events. But it actually opens with some lovely shots of nature, followed by some naked men cavorting about – which would be less of a problem if you weren’t conscious of the fact the men in question were Nazis – before eventually returning to the Olympic Games. A variety of events are shown, including sailing, equestrian things and sprinting, but it’s the decathlon which proves the most interesting. There are fewer shots of the crowds, and none of Hitler, but many more of the athletes. The focus seems to be on the winners rather than the Germans, so even though it’s Americans who dominate the decathlon, we get to see them as they win each event. There’s a very real sense that what you’re seeing old, a true ddocument of the state of athletics in 1936, and so it’s easy to forget the political baggage. I happen to think that baggage is important, but neither should it detract from Riefenstahl’s achievement. Whether this holds true for her other movies remains to be seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 645


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Moving pictures, #23

Still trying to get up to date on these…

femmeUne femme mariée, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I have a theory about Godard. So far I’ve seen about half a dozen of his films. Two of them I loved, the rest I didn’t much care for. The two I loved were both shot in colour – Le Mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her – the rest were black and white. So it seems I only like Godard’s colour films. Obviously I need to watch more to determine the truth of this theory, but Une femme mariée is black and white and I didn’t really like it. The married woman of the title is having an affair, and the film opens with her and her lover in bed. Then she leaves him, fetches her young son from school and meets her husband at the airport. He has a colleague with him. They head to the couple’s apartment, where they eat dinner. The colleague leaves, husband and wife then run around a lot and come close to domestic violence (it didn’t much look like a “play-fight”, as Wikipedia has it). And then… This is one of those films where the cast act naturally and it’s all about the dialogue. And like many Godard films, it’s all over the place, and the plot often seems like little more than a vehicle which allows the cast to pontificate on various topics that seem to have little or no bearing on the actual story (which is, I suppose, just as true of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but in that film everything around the “lecturettes” worked much better and seemed much more interesting). Une femme mariée seems to be generally rated as one of Godard’s best, but I wonder how much of that is trading on its title character.

42ndstreet42nd Street*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I found this in a charity shop. It’s one of several Busby Berkeley films on the 1001 Movies list, many of which aren’t that easy to find in the UK. Busby Berkeley… a camera placed above the stage and looking down as large numbers of dancers make patterns not unlike those you’d find in a kaleidoscope. Then they wrap a plot around it. In this case, it’s a progenitor of Chorus Line and films of that ilk. I tweeted a line from this, “It’s going to be the toughest five weeks you’ll live through”, and asked people to guess the movie, expecting them to pick Platoon or Full Metal Jacket – which one or two did. No one guessed a 1930s film about putting on a Busby Berkley musical. Which is all beside the point. Ginger Rogers in an early role plays one of the female leads, the plot is fairly standard for the type, the final numbers are the usual over-the-top Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, and it’s easy to see why such films were popular back in the day… and you have to wonder why something similar isn’t equally successful today. Or perhaps that’s just me.

coherenceCoherence, James Ward Byrkit (2013, USA). Some films should hold your interest because they have an intriguing genesis, or a really fascinating idea at their core. And certainly the elevator pitch for Coherence sounded to me like something which would appeal. Unfortunately the end result never quite manages to pull it all together. It’s one of those films where the low or non-existent budget becomes a strength rather than a weakness – it was filmed mostly in the director’s own house. There’s a dinner party, and during it a comet passes over and things turn strange… Strange as in superposition, multiple instances of the same events – which means dinner guests from other alternate universe versions of the dinner party getting mixed up and crossing into alternate universes. So much so that keeping up with who is really who, and from where, becomes near impossible. The cast are generally good, but it’s one of those films where everyone talks over one another, and while real life is certainly like that it does get annoying very quickly in a movie (which is by definition artificial, and it’s the ones which make a virtue of it I tend to prefer), and anyway it sort of worked against what was quite a clever central conceit. The premise demanded a domestic story, but the idea needed to be progressed much faster than it was – the longer you take to develop an idea, the thinner it seems, whether it deserves it or not. Coherence managed to dissipate its drama when it really had more than enough to make a very good film.

broken_blossomsBroken Blossoms*, DW Griffth (1919, USA). This film is also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. Some of Griffith’s other films have been accused of racism, and while Broken Blossoms‘ lead is played by a white man in Chinese make-up, the film was deliberately written to push tolerance during a period of heavy anti-Chinese prejudice. A Buddhist monk leaves China for London, where he finds it hard to promote Buddha’s peaceful philosophy to London’s huddled masses. Especially Lillian Gish, the abused daughter of a boxer. The monk rescue her after she’s been badly beaten by her father, and the two fall in love. But it is not to be. It’s pretty much Romeo and Juliet, even down to the ending, but set among the slums of London, and with Romeo as a Buddhist monk (which, I suppose, in the England of the time makes him no more welcome a suitor than a Montague to a Capulet). Griffith has a number of films on the 1001 Movies list, and while he was undoubtedly a pioneer of the medium, I can’t see what this particular film did to merit inclusion. Maybe it’s just because it’s an historical document…

dark_planetDark Planet, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2009, Russia). The real name of this film is Обитаемый остров, or The Inhabited Island – which is the name of the Strugatskys novel from which it was adapted. Why a random English-language distributor decided to randomly re-title it with the entirely random title Dark Planet is beyond me (mind you, we did better than the French, as it was titled Battlestar Rebellion in France). Because it deserves better. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Bondarchuk – yes, son of the actor – has made plenty of well-received films – I thought his 9th Company wasn’t bad, for example – and while Dark Planet certainly entertains throughout its length, it does feel a little like too much of it ended up on the cutting-room floor, and it’s more notable for the story it could have been, and which is plainly obvious, than for the story it is. A young man of Earth, played by the improbably good-looking (and, according to Bondarchuk, totally untalented) Vasiliy Stepanov, crashlands on a world on which the entire population are held in thrall by towers which broadcast brainwashing signals. You can see how it would have made sense in the novel, although it doesn’t really in the film. The plot is a little haphazard, but the final battle scene is done quite well. It’s a film that feels more like a series of missed opportunities than a coherent narrative – I’m reminded of The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres), in which the film-makers decided to leave some important exposition on the cutting-room floor because it slowed the pace of the narrative… resulting in a film that made a weird and inexplicable leap in its third act. Anyway, Dark Planet: worth a second look, though I’d prefer an edition more in keeping with the film-makers’ intentions than the one I watched. (After I wrote the above, I discovered the original Russian release consists of two parts of 100 minutes and 115 minutes. This UK release is an edited down version of 118 minutes. Why?)

leni_riefenstahlOlympia 1, Fest der Völker*, Leni Riefenstahl (1938, Germany). Riefenstahl, tame director of the Nazis, is a name I certainly know, but I’d never had any real desire to watch her movies. But she’s on the 1001 Movies list, more than once in fact, and her films are not available for rental, so I ended up buying a box set which included the two Olympia films, Triumph of the Will and a pair of other propaganda pieces. So I’m probably now on a list somewhere. Anyway, I watched Triumph of the Will several weeks ago but didn’t think it worth mentioning it here because, well, it’s a film about Nazis and Hitler and while it may have been state of the art in the 1930s, and still holds up reasonably well today, it’s probably only of real interest to historians. Olympia 1, Fest der Völker, however, is a more interesting film because it actually presages the way we watch sports on television, if not lays the actual groundwork for sports broadcasting. It is, as the title states, a film of the 1936 Olympics. So there’s lots of people in quaintly-long shorts competing in various athletic events, with occasional shots away to the wholesome German crowd or Hitler. Of all the events, I found the high jump the most interesting because it predates the Fosbury Flop, meaning the techniques on diplay looked odd and mostly inefficient. There is a second part, Fest der Schönheit, which I have yet to watch.

whosafraidWho’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?*, Mike Nichols (1966, USA). I’d always thought I’d seen this, and had it in my head it was some fluffy rom com much like those Rock Hudson films I love so much. It’s not, of course. It’s a very intense, and really quite mean, three-hour play by Edward Albee cut down to a two-hour cinema outing by Mke Nichols – his first film, in fact. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a married couple at a small town college. She’s the dean’s daughter, he’s a professor of history whose boat has long since sailed. And now they just snipe at each other. A young couple join the faculty (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) and are invited to dinner by Taylor and Burton. They all get very pissed. Certain truths are aired. There is a lot of very uncomfortable dialogue. And… ho hum. There’s some good stuff in here, some really sharp dialogue – but I’m not convinced Taylor and Burton overcome their Hollywood profiles sufficiently to do the characters justice. Segal is pretty good, though. The film is also long – and it’s shorter than the play. It drags quite a bit in places. Having said that, watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? didn’t make me interested in Albee’s work, although this appears to be the only play of his that made it onto the silver screen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 625