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Moving pictures 2017, #63

I think this post pretty much brings me up to date with these film posts, although I’ve still got about eighty DVDs/Blu-rays on the pile to watch (some of them are rewatches, however, of films I’ve seen before). My last Moving pictures was a bit US heavy, and this one is a bit UK heavy. It also includes a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the first from the list I’ve seen for a while.

The Reckoning, Paul McGuigan (2003, UK). Another one lent to me by my mother, and about which I knew nothing. It’s set in late fourteenth century England. Paul Bettany, a priest, flees his parish after being caught bonking the wife of a parishioner. He meets up on the road with a troupe of mummers, and persuades them to let him join them. A broken bridge forces them to take a detour en route to their next gig and they end up in one of those sorts of places where everyone goes quiet when the mummers walk into the room and the big castle on the hill is still in the process of being built. Oh, and there’s a court in the village square sentencing a deaf-mute woman for the murder of her own son. The mummers’ play isn’t a big hit, so Bettany persuades them to create something new – a play not based on the Bible. In fact, it will be a play based on the murder of the woman’s son. So they look into it a bit, so they can get the details right… and discover it doesn’t add up. It’s a put-up job. The woman is clearly innocent. And all the clues point to someone else altogether… As murder-mysteries go, it’s well laid out and the clues all point in a very obvious direction. The twist isn’t so much whodunnit, as it is howthefuckdowemakesurejusticeisdone, which is a surprisingly relevant subgenre in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Willem Dafoe, the leader of the mummers, was perhaps too intense, and not helped by a wandering accent that managed not to convince as any form of regional English accent. Bettany, on the other hand, seemed a bit too modern. But the mise-en-scène was generally good. And it all hung together entertainingly. You could do much worse.

Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál, Miklós Jancsó (2002, Hungary). I’m really glad I bought these films, even though I have zero clue what’s going on in them. But at least I can watch them again… and again… and again… until I do. Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. Like the previous three films in the series, Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál stars Zoltán Mucsi and Péter Scherer as Kapa and Pepe respectively, both of whom are some sort of combination of protagonist, exposition, commentary and comic foils, in a film that is about Hungary without being about Hungary. If that makes sense. The title translates as “Shut up, mate, don’t go to sleep”, but I’m not entirely sure how that relates to the plot – or rather, the narrative, as there isn’t much of a plot. The film opens with a man being told how he will be moulded into a pop star – it’s deeply cynical, all the more so for seemingly being filmed in a derelict house. The man appears several times throughout the film – as an actual rock star, singing deeply cynical songs about life in Hungary. In fact, music features more heavily in Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál than I remember it doing in the earlier films, even though all four have included live musical performances. Kapa and Pepe first appear being led to a firing squad, but it’s all a joke. Except they’re playing Jews. And there are Nazis invading Poland, some of whom are keen to evade the liberating Soviets – and Kapa and Pepe are sort of go-betweens and freely offer useful advice. Nonetheless, they’re not impressed by the film, as they explain to Jancsó, who appears as himself, and writer Gyula Hernádi, who also appears as himself. Like the other Kapa and Pepe films I’ve seen, it’s all every cheap, but there are plenty of crane shots. The music is modern, with rock, rap and punk. One actor plays a US WWII officer, although he might have been British – he starts off by reading an excerpt from James Joyce, but later drives a Jeep and puts on a US accent, although it’s about as good as Dafoe’s regional English accent in The Reckoning… When I’ve watched all six of these films, I will watch them again. And I suspect I will still never really understand them. Rather than find that frustrating, it strikes me as a challenge.

Glastonbury Fayre, Nicolas Roeg & Peter Neal (1972, UK). I don’t know if I stuck this one my rental list because it was directed by Roeg, or simply because I was looking for documentaries for my documentary rental list and I quite enjoy documentaries abut music from 1965 – 1975. Glastonbury Fayre was shot at the 1971 Glastonbury Fair, the second festival held there but the first to be called a Glastonbury festival… and it couldn’t have been more different to the Glastonbury Festival of today. Lots of hippies. Most of them spaced out, on their own naivete if not on drugs. And performances by bands such as Fairport Convention, Family, Gong, Traffic, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band… As footage of a concert, Glastonbury Fayre is not great – you don’t get to see full performances, and what’s shown is only a selection of what appeared on stage. Roeg, and co-director Neal, seem more interested in the festival-goers, and there’s plenty of footage of them doing their, um, thing over the weekend. I do like music like this, and documentaries about this sort of music, although I don’t generally buy them. (But I will admit owning a few albums by early 1970s bands.) Worth seeing.

Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France). Resnais I know chiefly for Last Year in Marienbad, which straddles that fine line between pretentious self-indulgent crap and profound film-making, and I’m still not entirely sure on which side it falls; and Hiroshima mon amour, which, despite me being too squeamish to enjoy much of the film, I found surprisingly affecting. So Muriel came as something of a surprise: a subtle drama, filmed in colour, that plays as much with the forms of its narrative and it does with the narrative itself. The title refers to a woman the stepson of the protagonist was complicit in torturing and killing while serving in Algeria. The protagonist is Hélène, a widow who sells antiquies from her flat, and who takes up with an old lover, Alphonse. It’s all very domestic – except for the flashbacks of the stepson’s service in Algeria, which are presented as degraded film – and very subtle. The film takes its time to introduce the main characters and their relationships, only to present parts of the subsequent chronology out of sequence and with few clues to link them. It looks very drab and realistic, Resnais is not above staging scenes which embarrass his characters or call their, er, character into question. Resnais maide nineteen feature films in total. Muriel was his third – after Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year in Marienbad – and I’m now quite keen to explore his oeuvre. Having looked at the titles – both in French and English – of the films he made subsequent to Muriel, I’ve not heard of a single one. I am not, I freely admit, majorly au fait with French cinema, but I knew of several of Godard’s films before I watched them, and the same for Truffaut, Renoir, Demy, Rohmer, Chabrol, Varda…

A Brighter Summer Day*, Edward Yang (1991, Taiwan). I bought this Criterion Blu-Ray (some, it seems, they’ve started releasing in Region B) because it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I thought the two Yang films I’d seen previously were excellent, and it doesn’t appear to eb available for rental. Which is just as well. As the film is 237 minutes long! That’s nearly four hours. WTF. A Brighter Summer Day is, like the other two Yang films I’ve seen – Yi Yi (see here) and Taipei Story (see here) – concerned chiefly with Taiwanese people trying to make sense of living in Taiwan. In this case, the film is set much closer to the split with China and the exodus to Taiwan by Kuomintang members and sympathisers in 1949. The story is based around the senseless murder of a schoolgirl by her putative boyfriend, but much of the film’s four hours are involved in setting up the background, characters and relationshipsd which eventually lead to the – in the film’s original Mandarin title – titular murder. It opens with two boys spying on a film being made from the catwalks high up in the roof of a studio… which proves to be next-door to their school. And it transpires that Si’r, one of the boys, is something of a loser, neither good at school nor a member of one of the gangs which control the area. And it is a war between the two gangs, brought briefly to a halt by the planning of a pop concert, which eventually leads to Si’r murdering Ming, who was not really his girlfriend. This is a long, involved movie. It’s beautifully filmed – and the Criterion Blu-ray transfer is amazingly good – and it lokos gorgeous throughout. But it’s not the most compelling of narratives, and its mix of domestic drama and teenage delinquency, with occasional elements of political subversion, are not particularly dramatic when played out over four hours. It’s a bloody good film, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also a slow burning one, and something of an endurance test. I seriously need to see more of Yang’s films, although Yi Yi was apparently his last. Definitely worth seeing.

Lady Macbeth, William Oldroyd (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, which does occasionally throw up interesting films to watch for free. The film is based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov from 1865, in which the wife of  a rich Russian merchant, has an affair with one of his slaves, and then murders her father-in-law and then her husband. And that’s pretty much the plot of Lady Macbeth, except the story is relocated to the north-east of England, and it all smells like Brontë rather than Shakespeare. In fact, it feels much like a film by Andrea Arnold, although less, dare I say it, sympathetic to its female characters, especially the title character. The acting is uniformly good, the look and feel is very much Brontë, the plot is very much Shakespeare, and the cinematography and mise-en-scène has that static camera positioning, few jump cuts, and staginess that seems to be the vogue in art house cinema these days. I ike the style, I admit, although at least Peter Greenaway has the courage of his convictions and stages pretty much everything as if it were set on a, er, stage. However, as far as British cinema goes, I’d sooner this country were churning movies more like Lady Macbeth than Victoria & Abdul

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 886

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Moving pictures 2017, #47

It happened again. I watched a film by a director, knowing nothing about him or his work when I put the disc in the player, and afterward went and bought everything by him I could find. The last time that happened, it was James Benning, an experimental film-maker (and very little of his extensive oeuvre is actually available on DVD). This time, it was Ben Rivers, an experimental film-maker… and he’s made only a handful of films.

Fatherland, Ken Loach (1986, UK). This is not an adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel of the same title, which was anyway published in 1992, and when that was adapted for the screen by HBO, they did a terrible job of it (see here). Not that I can really see Ken Loach adapting Harris’s novel in the first place. This Fatherland is about an East German singer/songwriter who escapes to the West and tries to forge out a career on the other side of the Wall. It’s been called Loach’s “least-popular film” according to Wikipedia, and part of the blame has been laid at the fact much of the dialogue is spoken in German. To be honest, I thought its biggest fault was that it was dull, and the central character was not especially interesting. Some of his music, particularly towards the end, wasn’t too bad, a very German style of rock, which reminded me a bit of my time spent studying in Germany back in the early 1990s. You could never describe Loach’s movies as films in search of a point to make, if anything they’re more likely to be obvious points somewhat bluntly encoded in the form of narrative cinema. In this one, it’s the lack of artistic freedom in East Berlin brought about by political constraints versus the lack of artistic freedom in West Berlin created by capitalist constraints. It’s a tired argument, and a little ironic coming from a committed socialist iconoclast like Loach – after all, clearly neither politics nor capitalism has prevented him from making films like Fatherland. It is nonetheless a point worth making: capitalism does not equal freedom. And it’s even more true today, thirty years later. Sadly, lowering the cost of entry to content creation to next to nothing has not resulted in a great flowering of iconoclastic art but a near endless deluge of identikit extruded commercial product of low quality. No one wants acclaim, they want dollars. The first mistake these creators are making is in assuming art is not political. Art is politics. Their second mistake is in assuming that what the world needs is another piece of derivative shit put together badly by an amateur. Most professionals may produce derivative shit, but they know exactly how to package it. The sound of jackboots echoing from MCU and tentpole sf blockbuster franchises has drowned out the voices of political film-makers like Loach. A right-wing press which seeks to trivialise him hasn’t helped either. Loach is by no means perfect, but his consistency is certainly admirable.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). All I knew about this film when I stuck it on my rental list was the unwieldy title, and that it was about a film-maker and a little bit meta. It sounded intriguing, although I didn’t have especially high expectations – that title, for one thing, it sounds like something you might find on one of those straight-to-streaming genre films you find buried deep down in Amazon Prime’s free movies… But it turns out the title is from a short story by Paul Bowles, author of the excellent The Sheltering Sky – and I really must read more Bowles, I have his The Spider’s House on the TBR – and indeed five minutes into this film, the protagonist, a film-maker, reads out the relevant section of Bowles’s story. The film then shifts to a (mostly) context-free documentary about the film-maker filming in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains with a cast of locals. As he becomes increasingly outrageous in his demands… Well, this is not a film in which things are explained, it’s almost as if plot is treated as an emergent phenomenon (um, I like that idea; it might be worth exploring…). In one sequence, the film-maker drives his Landrover through several villages while post-metal plays. There is no dialogue, there is no explanation. The sequence is several minutes long. It’s a narrative film which plays like a documentary for much of its length, in parts reminding me Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky. But it’s also a movie about the film-making process, and how the film-making process changes the people involved, particularly those co-opted from the location.  The cinematograhpy is mostly excellent , with occasional shots that approach the beauty of Pasolini’s aforementioned film, and a few that drop into cliché. But there’s a distance to the whole, an almost clinical eye on the proceedings, which signals this is not narrative cinema designed to make money from ticket sales. I’ve said before on this blog that I really like video installations, and though their quality is wildly variable, I find something fascinating in the way they’re so defiantly unlike commercial narrative cinema, despite being the same medium, using the same tools, and making use of many of the same narrative techniques… The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is much closer to narrative cinema than it is to video installation, but it manages to suggest it is something much closer to the latter. That’s one of the reasons why, after watching it, I bought everything by Rivers that was available on a certain humungous online retailer’s website.

Se Eu Fosse Você and Se Eu Foss Você 2, Daniel Filho (2006 and 2009, Brazil). The body-swap comedy is almost a subgenre in its own right, there have been that many films made with the premise. There are two main variations – husband/wife and parent/child. Se Eu Fosse Você – the title means “If I was you” – is a pretty straightforward Brazilian attempt at the former. Claudio and Helena are a happily-married and comfortably well-off couple, with a teenage daughter. He runs a small but critically successful, but now in danger of commercially failing, ad agency, she teaches a choir. A series of unlikely planetological events line up, lightning strikes, and the following morning the two have apparently exchanged bodies. Cue effeminate-acting man and butch-acting woman. Not to mention total confusion over their respective careers. Which, of course, all comes good in the end: he (ie, Helena) lands a major contract for a difficult lingerie client because “he” can put together a campaign that will appeal to women; she (ie, Claudio), on the other hand, finds the chosen choral music boring and livens it up a bit, to great success. Naturally, their rocky marriage is steadied, and Claudio’s business is saved. The sequel is set a couple of years later, and the marriage is once again wobbling, especially when Claudio decides a second honeymoon to Italy is out of the question as his business needs him. She throws him out, and he goes to stay with a friend, who is single and has less than progressive ideas about women. Which eventually results in one of those situations so beloved of marital drama films – he is standinging outside a nightclub, perfectly innocently, with a drunken female friend of his mate, when his wife spots him and assumes the worst. And then their daughter tells them she is pregnant. The father-to-be is a good catch, a millionaire’s son, but the family are very Catholic… so a wedding must be arranged quickly. And lo, the planets align once again, and bodies are swapped. She (ie, Claudio) is against the marriage, she (ie, Helena) is for it… The first film wasn’t great, and this one is much weaker. There is apparently a third film in the series. I won’t be bothering with it.

Dr Strange, Scott Derrickson (2016, USA). I don’t know why I continue to subject myself to MCU films. I think they’re awful, badly-made populist trash, and even the high-powered cast they hire can do little redeem them. Not that Benchmark Cummerbund is a good actor. But Tilda Swinton normally does better work than this. So, for that matter, does Mads Mikkelson. An arrogant womanising surgeon has his brilliant career cut short when he badly damages his hands in a crash in his supercar. In desperation, he turns to– I don’t know, for some reason, against all sense, he ends up in an invented Himalayan nation, where he’s taken under the wing of an Eastern mystic played by a white woman, and so becomes an occult agent of her organisation, but based in New York. There are some scenes that were ripped straight from Inception, there’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo that’s hard to swallow even in a MCU film, and Strange’s journey from arrogant shit to good person is actually closer to a journey from arrogant shit who is a neurosurgeon to arrogant shit who is a magician. There are also some effective special effects – see earlier mention of Inception – but it would be a poor MCU film that didn’t have zillions spent on its sfx (and yet, the one MCU film I think is halfway okay, Captain America, has probably the least overt sfx on screen of them all; perhaps that means something). Now that Amazon are closing down LoveFilm, I’ll no longer have access to as many rental films, and I used to bung populist crap on there to watch on a weekend night with a glass of wine or two… But since I never really liked them, I’m not entirely sure why I bothered. Now at least I won’t have to. (Incidentally, I see Amazon have listed this movie as “Marvel’s Dr Strange“, which is obvs to distinguish it from, er, Marvel’s other Dr Strange…)

Utolsó vacsora az Arabs Szürkénél, Miklós Jancsó (2001, Hungary). And so the third of Jancsó’s Kapa & Pepe films, and I’m even more confused than I was before. The film opens with the two characters waking up on a statue on top of the Millennium Monument in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square after a heavy night of drinking. There are some scenes set in an abandoned half-built building, including several shoot-outs between the two main characters and various gangsters. There’s a punk band in silly costumes, and a woman being pleasured by several young men. There’s a troupe of dancers who perform a traditional Hungarian folk dance (judging by the costumes). And then Kapa and Pepe are in the USA, visiting Niagara Falls, where they bump into… Miklós Jancsó. And they’re surprised to see him because they thought he was dead – although I seem to remember he did re-appear in the first film, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), after he had died in that film… And I have no fucking clue what is going on in these films. There’s definitely an argument against the trappings of capitalist society, and its attendant ruthlessness and fascination with symbols of success, not to mention several discussions about death. The dialogue is thick with swearwords and the musical interludes bonkers. Lots of scenes are also set on high places – Jancsó obviously liked his crane shots – and some are just a little too high for my comfort. The second time I came to watch this film, the transfer seemed much lower quality than I remembered it. It’s definitely lower quality than the previous two films. Weird. I’m going to have to watch it again some time, though, that’s for sure. Um, in a previous Moving pictures post I wondered about doing a themed post… I usually write about six films per post; there are six films in the Kapa & Pepe series… There’s an idea. Although I may end up a gibbering wreck afterwards.

Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK). Part of Rivers’s creative process is developing his 16mm film himself, in less than laboratory-like conditions. It makes the medium of his movies an artefact of the narrative, in much the same way that Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director, often distorts the picture of his movies, as in Mother and Son (see here) or Whispering Pages (see here). But while Sokurov deliberately distorts the image to produce a specific effect, Rivers allows the development process which turns the images captured by the camera into a record which can be viewed by anyone, to apply its own distortions. They are not, it has to be said, as overt – a graininess to the picture, the odd blink-and-miss-it flaw in the film… But the way Rivers shoots, or has shot certainly in this film, which is entirely black and white, also results in a slight flattening of the image, giving Two Years at Sea a look close to that of a photograph from the first half of the twentieth century. He also lets his camera linger for long moments on static scenes – although not to the extent James Benning does – which also reminds me of several Sokurov films (but I don’t think it’s a direct reference, more a commonality of approach). As for the plot… well, there isn’t one. Two Years at Sea documents a period in the life of Jake Williams, who lives in a beat-up house in the countryside in Scotland. The film makes much of his surroundings, watching clouds drift across hills, steam rise from forests, without telling us anything about Williams or his life. It is art, not narrative cinema. But, at 127 minutes, it’s too long to be a video installation. And besides, it’s partly fictional anyway, because it’s not an actual documentary of Williams and his life, never mind the sequence where his caravan floats up into the air… Which makes you wonder what Two Years at Sea is intended to be – for a video installation endlessly looped, well, 20 minutes is probably long enough, although I’ve a feeling Richard Mosse’s ‘Infra’ may be much longer… But over two hours is too long for a video installation, that’s cinema. But not cinema as it is commonly understood. I love this sort of stuff, so buying all of Rivers’s available output was a totally good call for me – and Two Years at Sea totally justified it. I will be following Rivers’s career from now on. And I thnk I might dig a bit deeper into video installations, instead of just relying on random visits to contemporary art museums during random visits to Nordic capital cities…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 879


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Moving pictures 2017, #44

Trying to maintain a varied diet of films to watch often means you find yourself watching something that doesn’t actually appeal. We all have our favourites, and we often stick to them, but I enjoy trying new things, discovering new favourites… even if you find some things you’ll know better to avoid in the future. Of the six films below, none I thought especially good. I prefer other films by Pasolini, I still have no idea what the Jancsó Kapa and Pepe films are about, and even the Herzog was far from one of his best…

The Decameron, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971, Italy). This was the first Pasolini I ever saw. According to my records, I rented it in 2009, although I don’t recall why. It wasn’t until I watched the Pasolini segment of RoGoPaG (see here) late last year that I thought his oeuvre might be worth exploring. And then The Gospel According to St Matthew, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, appeared free to watch on Amazon Prime, and then I rented his other film on the list, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom… And while I’ve sort of become a bit of a Pasolini fan, The Decameron is not among my favourites of his. Like his The Canterbury Tales, it’s an adaptation of some of the stories from a mediaeval story cycle, but Italian in this case rather than English. But in look and feel, it’s very similar (or rather, the other film is, as this one preceded it) and the humour is similarly scatological and earthy. So much so, in fact, that the film opens with a “tempo” in which Ninetto Davoli visits his long-lost sister (he thinks) only to be dropped into a latrine and is covered in shit, just so she can steal his money. Later, he finds himself imprisoned in the sarcophagus of a richly-dressed bishop in a cathedral. And so it goes. Another episode sees a man pretending to be deaf-mute in order to enjoy the sexual attentions of the nuns at a convent. The humour is broad, so are the points being made. And while the 14th-century source novel clearly influences the various tales, Pasolini’s own sensibilities, even back in the 1970s, are also on display. The stories are often crude, with a sense of humour even Talbot Rothwell would have shied from, but a celebration of the human condition still shines through. It’s hard to reach the end of a Pasolini film without feeling entertained or a little better about humanity in general. I don’t know that he was especially good at documenting humanity’s failings – to be honest, this box set has me totally confused as to what Pasolini was trying to achieve – but it’s difficult to finish one of his films without a smile. So props for that.

Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (2011, USA). I’m not sure what persuaded me to add this to my rental list, but I wish I hadn’t. It was the first film I’ve seen by Lonergan, and likely to be the last. Anna Paquin plays a New York student, who one day distracts a bus driver as he’s pulling away, causing him to run a red light and run over a woman crossing the street. But Paquin is so self-centred, she has to make the accident about herself, and though she recognises she did cause the accident she doesn’t actually admit it until near the end of this over-long, overly narcissistic, very dull, three-hour film. When she learns the bus driver has not been fired, she badgers the woman’s estranged relatives into sueing the MTA for damages, insisting as one of the conditions they sack him. There is not a single likeable character in this film – even Lonergan himself, who plays Paquin’s divorced father, is needy and neurotic and snide. Jean Reno plays a South American businessman who is in a relationship with Paquin’s mother, and while he seems the most pleasant character of the lot, he’s portrayed as a bit of a simpleton, and the anti-semitic remarks that eventually see him pushed out of the family are totally manufactured. At 90 minutes, Margaret would likely have outstayed its welcome; at three hours, it was torture. Perhaps you have to be American to appreciate this film; I am not American; I thought it was awful. Avoid.

Anyádi s szúnyogok, Miklós Jancsó (2000, Hungary). I’ve still no idea what these films are about, although a theme common to both this and the first film in the series, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), appears to be suicide. This film – whose title apparently translates as “Mother! The mosquitos!”, although the subtitles definitely said, “Fuck the mosquitoes!” at one point – initially appears to be set in in a train museum, with Kapa and Pepe playing train drivers or train engineers. But like the first film, the story quickly changes, and though the two main characters continue to play themselves, they’re now in different roles. There’s also a band who apear at intervals and play rock, with help of assorted pieces of defunct industrial equipment and, I seem to remember, a drill. They’re not unlike Norway’s Hurra Torpedo. And there’s another scene which is apparently set really high up on something, a statue I think, as if Jancsó were trying to prove a point by including some vertiginous scenes – although perhaps it’s only me, someone who suffers from vertigo, who would even think to mention them. There’s a review on imdb.com which is less than helpful. It says, for example, “The comedy jacket of the story gives a cool atmosphere”, and does very little to actually explain what is going on. I feel their pain – because I have no idea either. Nonetheless, I’m glad I bought these six films and I hope one day to understand them.

Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog (2011, USA). Herzog is one of the most interesting directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and his documentaries are typically every bit as good as his feature films. But this one was a bit of a mis-step, I think. The topic is one that’s been over-subscribed in documentary films for decades, and Herzog’s straightforward yet off-kilter approach fails to make it interesting. Some of the questions he asks are a bit off-the-wall, and it’s clear the interviewees think so too, but… The subject is people on Death Row, two people, in fact, one of whom still maintains his innocence. Seriously, are there any people with more than two brain cells on this planet who need persuading that capital punishment is a bad thing? State-sanctioned murder is still murder. You can throw up as many examples of miscarriages of justice, or even bona fide monsters, but even that giant fairy in the sky so many people seem to think really exists, even he thinks it’s wrong. Into the Abyss is a series of interviews with two inmates on Death Row in Texas, and with those who know the inmates or were involved with their crimes, or their bringing to justice. But I don’t see the point of it all – granted, he’s preaching to the choir. But since the only argument that’s going to work on the pro-capital punishment crown is a nail-studded cluebat, I don’t see the point of documentaries like Into the Abyss, no mater how balanced, or how off-centre, the approach they take.

The Space Between Us, Peter Chelsom (2017, USA). The space between the two principals, the figures on the DVD cover art, is, well, space itself, ie, the space between Earth and Mars. Did you see what they did there? Clever, that. Asa Butterfield was born on Mars – his mother was the commander of the first mission to Mars, but happened to be pregnant at the time. NASA decided to keep Butterfield’s existence a secret. Sixteen years later, he is finally allowed to visit Earth. Which he thinks is great because he’s made a friend online, Britt Robertson, a spiky and clever, but good-hearted, foster kid, and because it also allows him to go looking for his father, whose identity he only knows from an old photo. Of course, NASA would sooner he stayed in seclusion at one of their facilities. But he escapes, goes and finds Robertson, and the two head across country looking for dear old dad. What is it with Hollywood films and their daddy issues? Can they please move past Misogynistic Pop Psych 101? Robertson is sparky, which is probably the new feisty; Butterfield is earnest and gauche. Gary Oldman phones in it. It’s a nice story, and they made a halfway decent fist of presenting a near-future which could send a mission to Mars and start a colony there. But it’s all too easy. Okay, I admit I watched this after seeing National Geographics miniseries Mars, but you might as well have changed Butterfield’s skin colour and you could have told pretty much the same story. Except, of course, white US audiences are more likely to sympathise with a star-crossed Martian than a star-crossed African-American. Oh, and the growing up on Mars so he has an enlarged heart is the sort of metaphor they beat out of you in the cheap writing workshops, the ones given by people better known for writing how-to books than actual books. Or screenplays, in this instance.

Secuestro Express, Jonathan Jakubowicz (2005, Venezuela). My first film from Venezuela. And despite being released in 2005, it was all a bit 1990s, to be honest. A young and well-off couple are kidnapped by three gang-bangers – this is a common thing in Caracas, it seems – who demand a ransom from the woman’s father. The young man escapes, leaving his girlfriend to the kidnappers’ mercy, but is later recaptured and killed. The father pays the ransom, the young woman is released. The film is shot in a very MTV-ish style, lots of cross-cuts, jittery cam, blurring and Dutch angles. The characters are introduced with stylised on-screen text bios. The acting is not all that good, although the female victim, played by Argentine actress Mia Maestro, is pretty good. If I’d seen this twenty years ago, I’d have been more impressed, and not just because, er, that was a decade before it was actually made.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878


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Moving pictures 2017, #40

It’s odd how films drop into my viewing schedule – although “schedule” is far too strong a word – but… I watch a lot of rentals and, of course, I have a limited time to watch them (the longer it takes, the less rental discs I can get through in a month), whereas other films I own so I can watch them at any time… And yet only two of the below movies are actually rentals; the rest are films I’ve purchased. Also, we have the first Pasolini from the collection I bought… which makes him the second director, after Truffaut, who I’d seen previously (Truffaut in 2006, Pasolini in 2009) but had not been much bothered about, but in 2017 changed my mind sufficiently about their films to invest in a Blu-ray box set…

Kiss Me Deadly*, Robert Aldrich (1955, USA). This is one of a handful of classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’d always assumed I’d seen it before at some point, probably because the title is so iconic. But nothing in it seemed familiar as I watched it, so I guess not. Actually, that’s not strictly true, as the maguffin in Kiss Me Deadly inspired the plot of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Ralph Meeker plays two-fisted gumshoe Mike Hammer (a character I know best from the Stacy Keach incarnation of the 1980s), who is out driving on a lonely country road one night when he gives a lift to a young woman wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Thugs then force his car off the road, take the two prisoner, knock out Hammer, torture the woman, then stage a car crash. Hammer survives. Determined to uncover who the woman was, and why she was murdered, he follows a series of clues, which eventually lead him to a beach house owned by a mysterious scientist, and a suitcase containing some radioactive material… which results in the film’s infamous ending – the beach house going up in a nuclear explosion. To be honest, it was all a bit ridiculous. Hammer has always been paper-thin as a character, and though Meeker made him more of a brutal thug than the white knight he’s usually protrayed, it wasn’t enough to make him interesting. The Wikipedia page points out many of the Bunker Hill locations used in the film have since disappeared, but that seems a pretty thin reason for inclusion on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I suppose a certain notoriety has attached to the film, despite its daft premise and incomprehensible plotting, and I did enjoy it… But I’m not convinced it should be on the list.

Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). After watching the slog that was Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) – all 345 minutes of it! (see here) – I wasn’t expecting all that much of Privilege, and the fact it’s a late sixties docudrama and a musical…, well, that didn’t bode too well either. But I was surprised to discover I loved it. Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann at the time, plays Steven Shorter, the UK’s most popular celebrity. The film opens, with documentary-style voiceover narration, as Shorter is welcomed back to the UK with a ticker tape parade. The film uses the same semi-documentary format, with occasional songs, as it follows Shorter’s career as a political tool to appease the masses and, later, a messianic figure to encourage church attendance and obedience. It’s all set in a 1970s dystopian UK, and Watkins is not afraid to use the completely absurd to make his point – the filming of the apple commercial, for example, is absolutely bonkers. I was reminded, while watching Privilege, of V for Vendetta, which covers similar territory, but uses fascist iconography as its dystopian credentials. Privilege, however, looks like it’s set in the same world as that inhabited by its contemporary viewers. Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, although played beautifully straight – but it does make its point far more bitingly and effectively than V for Vendetta. I want my own copy of Privilege now.

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent (1970, USA). I hadn’t planned to buy this. I knew of the film, but had never seen it before, and when a brand new edition – the first since VHS, I think – appeared, I fancied seeing it and so put it on my rental list. But then it appeared in a recent Prime Day at a price of great cheapness, and so I sort of found myself sort of clicking on the buy button… A Blu-ray too. And… it’s sort of fun in that early 1970s earnest science fiction B-list sort of way – ie, a serious film the studios never expected anyone to take seriously, although it was made with serious intent. Much like Planet of the Apes. The title refers to a massive computer, supposedly heuristic, and probably more like an AI as sf understands the term, which is put in charge the US’s nuclear deterrent. with no human oversight, or possibility of human intervention. What could possibly go wrong? The film – based on a novel by forgotten Brit sf author DF Jones – avoids the obvious consequences of such hubristic foolishness. It transpires the USSR has only gone and done exactly the same thing. And Colossus and the Soviet AI, called Guardian, begin “talking” to each other – in the film’s most technologically cringe-inducing scene – then form a gestalt and, well, take over the world, ushering in a new age of computer-led fascism. In actual fact, Colossus: The Forbin Project feels like a better-made film than it probably deserves. I can’t quite figure out why. There are no A-listers in the cast, what few special effects the film possesses are adequate and very much of their time (although the Colossus CCTV reticule is quite prescient), and the multiple scenes with the president of the US feel a little soap-opera-ish… I think it’s because the film takes itself seriously and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Yes, there’s plenty of expository dialogue, but it’s well-anchored in the story, and it’s only really its datedness that embarrasses (the aforementioned scene aside). I felt kinder toward Colossus: The Forbin Project after it had finished than I did while watching it, and while I love the aesthetics of early 1970s near-future movies, I don’t think this one is ever going to be a favourite…

Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten, Miklós Jancsó (1999, Hungary). This is the first of six low-budget semi-improvised comedy films written and directed by Jancsó after a long break from film-making. The films star a pair of gravediggers called Pepe and Kapa, played by Péter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi. And, I admit, I’m not entirely sure what I watched. This is not an unknown consequence of watching a Miklós Jancsó film and, to be fair, it’s one of the reasons I like them so much. This movie (the title is a bit of a slog to type) opens with a group of men haring up in 4WDs, jumping out of them and then shooting some women and a man in a house. The action cuts to a cemetery, where Kapa and Pepe appear. They start chatting to two old men, Jancsó himself and Gyula Hernádi, the writer of many of Jancsó’s earlier films.  Kapa and Pepe, who wear insignialess blue uniforms, seem to spend most of the time arguing and insulting each other, in quite coarse language, often involving passers by in their disputes. Then there’s a funeral, followed by a wedding and… a new section starts, and now Kapa is a yuppie and Pepe is a policeman, but then he turns into a yuppie too, except Kapa can remember him being a cop and so is confused (he’s not the only one). The two gravediggers are not the only characters to re-appear, or change roles, as the victims of the opening shooting also turn up as Kapa’s family, but this time shot by his niece. Not that he seems overly bothered. And Jancsó and Hernádi turn up too, despite being killed earlier… And then Pepi is walking up the cable of a suspension bridge to the top of the tower, with nothing but a narrow handrail to either side (and it looks massively dangerous). Kapa joins him, and the two start to argue, and I had to look away as I suffer from vertigo and… well, I was lost. I don’t even know what the title – it translates as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest – means or refers to (Kapa, in the guise of a corporate raider, calls himself “the Lord’s Lantern” after being shot in the head and coming back to life). The style is very different to the other Jancsó films I’ve seen, with cuts and close-ups and zooms and pull-backs, rather than long tracking shots and dolly shots. The acting is also much more natural, far less stylised – in fact, it’s pretty much what you would expect of a contemporary film. It’s all sort of bewildering, but in a completely different way to a film such as Electra, My Love, since the two main characters are not fixed – indeed in that earlier film, the characters are more or less concretized in mythology – but drift through a series of stories, maintaining their own identity even though there’s no narrative link from one story to the next. Despite being baffled by it, I’m glad I bought it. I’ll be watching this again, I think. And I’m looking forward to watching the five sequels…

The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972, Italy). Pasolini was one of those directors whose name I ticked off after watching the films of theirs which had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But then earlier this year I watched his Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (see here), which proved far less gruesome than I’d expected (I’m extremely squeamish) and intriguing enough to persuade me Pasolini’s oeuvre was worth exploring further. So I stuck his Arabian Nights on my rental list, and a few weeks ago it duly arrived, I watched it (see here), and was much impressed. Enough to shell out for Six Films 1968 – 1975, a Blue-ray collection of, er, six films by Pasolini. And the first one, which I’d not seen, that I pulled from the box, was The Canterbury Tales. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise there was an English-language version of the film on the disc, so I ended up watching a film starring British actors dubbed into Italian with English subtitles. (Pasolini famously dubbed all his films into several languages.) And… I know of the source text, but I don’t know it, I’ve never read Chaucer. I don’t even know enough about it to judge Pasolini’s film as an adaptation. But I can judge it as a film and as a Pasolini film (based on the handful I’ve seen so far). In that respect, it clearly does everything Pasolini does, and it does them well. Perhaps the Chaplin pastiche/homage in ‘The Cook’s Tale’ is a bit too overt, and ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ does feel a bit too much like a 1970s British sex-comedy, although somewhat… earthier. I’ve also no idea where the film was shot – in the UK, certainly, judging by the cast, but all the locations certainly look the part.

You, the Living, Roy Andersson (2007, Sweden). This is a sequel to Songs from the Second Storey, which I watched just before travelling to Sweden because it was, well, Swedish, although all things considered that might not have been too smart as it was  weird as shit… But I sort of enjoyed Songs from the Second Storey (see here) and I sort of enjoyed this sequel. Although perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong a word. As is “sequel”. Neither film is easy to describe. They have no plot, but are basically a series of vignettes, strung together with occasional linking material. The comedy is blacker than that really black thing they made earlier this year – or was it last year? – that’s the blackest thing ever, and Andersson shoots everything in sombre hues, and puts his cast in pale face make-up, which makes everything look even more miserable. You, the Living is worth seeing, although it’s unlikely to raise a chuckle, but make sure you’re in a good mood when you sit down to watch it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 875


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From silver screen to silver disc

I’ll continue to post these DVD hauls posts, I think, since I seem to be spending as much time on this blog writing about movies as I do books. Er, actually probably more about movies, this past twelve months or so. And so here are the latest batch to join the collection…

I decided it was about time I completed my collection of Bergman DVDs, so I went hunting on eBay… and found myself cheap copies of The Virgin Spring, Port of Call, Three Strange Loves, To Joy and Music in Darkness. Some of them are currently deleted. And I’m still missing about a dozen or so titles. I’ve only watched To Joy so far. It was not very joyful.

A pair of sf Blu-rays picked up in the recent Amazon Prime Day. Colossus: The Forbin Project, a classic giant-computer-starts-WWIII movie, was on my rental list. Mars, a National Geographic docudrama about the first mission to Mars, clearly designed to cash in on the success of The Martian, was already on my wishlist.

After watching Arabian Nights (see here), I wanted to see more Pasolini, although I’d been tempted back in January when I’d watched Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom… But I’d managed to resist temptation then. Except, well, you know how it goes… relaxing of an evening in front of the telly, laptop on your knees, bottle of wine… and oops I’ve gone and bought Six Films 1968 – 1975 by Pasolini on Blu-ray. But I don’t begrudge buying films on a whim that I know I’ll watch several times. Having saidthat, I’m not sure why I bought Orson Welles’s Macbeth – well, I put a bid on it, and actually won it – but I do like Welles’s films.

A pair of out-of-copyright Fritz Lang movies, bought on eBay for a couple of quid. Neither are especially good. I wrote about Clash by Night here and Moonfleet will be in the next Moving pictures post.

This set was a lucky find on eBay. Second Run have released several films by Miklós Jancsó, but these six Pepe and Kapa movies are from the end of his career and are unlikely to ever be released in the UK (these are Hungarian editions, with subtitles in a variety of languages, including English). The titles translate, approximately, as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest, Mother! The Mosquitos, Last Supper at the Arabian Grey Horse, Wake Up, Mate, Don’t You Sleep, The Modhács Evil and Eddie Has Eaten My Lunch.0


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Moving pictures, #53

I think I’m managing a decent balance of countries in my film-viewing – France currently scores highest after the USA and UK (then Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada and Sweden…). But I would like to improve it. I’ve found a good source for African films, and emailed them to ask if they deliver to the UK – but no reply yet. Some other nations’ cinemas are much harder to find films… like Albania. It apparently has a thriving film industry, has even produced a handful of festival favourites… but finding copies on DVD is proving difficult. I shall continue to look, however. Meanwhile…

jungle_bookThe Jungle Book, Wolfgang Reitherman (1968, USA). I can remember the first time I saw this film. It was in the gym at the Doha English-Speaking School in Qatar, sometime around 1970 or 1971. (I’m a founding pupil of two English-speaking schools in the Middle East.) We also had an LP of songs from the film, and given I heard the songs so often during my childhood, I may well have confabulated that into multiple viewings of the film. So I was quite keen to watch it again (in contrast to, say, 101 Dalmatians, which I had no firm memories of ever seeing as a kid, but suspected I might have done). And… it was okay. I had expected it to be better than it was. The animation was nowhere near as beautiful as that of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and while the songs were mostly very memorable… that was all they were. It all felt a bit weak. Which was weird. I couldn’t help comparing it to 101 Dalmations, which I had not expected to like when I saw it a couple of months ago, but found quite charming. I’m not sure where The Jungle Book fits in the Disney canon – I’m not that much of a fan of their films, to be honest, and am only working my way through them out of a sense of completeness (and a vain hope of being blown away again as I was when I watched Sleeping Beauty). At the moment, myself I’d classify The Jungle Book as middling Disney – not great, but not awful; fun, with catchy songs but an unmemorable story.

eccentricitiesEccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, Manoel de Oliveira (2009, Portugal). Among the countries from which I had not seen a film was Portugal. (I can’t find a felicitous way of phrasing that which emphasises the country, but what I mean is: I had never seen a film from Portugal.) So I hunted around on LoveFilm, and found this, Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl, directed by Maniel de Oliviera. And… it was good, very good. It felt like a dramatisation of a story by Karen Blixen. Which is a compliment. A man on a train introduces himself to the woman sitting beside him, and then proceeds to tell her his life-story. Cue flashback. And it’s a very Blixen-like story. In the apartment across the street from the man’s office lived a young woman. He fell in love with her, and arranged to meet her. They were drawn to each other and decided to marry. But his uncle, who is his guardian and employer, wouldn’t let him marry, and fired him when he insisted on going ahead with it. In desperation, the man accepted a job from a friend running a plantation on Cape Verde. A few years later, he returned, having made his fortune. He again asked the young woman to marry him, and she accepted. But another friend asked him to stand guarantor to a business venture… but then disappeared with all the cash, leaving the young man penniless once again. He was offered the job in Cape Verde a second time… but managed to reconcile with his uncle and so turned it down. Now, he had his original job back, his uncle would pay for the wedding, everything was working fine… but the fiancée turned out to be a kleptomaniac (hinted at throughout the film) and so he rejected her. At only 64 minutes, this is a pretty economical film. But it has that literary quality with which the best directors can imbue their movies. It feels like an adaptation of a literary story (it is: by Eça de Quierós), it feels like The Immortal Story or Babette’s Feast. Recommended; and I have added more films by de Oliveira to my rental list.

mutinyMutiny on the Bounty*, Frank Lloyd (1935, USA). Some stories seem to become so much a part of Western Anglophone culture there’s no real need to read the book or see the film or watch the play or hear the song… and so it is with Mutiny on the Bounty, in which the crew of an English ship in the late eighteenth century mutiny, set their evil captain and his sycophants adrift in a boat, settled down to a life of ease on a Pacific island, only for the captain to survive a 7,000 mile ocean journey, set the Royal Navy on the mutineers, and so bring them to justice. And the story goes: that Captain Bligh was a total monster, Fletcher Christian was an Everyman hero, and bad luck and circumstances prevented the mutineers from living the fruitful and paradisical lives they deserved. At least, so Hollywood would have you believe. It’s true that history has demonised Bligh, and Hollywood – in this film especially – fixed that version in the public consciousness. But apparently he was a good captain, and Christian was far from the selfless hero played by, in this movie, Clarke Gable. But that’s all by the bye – it’s a Hollywood film, historical accuracy is not in the product description. I had, however, expected to be mostly unimpressed by Mutiny on the Bounty. But it made a surprisingly excellent fist of life aboard an eighteenth-century sailing vessel, and the storm scenes in particular were done well. Not bad.

electraElectra, My Love, Miklós Jancsó (1974, Hungary). This may be one of the most bonkers films I have ever seen. I have seen a number of bonkers films. I have seen all of Jancsó’s films available on DVD in the UK; Jancsó makes bonkers films. But even by his lights, this is an odd one. Now I love the declamatory nature of Jancsó’s films, and I like the continual movement – of the camera, of the cast – that he uses. But even so, Electra, My Love seemed weirder than I was used to from Jancsó. As the title suggests, it’s about Electra, a thorn in the side of the tyrant Aegisthus who had murdered her father, Agamemnon, fifteen years earlier. And the film plays out Electra’s story, as her brother Orestes, believed dead, reappears in disguise, reveals himself, kills Aegisthus, and takes power. But given that this is a Jancsó film… The story takes place in the middle of nowhere, a grassy plain with no evidence of civilisation other than the crude buildings which feature in the film. And while Electra walks about declaiming, there is a cast of several hundred in continual movement about and around her, including men with whips, dwarves with cymbals, naked women and men dancing, marching bands, dancers with sticks, and a giant ball. It’s like watching a Greek myth in interpretative dance with dramatic dialogues on top. It shouldn’t work, it should feel pretentious to the nth degree… But Jancsó’s genius is that he does make it work, that it comes across as a somewhat peculiar staging of the story, but a staging that adds to the story rather than obscures it. Jancsó is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but I count myself a fan.

springSpring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, Kim Ki-duk (2003, South Korea). The title refers to the “seasons” of a monk’s lifetime. He lives in a tiny monastery which sits in the middle of a lake, and at various points in his life, events happen which are documented under the seasons of the title. The Wikipedia entry – see here – has an excellent description of them. I will admit, I am woefully uninformed when it comes to the creed and practices of Buddhism (but then I’ve never read the Bible, Talmud or Qur’an either), so much of the symbolism in this film went straight over my head. Which may be why, despite its often gorgeous cinematography, I think I like Ki-duk’s 3-Iron more – although Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is plainly the better-looking film. But then Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is a film which succeeds because of its photography. The plot starts out as a series of vignettes, and any story-arc feels like something of an after-thought, but the film’s biggest draw, its Buddhist symbology, would be likely lost on all but students of the religion (but then, who catches every reference in a literary novel?). Both 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring were recommendations from David Tallerman, who I believe counts Ki-duk among his favourite directors… and while my tastes usually lie a little closer to home – ie, from India through the Middle East and Africa to Russia and Northern Europe – and my knowledge of Far Eastern cinema is patchy at best, I do think I’d like to see more by this director.

chinoiseLa Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I think I can ditch my Theory of Godard, it’s plainly complete nonsense. It’s not as if I can split out his famous “political” films either, and declare they don’t work for me – because some of them do. I suspect that if there is something in common to the Godard films I like, it’s that his focus in the ones I like seems to be more on experimenting with narrative forms than it is on just his cast. So in Weekend, he told a surreal story; in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, he tried several different narrative forms; and in Détective, he set out to tell a mystery story that could not be parsed in one sitting. But in La Chinoise, it’s all about the cast members monologuing to camera – especially his new wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky – and while its story (it can hardly be called a plot) presages the student revolts of a couple of years later while simultaneously mocking left-wing student politics, it still possesses Godard’s baffling love of US iconography. The end result is not one of his most gripping, although some of the jokes are good, and the overall structure is interesting, if not entirely successful. Back in 2002 (I could have sworn it was a year or two earlier as I seem to remember buying the DVD while in Abu Dhabi, probably from Amazon), but anyway, in that year I saw my first Godard, À bout de souffle. It was also, I think, my first exposure to the Nouvelle Vague. I have never really considered myself a fan of French New Wave cineman, but the more of Godard’s oeuvre I watch, the more I admire him for his body of work and the more of his films I find that I do like. La Chinoise, I think, is currently borderline – but I’d like to watch it again sometime, so who knows…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 808


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2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13’s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.