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Best of the year 2018

I usually do these posts in early December, which is not exactly the end of the year. But I’ve been so busy the last few weeks, I’ve not had the chance – which means this best of the year actually represents what I read, watched and listened to in all of 2018. This is likely the best way to do it.

And what a year it was. The Big Project at work finally ended in September. I applied for a job in Sweden, was offered it, and accepted. I made five visits to Nordic countries during the twelve months: twice each to Sweden and Denmark, once to Iceland. I beat my 140 books read Goodreads challenge by ten books. I watched 547 films new to me, from 52 different countries, forty-nine of them by female directors. I didn’t do much listening to music, I have to admit and I only went to two gigs: Therion in February and Wolves in the Throne Room in June.

And then there was Brexit. Yes, we had the referendum two years ago, and 17 million people – around a third of the actual electorate, so not a majority – voted for something very very stupid and self-destructive, in response to a campaign that told outright lies and broke election law. None of which is apparently enough to consider Brexit a travesty of democracy. And just to make things even worse, the last two years have demonstrated just how useless and incompetent the UK’s current government is, and how committed they are to destroying the country’s economy and perhaps even ending the union. Their latest scam is giving a £14 million contract to a ferry company that owns no ferries and has never operated any ferries previously. The whole lot of them should be in prison. Who knows what 2019 will bring? Will the government see sense and revoke Article 50? I think it unlikely given how racist May is and how committed she is to ending freedom of movement. Her deal will likely be the one that goes into effect, and it’ll be voted through because no deal is an unthinkable alternative.

But me, I’ll be out of it. Living in another country, a civilised country. I can’t wait.

This post, however is, as the title cunningly suggests, my pick of the best books, films and albums I consumed during 2018. (Position in my Best of the half-year post is in square brackets for each book, film and album.)

books
1 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). [-] My father had a sizeable collection of Penguin paperbacks he’d bought direct from the publisher in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve no idea why he bought them, but he certainly read them. After he died, I took a couple of dozen of them for myself. Including two by Faulkner. And it’s taken me a while to get round to reading one of them… And I loved it. It tells the story of a family from three viewpoints, and from them you have to piece together exactly what happened. It’s set in the Deep South at the beginning of the twentieth century, so of course it’s very racist. But that feels like something Faulkner wrote because overt racism was endemic in that place and at that time (and still is now, to be fair), and not a sensibility of the author that has leaked through into the text. I now want to read everything Faulkner wrote.

2 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK) [1]. Being knocked off the top spot, which is where this book was in my best of the half-year, by William Faulkner is no bad thing. The Smoke is genre, and was published by a genre imprint, but it’s not a book that invites easy description. It does some things I don’t think I’ve seen genre novels do before, and it crashes together ideas that really shouldn’t work on their own, never mind side by side. It’s set in alternate mid-twentieth century, where “biophotonic rays” have radically altered the world. Animalistic homunculi created by the rays have spread throughout Europe, and a secular group of Jews turned the ray on themselves and now lead the world in technology by a century or more. The Smoke is a story about a man whose mother has been reborn as an infant in order cure her of her cancer, a treatment pioneered by his ex-girlfriend’s father… The Smoke reads like an unholy mash-up of so many things that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. In fact, it rises above them.

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2018, UK) [3]. This is where the top five sort of gets all Schrödinger, because this novel and the two below might well have, on any other day, been swapped out for one of the honourable mentions. But I’ve kept The Rift here, in the same spot it occupied in my best of the half year, because Allan’s two previous novels never quite gelled for me. They felt like fix-ups, but without a framing narrative or much in the way of a link between the constituent parts. But The Rift is coherent whole, from start to finish. It has an interesting plot, which it not only fails to resolve but presents several possible mutually-exclusive endings all at the same time. A woman’s sister reappears several decades after mysteriously vanishing and claims to have been living on an alien world. Is she telling the truth? Is she indeed the long-lost sister? Or was the sister murdered years before by a spree killer? Everything about the story confounds a One True Reading, which is its strength.

4 Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima (1962, Japan) [-]. I bought this on the strength of Paul Schrader’s film about Mishima, although I was aware of how Mishima had died. The novel is the first of a quartet, and details the illicit affair between the son of a wealthy family with the daughter of much less wealthy aristocratic family. They have been friends since childhood, but he grew irritated with her affections and so convinced her he could never love her. But now she has been affianced to an Imperial prince, and the two conduct an clandestine affair. The writing is crystal clear, and even though set in a culture not my own, and a history of which I know only a few small bits and pieces, Mishima makes everything comprehensible. I’ve seen historical novels set in Britain by British writers that are larded with footnotes and info-dumps. Mishima was writing for a Japanese readership, obviously, but it’s astonishing how he makes his narrative flow like water.

5 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK) [-]. I’m a huge fan of Gentle’s fiction, and buy each of her books on publication. And it continually astonishes me she seems to go out of print almost immediately. I bought 1610: A Sundial in a Grave back in 2003. But for some reason, it sat on my bookshelves for 15 years before I finally got around to reading it. Possibly because it’s a pretty damn large hardback. And… I loved it. It’s that mix of fantasy and historical Gentle does so well, better in fact than anyone else. There’s a slight framing device, but the bulk of the story is the journal of a seventeenth-century French adventurer who has to flee France when a faked-up plot to kill Henri IV actually does just that. He ends up in a plot in England by Edward Fludd to kill James I, along with the sole survivor of a Japanese mission and a sixteen-year-old crossdressing sword prodigy he believes to be male but with whom he falls in love. It’s brilliant stuff – thick with historical detail, visceral and smelly and real. The novel’s fantasy content is also fascinating, a sort of reworking of ideas from the White Crow books, but thoroughly embedded in the history.

Honourable mentions: Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada), a fascinating study of a Mennonite girl, by a Mennonite writer, in a Mexican colony, inspired by the excellent film Stellet Licht, I will be reading more by Toews; Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK), intriguing historical novel set in early New York, paints a portrait of a fascinating, if horrifying, place; If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK) [hb], any other year and this might have made the top five, the sort of liminal sf the British do so well, historical and alternate history, not unlike Ings’s novel above; The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France) [hb], a contrived plot but a fascinating lesson in semiotics and Roland Barthes, cleverly mixed into real history; The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK) [hb], a book that has grown on me since I read it, an elegy on both the Matter of Britain and genre fantasy, that is a more intelligent commentary than 99% of actual genre fantasies; Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK) [2] [hb], autobiography by Green, written because he thought he might not survive WWII, but he did, a fascinating and beautifully written look at life among the privileged in 1920s Britain; Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA) [5] [hb], a semi-utopian community created around an aircraft factory in the late years of WWII and how it fell apart once the war was over, beautifully written.

films
1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska 2015, Poland) [1] No change for one of the most bizarre films I watched in 2018, and I watched a lot of bizarre films. Carnivorous mermaids in 1980s Poland. Who join a band. In a nightclub. With music. It is entirely sui generis. It also looks fantastic, the mermaids are scary as shit, and the music is pretty good – if not technically entirely 1980s. I watched a rental of this and love it so much I bought myself the Blu-ray.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK) [2] No change here either. And the fact I love this film continues to astonish me. I’m not a Nolan fan but something about this – the cinematography, the sound design, the total absence of plot… appealed to me so much, I bought myself a Blu-ray copy after watching a streamed version. Perhaps it’s because the hardware features so heavily in it and I love machines. I’m not sure. It’s one of the most immersive films I’ve ever watched. Perhaps that’s it.

3 Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden) [-] Three girls discover a magic seed that transforms them into boys, and they get to experience life as the other gender – and they’re each in a position to appreciate the advantages of being male. This film just blew me away with its treatment of its premise, and then did more by turning the stereotype – girl becomes boy becomes bad boy – into something meaningful.

4 Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria) [-] A film which comprises a series of vignettes in the life of the eponymous woman, all of which are inspired by, and set up to resemble, paintings by Edwin Hopper. It sounds like something that belongs in a modern art museum, and it probably should be there, but it is also a beautiful piece of cinema. There’s something about the look of the film – attributable to Hopper, of course – which makes something special of it. It also made me more appreciative of Hopper’s art.

5 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway) [3] Comparisons with Carrie are both inevitable and do this Norwegian take on the story an injustice. When something is a thousand times better than something it might resemble, why forever harp on about the resemblance? De Palma’s film is a blunt instrument compared to Trier’s, although to be fair to Trier he does push the religious angle quite heavily. But Thelma looks great, and its lead is very impressive indeed.

Honourable mentions: to be honest, I’m not sure if some of these should not have appeared in the above five – that’s the peril of choosing a top five, especially when you’ve watched so many bloody good films, or just so many bloody films… Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China) [-] although not associated with any “generation” of Chinese film-makers, this film exhibits all the hallmarks of the Sixth Generation: a semi-documentary feel, disaffected youth, narrative tricks… and it does it like a master of the form; Vampir Cuadec, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain) [4] I loved this experimental film so much I tracked down a 22-film collection from Spain of Portabella’s works and bought it, this particular film is a heavily-filtered re-edit of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula that turns cheap commercial horror into avant garde cinema; India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975, France) [5] my first Duras and such a remarkably different way to present a film narrative, sadly her movies aren’t available in UK editions but I would dearly love to see more; Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal) [-] I love Sembène’s films and this might be his best, the story of the hapless eponymous man who spends money he doesn’t have and chases down the paperwork he needs to cash it in, even though it’s not his, a beautifully pitched comedy; Stellet licht, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico) [-] precisely the sort of film that appeals to me – slow, beautifully shot, and a slow unveiling of the plot; War and Peace, parts 1-3,  Sergei Bondarchuk (1966-1967, USSR) [-] movies as they used to make them, a cast of tens of thousands, more technical innovations than you could shake a large stick at, and the widest screen on the planet, and despite there not being a single decent 70 mm print in existence what remains is more than sufficient to show this was a remarkable piece of film-making… and I’ve not even seen the final part yet; Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA) [-] why not a Disney animated movie? I’ve been working my way through them and this is one of the best, despite the mawkishness and frankly dubious message.

albums
Frighteningly, I only bought ten albums in 2018. Music really seems to have drifted out of my life. Which is a shame as, well, I like it a lot. But I generally have a fast turnover in music and will move onto something new quite quickly. I’m not one of those people who can listen to the same album over and over again for years. But I do have my “classics”, albums I return to again and again. And that list, of course, is always evolving…

On the other hand, my album picks each year tend to be from albums published during the year as I don’t “discover” older music as much as I do books or films.

1 No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland). I liked Kontinuum’s previous album, Kyrr, especially the track ‘Breathe’, but No Need to Reason is much much better. In places, it’s a bit like mid-career Anathema, although deeper and heavier. In other places, it’s a bit post-metal, or a bit rocky, or a bit, well, heavy. It’s probably that melange of styles that appeals to me the most – all filtered, of course, through a metal sensibility.

2 Slow Motion Death Sequence, MANES (2018, Norway). Frank Zappa once wrote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and certainly I’ve yet to find a way to explain in print why some music appeals to me and some doesn’t. I don’t, as a rule like EBM, but MANES might well be classified as that – although, to me, they come to it with a black metal sensibility because they were once a black metal band. They changed their sound, quite drastically, yet for me something of their origin remains in the mix. I’ve no idea if that’s true or exists only in my head. I do know that MANES approach to electronica, and their occasional use of heavy guitar, seems very metal to me and I like it a lot.

The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018, USA) I’ve been following Panopticon since stumbling across one of their albums which mixed bluegrass/folk and atmospheric black metal, and over the past few years I’ve seen them – well, him, as it’s a one-man band – grow increasingly sophisticated in his use of the two musical genres. And here he’s at his current best – the folk sections are excellent and fade naturally into the black metal and vice versa. I’ve been impressed by all of Panopticon’s albums, but this one was the fastest like of them all. Everyone should be listening to them.

Currents, In Vain (2018, Norway). Ten years ago, I suspect this may not have made my top five. It’s good – because In Vain are good, But their previous albums were better, and this feels less musically adventurous than them, which is perhaps why I think it less successful. It’s solid progressive black metal from someone who has made the genre their own, but nothing in Currents is as playful as tracks on earlier albums. I liked that about them. Good stuff, nonetheless; just not as good as previously.

The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018, USA). Some bands are easy to categorise, others require such detailed tagging that they might as well be in a category all their own. Entransient are sort of progressive rock, but they’re a little too heavy to be just rock, and yet their music is not intricate enough to be metal. Some might call that heavy rock. But Entransient feel like they have elements of metal in their music, even if they mostly make use of non-metal forms. One of the tracks on this album has harmonies you would never find on a metal album, and yet works really well. Entransient give the impression they aren’t trying very hard to be anything other than what they want to be. They’re just writing songs down the line they’ve chosen… But they seem to be operating in a much bigger, and more interesting, space than they might have imagined.

Hopefully, my changed circumstances in 2019 will have me watching less films, reading more books, and listening to more music. And buying less books too, of course.


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Moving pictures 2018, #65

Cor, look at that: no Extruded Hollywood Product. Two new British films – one that most people will think is American, and another in that long line of recent films celebrating British pluck during WWII, as if that has fucking anything to do with Brexit. Sigh. Plus two very different French films, an excellent Swedish comedy (I think I’m starting to get their sense of humour), and another from the master Sembène.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Felix Herngren (2018, Sweden). I’d had this on my Amazon watch list for a while but had put off watching it, perhaps because I expected it to be similar to Roy Andersson’s movies, which are a bit odd. Well, more than a bit. But good nonetheless. However, you do need to be in the right sort of mood to appreciate them. But The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (Amazon can’t seem to decide on the exact wording of the title and varies it between DVD, Prime video, Blu-ray and source novel) proved to be a brilliantly dry comedy about a Swedish man who managed to stumble into a number of historic moments in, er, twentieth-century history, all told as flashbacks after he escapes from his old people’s home on his one-hundredth birthday and ends up on the run from gangsters after a mix-up involving a suitcase containing millions of kroner. The flashback scenes involve, among others, Stalin, Einstein, Roosevelt, Oppenheimer, and I forget the other historical persons who appear. The present day plot thread is just as funny, with the eponymous character surviving through a combination of luck and ineptitude. I really enjoyed this. Recommended.

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Jean Renoir (1936, France). I’m not sure what to make of Renoir’s films. A couple of his films are extremely highly regarded by cinephiles, and I can see how they’re well-made and espouse politics which roughly align with my own… But his movies don’t seem very interesting, and cinematographically they don’t really stack up well against those by some of his contemporaries, such as Max Ophüls. In other words, he’s a director whose films I want to like much more than I find myself doing so. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is a case in point. In it, a pulp publisher takes advantage of his misreported death only to discover that his publishing company is doing much better without him. He reappears, and is shot dead by the company’s most successful author. A response many in publishing could probably understand. The story is told in flashback by the fleeing author as he is about to cross into Belgium. Where he is arrested, but as he tells his story so his audience begins to sympathise with him. As, I suppose, the cinematic audience was also intended to. It’s a neat narrative trick, but I can’t say it worked on me. For all that I sympathised with M Lange’s plight, the film never really got me invested in his story. Meh.

Another Mother’s Son, Christopher Menaul (2017, UK). All this dwelling on plucky British spirit during WWII is definitely unhealthy. In the years immediately following the war, it made sense: it was a way to deal with the trauma and ever-present evidence of destruction created by an event that was within living memory. But those days are long past, and if there’s any lesson to be learned from WWII, it’s that Nazis deserve to die. Oh, and that the British would never have survived without outside help, and were so deeply incompetent in the opening stages of the war it’s a miracle we weren’t immediately wiped out. But, instead, we get stories of British heroes and heroines who stood up to the Nazi menace, as if they need to show the same stiff upper lip and fortitude in order to survive Brexit. But Brexit is not about survival because it’s destructive. Self-destructive. Staying in the EU is survival. And while the true story told in Another Mother’s Son is certainly uplifting, and the principals deserve to have their story told to a wider audience, this new-found fascination for WWII dramas is neither applicable to the present day and deeply misrepresents what actually happened over seventy years ago. Here, we have a principled woman who hides a Russian POW (the Soviets were allies at this point, obvs) from the Nazi occupiers on Jersey. And, er, that’s it. She gets found out, and her and her family are shipped off to the death camps. She does not survive, and is posthumously awarded a medal for her actions. It’s all heart-warming stuff, and actually manages to paint the Nazis as evil scum, which is a bonus in this day and age. Not a badly-made film, but let’s have some films showing what the Europeans did for us for a change.

You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay (2017, UK). I’ve seen a lot of love for this film in the last month or so, from friends and from total strangers. And yet… I prefer Andrea Arnold’s work to Lynne Ramsay’s, although it may well be unfair to compare the two. But You Were Never Really Here is a brutal US thriller with an arthouse touch, and reminded me a bit of Pete Travis while still being very US. Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who rescues kidnapped girls for a fee. He’s approached by a senator whose young daughter has been kidnapped and is being abused in a paedophile brothel. He rescues the girl, but finds himself up against a well-organised opposition, seemingly centred around the man most likely to be elected New York mayor, who is at the heart of it all. To be honest, it felt like an ordinary thriller, with the odd moment that lifted it way above that, but in the end it’s one of those pointless the-powerful-people-always-win stories that makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t just rise up and shoot the fucking lot of them – after all, isn’t that why the right to bear arms is enshrined in the US constitution? Except, of course, these days firearms are only used for spree killing, and that’s no reason to ban them… Pointing out that the US is fucked-up is so banal, I’m surprised people bother to make films about it still. But Lynne Ramsay apparently did. Meh.

Faat Kiné, Ousmane Sembène (2000, Senegal). The title is the name of an unmarried mother of two children who now runs a successful petrol station in downtown Dakar. Being unmarried and in possession of a profitable business – as Jane Austen famously might have said – she is an obvious target for suitors. Which, had Jane Austen said something like this, would have completely changed her novels. Perhaps for the better. Who knows. I do love Sembène’s films, and while this one doesn’t have a plot as robust as, say, Mandabi or Moolaadé, it still exhibits all his trademark themes – ie, women doing a better job at navigating life than men. Venus Seye is good in the title role, although there’s a cheerful amateurishness to much of the acting – also true of other films by Sembène. The copy I watched wasn’t a very good transfer, and I suspect good transfers of it are pretty much impossible to find. Which is a shame. Someone really needs to put together a remastered box set of Sembène’s films. He didn’t make that many, only eleven (of which I’ve seen seven), and his movies really are very good. He’s an excellent candidate – BFI? Curzon Artificial Eye? Please.

The Lady and the Duke, Éric Rohmer (2001, France). After complaining that the French couldn’t do historical films – and in reference to a Rohmer film too – I’ve only gone and been proven wrong. By Rohmer. Because The Lady and the Duke is set during the Terror, ie, the late eighteenth century, and it’s really very good, perhaps even among my favourites of the films by Rohmer I’ve seen to date. It is, to be honest, all a bit Greenaway, which is no bad thing, in as much as the scenery is CGI and presented to mimic paintings of the time. Everything looks fake – and deliberately so. The interior scenes have walls like theatre flats, where everything is painted to look 3D but isn’t. The exterior scenes have the actors perform in front of what are plainly matted-in during post-production paintings of scenes from eighteenth-century France. I loved it. I’m a big fan of that deliberately artificial presentation of narrative used by some films, where the presentation itself is a tool used by the narrative. The story is about an English woman who has settled in France and is a friend of certain high-placed aristocrats. Which subsequently lands her in trouble post-Revolution. She is arrested and interrogated, but proves to have well-respected pro-Revolution friends. Even so, she seems more concerned with her friend the Duke of Orléans than is healthy. The film is based on the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Scottish courtesan who was the mistress of the Duke of Orléans and, later, King George IV of Britain. She’s played by Lucy Russell, who demonstrates an impressive facility with both English and French. I’d been going off Rohmer a bit, I must admit, but this film has rekindled my interest in his oeuvre.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #63

I’m a bit behind on these, chiefly because I’ve been busy with other things during the last couple of weeks. Such as getting a new job. In Sweden. So those few nights when I’ve been at home, and not celebrating, I’ve been mostly watching TV series, such as season two of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, season three of Lost, and the first season of Dollhouse. I’ve got three or four of these posts to get out before the end of the year. Not to mention picking the best five movies – I’m dropping the documentary split I used in my best of the half-year post (see here) – out of the 600+ films I watched in 2018…

Anyway, aside from the last two films here, and they’re hardly twenty-first century commercial Hollywood extruded movie product, this post goes on a bit of a global tour, with a film from Europe, two from Asia and one from Africa.

Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2014, Turkey). It took me a couple of goes to get into this, but once I was twenty or so minutes into it, something clicked and I found myself engrossed – for all of its 196 minutes. True, I’ve seen films by Ceylan before, and I know he’s an excellent director. His cinematography distinguishes him, but I’ve found the tone of each of his films very different. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for example, is almost Tarantino-esque. And Winter Sleep very definitely isn’t. Aydın, once a famous actor, now owns a cave hotel in Cappadoccia and several properties in the town. The film opens with Aydın accompanying his agent to collect rent from a tenant… who has no job and no money, and reacts angrily to threats of more of his possessions being taken by bailiffs. But not as angrily as his young son, who throws a rock through the window Aydın’s Land Rover. That starts off an ongoing feud, in which Aydın cannot understand why the tenant is so angry and so uncooperative. Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife is deteriorating, to the extent that he muscles in and rubbishes her charity campaign to fund local schools. So he decides to head to Istanbul, to work on his pet project, a history of Turkish theatre. But he gets sidetracked because one of his friends has been badmouthing him… And this is one of those films where things follow on naturally from one to the other but there’s no real story as such, except perhaps some form of realisation by Aydın over how badly he’s treated his friends and family. And tenants. A slow-mover, but definitely worth watching.

Prison, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). Bergman made a shitload of films – some for the cinema, some for television, some released on both media. Prison is Bergman’s first film both directed and solely written by him, and it’s notable because of its film-within-a-film narrative structure. Bergman apparently later disowned Prison, although there’s no good reason I could see while watching it why he should have done. It’s an early work, sure, and he used similar techniques, and covered similar topics, much better in later films. But Prison is still a good piece of drama, and if its story feels a bit belaboured at times that’s likely a consequence of Bergman’s lack of experience, although he had directed five films before this one. A film director is approached by an old teacher who tries to sell him a very obvious and very belaboured story of good and evil. The director has his co-workers discuss the story, but they pass on it… only to find real life sort of illustrating the old teacher’s story. But there’s another level of film-within-a-film, and that’s an explicit take on an early silent comedy, with people jumping in and out of windows and closets, all at faster-than-normal speed. Though its subject matter is as weighty as anything Bergman made, Prison didn’t feel especially grim or humourless. Perhaps that was why Bergman disowned it…

Let’s Make Laugh, Alfred Cheung (1983, China). This was apparently the most successful film in Hong Kong in 1983, and one of the most successful comedies in China for that decade. Shame then that it’s not at all funny. And I don’t think it’s an 1980s thing, or a Hong Kong thing. I mean, I’ve seen enough Hong Kong films to get the gurning thing, and the physical comedy, but while there’s plenty of the former there’s very little of the latter and much of the movie seems more focused on its romantic subplot. Idiot security guard is asked to guard a house because its owner has substantial debts, not knowing that owner has abandoned his wife and she’s still living in the property. But then the woman’s parents turn up, and she asks the guard to pretend to be her husband… The problem is the guard is such an idiot, and so useless, that he ever seems to achieve anything. And the wife is completely self-centred. Which means the romantic sub-plot, er, isn’t. I’ve seen some successful and very funny Hong Kong comedies – anything by Jackie Chan, for example – so the success of this one as a comedy is baffling.

Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal). I’ve now seen six films by Sembène, and have a seventh yet to watch, and I really do think his films are bloody brilliant. I’m astonished they’re so hard to find. He made eleven films, and only three are available in the UK, two on a single dual release. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed from the films I’ve watched, a theme that unites them, it’s that, in Sembène’s world, when men run things it’s absolute chaos, and it’s only when the women take over that things run smoothly. I can go for that. In Mandabi, a postman approaches the two wives of Ibrahima Dieng, who has been unemployed for several years, and tells them there is a money order for 250 Francs waiting for him at the post office. So he heads off to collect it. But the post office won’t give it to him without ID. And when he goes to the police station to get himself an ID, he needs another piece of paper… Meanwhile, his friends and family all want a piece of the money, and have started spending it. None of them realising, because none of them have read the letter accompanying the money order, that 30 Francs of the Fr 250 is for the nephew’s mother, Fr 200 to kept for the nephew, and only Fr 20 for Ibrahima… So on the one hand you have everyone spending money that isn’t theirs, while on the other Ibrahima gets himself further into debt in his efforts to persuade the post office to hand over the money order. The sight of Ibrahima, in his shining boubou, strutting down the street, convinced his fortunes have finally turned is one of the great comedy visuals.

The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles (2018, USA). This is one of those movies which has a more interesting production history than it does a plot. Welles, of course, was a true Hollywood maverick, and would finance his films himself, shooting them in parts over an extended period as he worked to raise the money to continue filming. And yet, in most cases, the films that resulted are pretty damn seamless. I came to Welles late, but I became a fan after seeing his later films rather than because of his more famous earlier ones. The Other Side of the Wind was not Welles’s last film, but it was locked in legal limbo for so long it’s only just finally been re-edited and released, thirty-three years after Welles died. And, in fact, pretty much the entire cast of The Other Side of the Wind are also now dead. It’s a mockumentary about a great director, played by John Huston, and the film he is working on, which appears to be the worst sort of New Hollywood soft porn director-as-auteur excess. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast – which comprises a number of familiar faces – all play pretty horrible Hollywood stereotypes. Movie industry stereotypes, that is, rather than the usual simplistic Hollywood characterisation. The end result is… an interesting historical document. But not a good film. Thee are good bits, of course – Welles was one of the best directors the US has produced – but this doesn’t feel like Welles at his best, and this version here – edited by Peter Bogdanovich, who plays Huston assistant – does its best but it’s not Welles’s vision and you can’t help but wonder how Welles would have put together the footage, especially when you remember other of his films, such as Mr Arkadin

After the Thin Man, WS Van Dyke (1936, USA). The thin man of The Thin Man was actually the villain of that original movie, but it proved so successful a film, and the characters played by Myrna Loy and William Powell so popular, that a sequel was made, with the perfectly understandable title of After the Thin Man (as in “following the previous film” or “following on from the villain of the previous film”), but which served only to confuse audiences into thinking Powell’s character, a semi-retired PI, was the Thin Man. And so the moniker sort of became his as the film series progressed. Otherwise, there’s no link between the story of After the Thin Man and The Thin Man. Loy and Powell are returning to their San Francisco home after a holiday away when they’re contacted by Loy’s tearful sister, whose playboy husband has vanished. He proves remarkably easy to find. Unfortunately, he’s involved in an extortion scam, and gets murdered for his pains. And the chief suspect is Loy’s tearful sister… Watching this film, you have to wonder how much of the boozing was acted, because while the dialogue between the two leads was certainly witty and snappy, and occasionally sounded ad-libbed although it may not have been, Powell did seem to have a shit-eating grin on his face for much of the film. The Thin Man was popular enough to spawn a series, but this follow-up felt weak, perhaps because it spent more time exploring Powell’s and Loy’s relationship than it did its mystery plot. Still, worth seeing if you like 1930s Hollywood movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #35

A good mix, nothing too populist, but instead some good films from a number of different countries… Well, okay, maybe not all of them are that good…

Caravaggio*, Derek Jarman (1986, UK). That’s the last of the Derek Jarman box set and it’s a film I first saw many years ago – not at school, as it was released two years after I sat my A Levels, but perhaps when I was a university student. I don’t remember, I just remember the film itself… and this rewatch did not in that respect provide any surprises. There were a few scenes I had forgotten, but much of the film had remained in memory. Which I guess means something. Jarman’s use of deliberately anachronistic set dressing I’d certainly remembered, so the appearance of trucks and such in some scenes did not seem as shocking as perhaps intended. Which is not to say they did not perform their purpose – perhaps even more so, because the shock value no longer applied, I could see them for what they were. Which was elements of an idiosyncratic retelling of the life of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, which used his paintings – or those that have survived – as inspiration to document parts of his life. The  title role is played by Nigel Terry, who has never been better, but there are plenty of other familiar faces in there. Also in the cast is Sean Bean, in his first major role, as is Tilda Swinton, whom he snogs. Which was weird. The film is mostly told from Caravaggio’s death-bed, using it to jump back to incidents in his life. It works as well inasmuch as it allows for commentary. The film’s aesthetic, anachronisms and all, I thought especially effective, and I ended up liking the film more than I had expected. I bought this box set on a whim, and because I’d not seen Jubilee but some recent watches on Jarman’s films had persuaded me it might be worth a punt. And it was indeed. It’s even turned me into a sort of fan of Jarman’s films, which I wasn’t before. I’m now eagerly awaiting the Volume 2 box set.

Black Rose Mansion, Kinji Fukasaku (1969, Japan). Fukasaku, who is best known these days for his film of Battle Royale, made two films with famous Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (AKA Akihiro Maruyama) – this one and Kurotokage (see here). Having seen both, I can definitely say Kurotokage is the better of the two. Which is not to say Black Rose Mansion, AKA Kuro bara no yakata, is bad. It has its moments. Miwa plays the mysterious singer in the titular roadhouse. Not only is Ryuko’s past a mystery, but it also seems wildly inconsistent, as a series of men turn up claiming to be her lover and she refuses to admit whether she had affairs with them. It is, to be honest, all a little over the top, especially given that some of them profess their undying love by killing themselves and the deaths are presented with all the technicolor relish of B-movies. The whole thing began to pall after a while, it must be said, given that Miwa’s character remained stubbornly mute on her past and the parade of past lovers didn’t seem to prove anything. If you must watch a camp 1960s Japanese thriller, then I’d recommend Kurotokage over this one.

Okja, Bong Joon-ho (2017, South Korea). This was recommended by a number of friends, both those who watch Korean cinema and those who don’t. And having now seen it, I can understand why, as it sort of feels like a Korean film without actually being one. Although it certainly opens like a Hollywood movie. A US company has a bred a super-pig and sent super piglets around the world to be reared by indigenous farmers. Ten years later, they will be assessed and the best will win a prize. There’s a problem right there – not just the genetically-engineered pig, but the idea of using subsistence level farmers to grow it, given that the governmental and corporate world have been trying to wipe out subsistence level farmers for decades. Anyway, the one in South Korea, called Okja by the young woman who cares for it, wins and is shipped to New York for the ceremony. But an animal rights group try to prevent this, as they’re convinced the corporation’s motives are not as advertised. And it’s all the slightly off-kilter approach Boon brings to a story married to the usual Hollywood glib depiction of corporatisation and the near-future, sort of like cyberpunk with its raison d’être surgically removed so smoothly it hasn’t even noticed… It didn’t help that the titular super-pig looked more like a hippo, or that Tilda Swinton, playing the twin sisters who ran the corporation chewed the scenery more than the super-pig… It all felt like a fun movie that was trying so hard to appeal to a Hollywood market it had lost whatever charm it might have had. It looked very nice, but it was not very likeable.

Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975, Senegal). Xala, pronounced khala, means “temporary impotence” in Wolof, and is also the title of the novel by Sembène from which this film was adapted. The film opens with a voiceover describing Senegal’s independence, with actors playing the parts of the new Senegalese government. One of these, a minister, is congratulated on his upcoming nuptials. To a woman less than half his age. And she’s his third wife. I’m sorry, I don’t give a shit what your religion is, but there’s no justification for polygamy. Women are not property. Sembène is making the same point, although he’s also setting out an allegory about independence, in which the new wife is the country’s new-found freedom. Which results in impotence – the minister can’t get it up despite the manifold attractions of his new wife. He is not only too wedded to the old ways, he prospered too well under them. Now he has control, he doesn’t know what to do with it. So to speak. I have to date seen five films by Ousmane Sembène and I think they’re all pretty damn good. It’s not that they’re polished pieces of work, because they’re not – there are no special effects, no studio sets, most of the cast are non-professional, Sembène’s lack of resource as usually there to see on the screen… But they’re so well-presented. Not just as depictions of life in Senegal – in Dakar – at the time of filming, but also as drama and as political statements. Sembène made 13 movies (four of them shorts) and wrote ten novels. I want to see all his films, and have a bash at some of his novels.

Winter Kills, William Richert (1979, USA). This film is allegedly a forgotten classic, and “forgotten” certainly applies to it as I’d never heard of it until I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. And yet it received many positive reviews on its initial release. It also had a troubled production history, and I wonder if that has added to the film’s reputation… because as a straight-up thriller it leaves something to be desired, and as a comedy, black or otherwise, it fails dismally; although it nevertheless manages to mostly entertain. The plot is a thinly-disguised reference to the assassination of JFK. Twenty years after the death of the president, his brother is approached with evidence demonstrating the commonly-accepted narrative is wrong. So he investigates further, and follows a chain of anecdote and interview to… I’m not sure if it’s worth the spoiler. I can’t honestly see what was so good about this film it gained the label “forgotten classic”. The cast are pretty good, true, but the plot stumbles from the obvious to the inane, and its so-called humour falls flat more often than not. Its production history is actually more entertaining – look it up on Wikipedia. The version I watched was the director’s cut, which is not always the best cut. But, to be honest, it’s hard to see how any cut could make this film a classic unless there were thousands more feet of film left on the cutting-room floor. Best avoided.

Not One Less, Zhang Yimou (1999, China). More Chinese cinema, from a well-known Fifth Generation director. The teacher in a countryside village has to leave for family reasons, so a substitute teacher is sent… but she’s thirteen-years-old and hardly qualified. And it shows initially. When one of the boys runs away to the city to earn money to pay off his mother’s debts, she follows him. But he’s not where he’s supposed to be, so she tries to persuade the radio station manager to broadcast a message to him. Instead, a local TV station take up her story and interview her on air – or at least try to, as she clams up from nervousness. But the boy, who’s living on the streets, sees the broadcast, the two are united, and they’re returned to the village with money and school equipment – chalk, basically – by the TV station, who smell a better story. Everyone in the movies is a non-professional actor, and many filled roles they hold in real life. It gave the whole thing a very documentary air, something I especially like about Sixth Generation movies, and I have to wonder if this is one of their touchstone works. Zhang, from the films of his I’ve seen, has had a varied career, but Not One Less so much resembled the sort of Chinese film I really like that I couldn’t help but love it. The cast of mostly children are really good, especially the two leads, and the whole thing is both excellent commentary and excellent drama. Apparently, the Chinese authorities made Zhang change the text at the end which claims one million children drop out of school due to poverty because the real figure – three to five times that – was too embarrassing. The poverty of the schooling actually shown on the screen should be embarrassment enough. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 918


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Moving pictures 2018, #30

Six films, six countries, six languages. And not one of them English. Don’t think I’ve managed that before. And yes, Sebastiane is a British film. But the dialogue is entirely in Vulgar Latin. (On the other hand, there’s some English dialogue in Force Majeure – but the main language is Swedish.)

Sebastiane, Derek Jarman (1976, UK). I’m fairly sure I watched this back in the 1980s, perhaps even when I was at boarding school – although the likelihood of a bunch of fifteen or sixteen year old boys watching a homoerotic film set during Roman times with dialogue entirely in Vulgar Latin seems a bit far-fetched. Maybe I watched it during a school vacation. Or maybe when I was a student. Certainly, some parts of the film as I watched this time were familiar to me. The title refers to Saint Sebastian, who was a member of the Diocletian Guard in fourth-century Rome, and exiled to a remote garrison after trying to prevent the murder of one of the emperor’s catamites during an orgy. The orgy opens the film, and pretty much sets the scene for the rest of it. This is not a movie which makes a secret of who it is aimed at. At the garrison, Sebastiane declares himself a pacifist, and is eventually executed for refusing to fight. There are a lot of male bodies in very little clothing either lying around on a beach or fighting with wooden swords. According to Wikipedia, Sebastiane “was controversial for the homoeroticism portrayed between the soldiers and for being dialogued entirely in Latin”, and while I can see the latter being controversial – as indeed is the misuse of “dialogue” as a verb – the former should really not have been a problem in 1976. True, it would limit the film’s release – to pretty much a handful of cinemas in London, I imagine – but even in 1976 a gay film could hardly be controversial. It’s not like Jarman had built up a reputation for making heteronormative crowd-pleasers – Sebastiane was his first feature film after a number of avant garde shorts, many – if not all – of which had gay content. For all that, Sebastiane is… mostly dull. The opening orgy has its moments, is almost Fellini-esque in parts, but once the title character is exiled, the pace slows to a crawl and it often feels like the film is making more of a meal of its nudity and Latin than it really needs to. Despite that, for a first feature, this is quite a polished work, although the camera-work often impresses more than the acting. The more Jarman I watch, the more I’m glad I bought this box set.

Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund (2014, Sweden). I was lent this film by David Tallerman, although I’m not sure what prompted it as he normally lends me weird Korean or anime films. Not that I’m complaining, I hasten to add. A Swedish family are holidaying in the French Alps. One afternoon, while eating lunch on an outside deck of a restaurant, a controlled avalanche is triggered. But it looks much more severe than it is, throwing up lots of snow, which covers the restaurant deck and causes the diners to panic. The husband runs away, leaving his family to the their fate. And when the, er, snow has settled, he tries to make light of his, um, flight. But his wife is not so forgiving. And the rest of the film charts the disintegration of their marriage. It’s one of those films that isn’t at all funny but is described as  a comedy, a black comedy. As a general rule, even black comedies generate one or two laughs. This one didn’t. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s actually really good. Just not very funny. Worth seeing, though.

L’humanité, Bruno Dumont (1999, France). I’ve yet to figure out what to make of this film. It was… odd. Emmanuel Schotté plays a police inspector in a small town in the north of France. A young girl’s body is discovered – she has been brutally raped and murdered. Schotté’s character seems a bit, well, not all there. Almost child-like at times. He reacts badly to the crime. He also spends time with his friends, who seem to accept him on sufferance, and lives with his mother, who bullies him. He interviews two Brits who were on the Eurostar, which passed the crime scene around the right time, but their testimonies prove completely useless, contradicting each other repeatedly. Eventually the crime is solved, but it’s not Schotté’s character who does it. L’humanité is essentially a crime narrative, and sort of the follows the forms, in as much as it features a crime, an investigation, and a resolution. And it mostly follows the unspoken rules of the form, as the killer proves to be a known member of the cast. But the nearest I can get to the way it treats its protagonist, Schotté, is that subgenre of crime novels which feature long angsty paragraphs focusing on the mess the protagonist detective is making of his or her life – although not quite as dourly as in Nordic noir. Scottish noir, perhaps? But the French version of it. Pascale Garnier, maybe? I’m not that well-read in the genre. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

Cruelty, Anton Sigurdsson (2016, Iceland). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and thought it worth a go. I’ve now seen four Icelandic films, and I have to ask: do they ever make happy films? Because the Icelandic title of this movie is Grimmd, and that’s pretty close to the English word which best describes it. Two young girls are found murdered in a wood. A female detective is put on the case. Her boss teams her with an ex-partner against her wishes. The detective focuses on a man she arrested for sex offences years before but never managed to prove her case against him. Registered sex offenders are pulled in, and her partner bullies a confession out of one of them. But that quickly falls apart. It turns out the detective’s brother is a sex offender, but he has been rehabilitated – but this crime results in someone digging up his past. And so his co-workers near beat him to death. Did I mention this was not a cheerful film? I have to wonder if the Icelanders are capable of making cheerful films. And yet it’s a lovely country and the people are extremely friendly. But I have yet to find an Icelandic comedy. If you like Nordic noir, then Cruelty, AKA Grimmd, is a good example; others may find its appeal limited.

Ceddo*, Ousmane Sembène (1977, Senegal). This is one of two films by Sembène on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he is the only representative of his country, Senegal. The other film is Moolaadé (see here). Moolaadé was given a UK DVD release by Artificial Eye in 2004. It’s since been deleted, but copies can still be found. But Ceddo never was, and copies are really hard to find. (For the record, Sembène’s only other film available on sell-through in the UK is Black Girl, released in a dual format edition by the BFI in 2015.) But, Ceddo… The film is set around the time Westerners discovered the tribes of Senegal. And so too has Islam. The traditional monarchy in under threat on two fronts – the local imam wants to convert everyone to Islam, and the white traders are happy to accept anything that doesn’t disrupt their trade in slaves. The common people – the “ceddo” – kidnap the king’s daughter in order to force him to reject both the Muslims and the whites. But the king sides with the Muslims, and various attempts are made to “rescue” the princess. This is not a film that presents a nuanced picture of white/Islamic colonialism, and that’s fair enough as there’s little that’s nuanced about it. A traditional way of life was destroyed in the name of religion and/or commerce. The film is very declamatory, which is a style that appeals to me, with the opening scenes consisting of cast-members appealing to the king for judgement in various matters. The film also looks like nothing you might have seen before – unless you’ve watched other films by Sembène – and if not, why not? – or perhaps a film like Yeelen – and is a fascinating depiction of what I suspect is now a long lost way of life. This is my fourth Sembène film and they really are very good. Given that Ceddo is an historical film, it doesn’t have the punch of Moolaadé, which is set in the present-day. You should still watch both, however.

The Village of No Return, Chen Yu-hsun (2017, Taiwan). It looks like a Taiwanese distributor has gone and dumped a load of films on Amazon Prime, Not that I’m complaining. Admittedly, I watched this because it starred Shu Qi, one of my favourite Chinese actresses, although I’ve not seen her in anything for a while. At some point in China’s past, a village survived by collaborating with a local troop of bandits. But the local warlord needed the village under his control before making a play for the throne. So he sends an agent provocateur in to blow up a few houses, etc. Except the plan goes wrong from the start. He is accidentally poisoned by his wife (Shu Qi), who is kept chained up and had planned to commit suicide – but she couldn’t do it, and he innocently ate the poisoned sandwich. And then a con man poles up to the village with a machine that allows him to selectively edit people’s memories. And after a couple of demonstrations, he uses it to seize control of the village and convince everyone he has always been the chief. But then Shu Qi’s boyfriend, who had joined the bandits, returns and everything falls apart. This film was amusing, if somewhat confusingly plotted. The memory device was presented well, with memories displayed like they were silent films. I don’t think the title is especially accurate, but The Village of No Return is a lot fun.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 912


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Moving pictures 2017, #27

Not sure what to make of this batch of films – I thought them all well worth seeing, and a pretty good illustration why varying the films you watch is a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of excellent films because I no longer immediately turn to Hollywood for something to watch of a night. In fact, so far this year, less than a quarter of the movies I’ve watched have been from the US – but I still have a way to go before the percentage of all of the films I’ve watched (since I started recording them back in 2001) that are from the US drops below 50 percent… Admittedly, it’s currently at 52 percent, so not there’s not that far to go… But I’ve seen a lot of films, so it’s taking a while to get those last few points down…

Journey to Agartha, Makoto Shinkai (2011, Japan). This was the second Shinkai film lent to me by David Tallerman – on Blu-ray this time. He thought I might not enjoy it as much as other Shinkai films as it’s clearly fantastical. But… I’m not dead-set against fantasy, I just like it to be used interestingly. And, to be fair, the whole Agartha mythology is something that’s fascinated me for a number of years. True, Journey to Agartha goes off on some wild tangent pretty much totally unconnected with the mythology, but I knew where it was starting from, which is a bonus. A teenage girl, Asuna, spends much of her free time hanging out at a hideout she has discovered on a hill, tuning into strange music with a crystal radio set. Returning home from one such session, she is attacked by a weird-looking creature, like a cross between a bear and a dinosaur. She’s saved by a mysterious young man, who seems to have magical powers. The young man says he is from Agartha, a name Asuna hears a few days later in something read out in class by a substitute teacher. Anyway, Agartha is a mythical realm on the inside of the earth (hollow earth and all that). Asuna finds another mysterious young man at her hideout, also from Agartha. They’re attacked by men in paramilitary uniform, there’s a fight… and Asuna ends up entering Agartha with the substitute teacher, who, it transpires, wants to bring his wife back from the land of the dead (which, to be fair, confuses hollow earth mythology with the underworld, not mention chucking in elements of the Orpheus myth… but it works, so what the hell). It’s certainly true this film is fantastical, in much the same way as Spirited Away is, but I much preferred it to the Studio Ghibli movie. The world of Agartha was presented really well, and while the story may be a little confused in places (a lot happens), the animation is lovely and the production design inventive. Recommended.

Born to be Bad, Lowell Sherman (1934, USA). My mother lent me a boxed set of Cary Grant films, some of which I’d  not seen before. This was one of them. It’s a pre-code film from 1934, in which Loretta Young is actually the star… although a Loretta Young box set is unlikely to ever happen, whereas there are already plenty of Cary Grant box sets… Young plays a single mother, with a son she has left to do pretty much as he pleases. Until he gets hit by a milk truck. Driven by Grant. Who turns out to be the wealthy president of Amalgamated Dairies. Young is persuaded to try and sue Grant by exagerrating the extent of her son’s injuries (he was shaken and bruised), but in court Grant’s lawyers demolish Young’s case. The boy is put in a home. Grant offers to adopt him. The adoption goes ahead, and the kid thrives in his new wealthy home. But Young doesn’t like the arrangement and seduces Grant in order to break up his marriage. It doesn’t work. Realising she’s done him wrong, Young returns to her meagre life. This wasn’t bad (no pun intended), to be honest. Young plays a good part, and her character is a strong female protagonist. It’s not that the film is feminist, but it’s a damn sight closer than most films of that decade… or indeed the following two or three decades. It’s an early Grant film (well, his sixteenth… of seventy-six), so he’s bouncy rather than urbane… which doesn’t quite work here. But Young carries the film – and yes, her kid is an annoying brat. Worth seeing.

Do the Right Thing*, Spike Lee (1989, USA). Lee has a couple of films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he’s clearly an important film-maker in US cinema – although the fact it took until the 1980s for someone like him to appear doesn’t speak too well. He documents the black lived experience in the US – although more so, I thought, in She’s Gotta Have It than in this one. Do the Right Thing is set in a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and centres around a pizzeria owned by an Italian-American family. There are racial tensions between the pizzeria family – one son is outright racist, the father and other son are not, but the father is protective of his heritage to a degree that upsets some 0f his customers. The film focuses on a handful of characters, none of which are especially sympathetic, and then shows the events leading up to a night of violence, during which the pizzeria is trashed and the police kill one of the protestors – and, of course, the police get away with it. Do the Right Thing is a hugely more polished film than She’s Gotta Have It and, obviously, much more political. It boasts a professional cast, and while none are stars, one or two went on to become quite big. It also feels curiously small scale – it’s set in a single neighbourhood, but there never seems to be as many people around as you’d expect. So how the pizzeria manages to stay in business is a bit of a mystery. Do the Right Thing belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although it’s one of the more middling films which actually deserve a place on it.

Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène (1966, Senegal). Diouana is hired as a nursemaid by a French family living in Dakar. She looks after the family’s kids, takes them to school, makes sure they’re fed, etc. When the family return to France, they ask Diouana to go with them, and she accepts. She assumes her duties will be the same, but back home in France, the family are not affluent enough to afford more than one servant – so Diouana has to do everything. She quickly realises she is only there because a black housekeeper is something to show off. She’s over-worked, under-paid, and given little or no freedom. The film is played very simply, with straight shots and a voice-over narration by Diouanna. It’s structured as Diouanna’s life in France intercut with flashbacks which explain how she came to be there, and it’s pretty harrowing stuff. That Diouanna was desperate for a job to support her family is made clear, but the fact the French family totally take advantage of her – and this is why we needed film-makers like Sembène – is documented, and occasionally editorialised by Diouana, with an honesty you won’t find in French films of the time. The ending is shocking, and sadly inevitable. The callousness of the French family is astonishing, as is their patronising racism. It’s a shame there are not more films by Sembène available – or indeed by any director from an African nation. Did you know, for example, that the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is the third largest in the world, second only to Bollywood and Hollywood? How many Nollywood films are routinely given English-language releases on sell-through? The Figurine: Araromire by Kunli Afolayan is considered a major film from Nigeria, but despite being only eight years old it’s never been made available in the UK (or the US, as far as I can discover). Non-Anglophone cinema (I’ve never liked the term “world cinema”) should not just be the province of dedicated cineastes, it should be on equal terms with Anglophone cinema.

Kamikaze Girls, Tetsuya Nakashima (2004, Japan). Once again, I texted David Tallerman and asked him, “WTF am I watching?” He suggested I stick with the film, and, to be fair, it was a good call. Every now and again we meet up and swap the titles of films we think good, and David borrows my phone and adds a bunch of movies I’ve never heard of to my rental lists using the LoveFilm app. I return the favour, of course – earlier tonight, as I write this, he asked me if the Chadian film A Screaming Man was one of my recommendations and admitted it was very good. (Yes, it was one of mine.) Having said that, David’s taste in films is a little… stranger than my own. Kamikaze Girls is something I’d never have watched unless prompted, and I’d have missed out on what is actually a pretty good movie. The title refers to two high school girls, a Lolita and a biker girl, who become unlikely friends. There’s a very cartoony style to the cinematography and it works really well – it’s sort of a toned-down version of Japanese television shows, the ones with the flashing graphics and pop-up kanji/kana. There’s not much to the plot – it’s bit like Cinderella, a bit like West Side Story. It’s also a huge amount of fun, and even the Jamie Hewlett-style animation sequence in the middle works pretty good (it’s also a much better film than Tank Girl). Definitely worth seeing.

Mother Joan of the Angels, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1961, Poland). Polish historical drama is starting to feel a bit like a specific genre, given I’ve now seen a number of them. But I could also say the same for 1970s Polish dramas, which I love – although to be fair the Poles do historical drama really well, I’m just not so keen on it as a genre. The title of this film refers to an abbess who is supposedly possessed by the devil. A priest is sent to investigate, and what he witnesses seems to validate what has been said about the convent. To be honest, I don’t get this demonisation (literally) of female sexuality, or indeed of women in general. I mean, it’s not like the title character was really possessed by a demon. It’s a metaphor, obviously. Although played literally in the film. But women weren’t burnt at the stake, or drowned, or whatever barabaric execution method men of the time thought appropriate, because their bodies had been actually taken over by imaginary creatures. Organised religion is, after all, ninety percent politics (and a great proportion of that must be sexual politics).  Mother Joan of Angels is effectively staged and shot in black and white. It’s like Ken Russell’s The Devils, but without the excess. Or not so much excess, anyway. In other words, the possessed nuns keep their habits on. And the protagonist is an everyman, rather than some sort of melodramatic hero. Now, I think The Devils is an excellent film, and probably Russell’s best – but it’s good because it’s excessive. Mother Joan of the Angels covers similar ground, but with a stark aesthetic that works just as well. There’s also a level of fatalism and black humour to Kawalerowicz’s film that Russell’s lacks; but then the British have always been piss-poor at fatalism and a bit hit-and-miss at black humour (but we are masters of self-deprecating humour, an entirely useless, and not espeically marketable, talent). A Polish film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and that is the joke. A British film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and then add jokes. Um, on reflection, I’m not sure the former is unique to Polish films, as I’ve seen something similar in Romanian films. And others can no doubt name other nations where it applies. But. The Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema volumes 1, 2 and 3 box sets were not cheap purchases, but they were totally worth buying. With these and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (wich includes a wonderful restoration of A River Called Titas!), I now think much more highly Scorsese than I ever did after watching his movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 864


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Best of the year 2011

I was going to leave this until January, but everyone else is doing them now. And, let’s face it, there’s only a handful of days left until the end of the year and they’ll be filled with various consumerist festivities. So…

Books
As of 15 December, I had read 156 books in 2011, which I suspect will mean a total on 31 December of slightly less than last year’s 178 books. But then I probably wrote more this year than I did in 2010. Of my reading, 4% were anthologies, and 12% non-fiction… which means of the remainder that 28% were books by women writers and 56% by male writers. I still need to work on that. Genre-wise, 44% was science fiction, 16% was mainstream, 8% was fantasy, and 16% were graphic novels.

Of those 156 books, I have picked six which were, for me, the best I read during the twelve months. They are:


Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), should come as little surprise as I raved about when I read it back in April. Initially a Crowlesque fantasy, it takes a peculiar turn halfway through which makes it something weird and wonderful all of its own.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), is another work by an author who continues to astonish me with each novel of his I read. This one has the most beautifully-handled non-linear narrative I’ve come across in fiction, not to mention one of the best-drawn female protagonists in science fiction. I honestly don’t know if this book is better than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe or merely just as excellent. I wrote about it here.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), suffers under a somewhat forced title, but who cares. Because it contains loads of photographs of amazing Modernist buildings from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Not all of the buildings still exist, and many of them have weathered the years badly. But there they are, captured in all their glory in this book.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), was published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and of all the books published at that time this one is perhaps the best-looking. Chaikin went through the many thousands of photographs take by, and of, the Apollo astronauts, and picked out ones that had rarely been seen before. And then he married those photographs with the words of the astronauts themselves – taken from interviews, transcriptions, etc.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), was a book I read under a misapprehension. Though it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction, many complained it was partly fictional – inasmuch as it told its story using a cast of real and invented people in a threaded narrative. However, I’d mistakenly understood that Red Plenty not only covered the years of the Soviet Union’s existence but also extrapolated it into an alternate present in which the Soviet system had succeeded. That would the be the “sf” part of the BSFA Award, you see. Not so. But never mind, I still loved it.

Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011), I pre-ordered because I’d thought Gilman’s 1998 novel, Halfway Human, very good, and because a write-up of the plot sounded as though it would appeal. And so it did. A fantasy, but not in the traditional epic/heroic mould. I wrote about it here.

Honorable Mentions:
There are a number of these this year, more so than usual. First, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Infidel, a very strong debut with some very interesting elements, and some that didn’t quite work for me (see here and here). Eric Brown’s Wellsian The Kings of Eternity is his strongest work for a number of years, and he deserves to be read more than he is. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is an excellent anthology that does exactly what it says on the tin and introduced me to several authors I’m determined to read more (see here and here). Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge (see here) and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (see here) were the best two novels from my challenge to read twelve books during the year by female science fiction writers. Stretto was an excellent end to L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, and Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer managed to make fascinating a topic in which I have zero interest, John F Kennedy’s presidency. Finally, a pair of rereads are worthy of mentions: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Films
By 15 December, I had watched 183 films. That’s including seasons of television series watched on DVD. Twenty-seven of them I reviewed for VideoVista.net and The Zone. Only one I saw at the cinema: Apollo 18. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction film or television, though I will happily watch them. This may well explain my choices for my top six of the year:


Moolaadé, Ousmane Sembène (2004), is Senegalese director Sembène’s ninth feature-length film, and the first one by him I’ve seen. It is set in a small village in Burkina Faso, and revolves around the refusal of three girls to undergo the traditional female genital mutilation. They are protected by the wife of one of the village’s important men, who herself refused to let her own daughter undergo the same disgusting procedure. This leads to a revolt by the village’s womenfolk, but it ends badly.

Mammoth, Lukas Moodysson (2009). I very much liked Moodysson’s earlier films Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål), Together (Tillsammans) and Lilya 4-Ever, but thought the experimental Container was pretty much unwatchable. Mammoth, however, is not only a welcome return to form, it is a superb indictment of the West’s exploitation of the East. Judging by some of the comments the film has generated, I may the only person to see it in that light. Ah well. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good in the male lead role – and that’s in a cast that is uniformly excellent.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is a Norwegian spoof. The title may have been a bit of a giveaway there. It posits an alternate 1980s in which Norwegian traitor Arne Treholt was not a spy for the Soviets but the head of a secret royal force of ninjas. As a spoof of late 1970s / early 1980s action films, Norwegian Ninja is pitch-perfect, but it is its use of real-life footage, and the way it neatly twists real history, that turns it in to a work of genius. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), was not a film I expected to appeal to me: a noir-ish thriller set among the hillbillies of the Ozarks. I not only enjoyed it, I thought it very very good indeed. It takes place in a world peopled by some of the scariest people I’ve seen depicted on celluloid. And they’re not scary because they’re psychopaths or sociopaths, they’re scary because they need to be to survive in that culture.

Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), was recommended to me, and it was a good call. A black comedy following the fortunes of a pair of rogues during WWII in Belgrade and the years after under Tito. One rises high in the post-war government, while the other remains hidden in his cellar, convinced the war is still going.

The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), is the most recent film by a favourite director, so its appearance here should not be a surprise. It’s perhaps less comic than Divine Intervention, but neither does go all bizarre and surreal towards the end. A series of autobiographical vignettes, it builds a narrative of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. Some parts of it are a delight.

Honorable Mentions:
No science fiction films, I’m afraid. Instead: Israeli thriller, Ajami, set in the titular district of Jaffa; The Wedding Song, which is set during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia in World War II and follows the friendship of two female friends, one Jewish and one Arabic; the BBC’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from 1984, starring Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay, and the best of the Bard’s plays I watched during the year; The Secret in their Eyes, a clever thriller from Argentina, which beat Ajami to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2010; and finally, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever watched.

Albums
I didn’t think 2011 was shaping up to be a good year for music, but that all changed during the second half of the year. I think that might have happened in previous years too. I bought a reasonable number of new albums and old albums. The best of those are:

Harvest, The Man-Eating Tree (2011), is the band’s second album, and it’s a more commercial and slightly heavier-sounding offering. And Tuomas Tuominen still has one of the best and most distinctive voices in metal. I suspect The Man-Eating Tree are going to be the new Sentenced. Certainly when you think of Finnish metal, it’s The Man-Eating Tree you should be thinking of,  and not Lordi.

The Death of a Rose, Fornost Arnor (2011), is this UK band’s second album and, like their first, was also self-released. Some have said it’s the album Opeth should have made this year. Certainly it borrows the Swedes’ trademark mix of crunching yet intricate death metal and accomplished acoustic parts. It’s very much an album to lose yourself in, and I’m already looking forward to the band’s next offering.

Weaver of Forgotten, Dark Lunacy (2010), was annoyingly expensive as it was also self-released. But in Italy. (And I see now it’s much cheaper. Gah.) It is… epic. There’s no other word for it. It’s melodic death metal, but of a sort to fill vast spaces. I thought Dark Lunacy’s previous album, The Diarist, was excellent, but Weaver of Forgotten is an order of magnitude better.

Brahmavidya : Immortal I, Rudra (2011), is the third of a trilogy of albums, including Brahmavidya : Primordial I and Brahmavidya : Trascendental I. The band are from Singapore, but sing in – I believe – Sanskrit as well as English. It’s three blokes making death metal, but singing about their mythology. Rudra were one of this year’s discoveries, and I now have the T-shirt.

One for Sorrow, Insomnium (2011). Apparently, the only people who don’t like Insomnium are those who’ve never heard them. Each album finds them more polished and technically accomplished than the last, and it continues to astonish me they’re not better known. Insomnium are the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom metal.

The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is one of those albums that blows you away with the first track… but then can never quite scale those heights again. Opener ‘One Door’ is a blinding song, and if the rest can’t compare, that doesn’t mean they’re not good. This is a proggier effort than the band’s first album, and it’s the better for it. Chaos Divine is a band you can tell will improve with each new album.

Honorable Mentions:
I’m sorry, I have to do it: Heritage. I’m giving Opeth’s latest album an honourable mention because, though it took numerous listens before it grew on me, it does contains flashes of brilliance. It’s totally prog, of course, with nary a growl to be heard, and that has to be disappointing… but as a warped vision of old school prog, Heritage is worth its mention. However, Of Death by Byfrost, The Light In Which We All Burn by Laethora and Psychogenocide by Nervecell all get mentions because they’re good albums which are very much in keeping with their bands’ sounds. Byfrost I first heard at Bloodstock, and I enjoyed their set so much I wanted the album. Nervecell are from Dubai and, while I was aware of them before, I saw them this year supporting Morbid Angel and they were excellent. Laethora is just Laethora. Finally, Sowberry Hagan by Ultraphallus deserves a special honourable mention for being a fraction away from sheer noise, yet still remaining powerful and heavy and an excellent listen.