Perhaps, at a time when it’s easy to turn to things that comfort, we should be looking outside our comfort zone. They say the sales of “bucket list” books are up. So… for films, turn off that Hollywood blockbuster. For TV, put down from that box-set you’ve binged on half a dozen times before already. Try something new.
The following films are not new to me, and one or two may not be new to many people. They are, as of the end of March 2020, my ten favourite films. (The list changes often, but this is what is is now.) The movies appeal to me for a number of different reasons, but the one thing they all have in common is that I can watch them – and have watched them – many times. I love every frame of them, in some cases with a passion that borders on mania. Those that are adapted from books, I have hunted down copies of the books and read them. Those that have been novelised, I have read the novelisation. Neither diminished the appeal of the films.
The films are…
All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). This one should come as no surprise to people who know me. A 1950s melodrama by a master of the form, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and based on a novel by mother and son Edna and Harry Lee. The film looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, but is also a razor-sharp skewering of US social classes.
A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). Based on a novel, which is actually more of a collection, by Adwaita Mallabarman, which documents the lives of the villagers who live on the banks of the titular river, and its tributaries, and from which background Mallabarman came. Ghatak was a singular talent and made a handful of remarkable films, but this one is world-class, a harrowing tale about a man who loses his wife, as well as a perfect ethnographic documentary of a lost way of life.
Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). The amount of money spent on this is legendary – the set was so large it was dubbed “Tativille”. But every centime spent is visible there on-screen. The humour is pure Tati, although perhaps less inventive than in other films, but the commitment to the world Tati built for the movie is astonishing.
Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). Cuba has one of the great forgotten cinemas. It has produced a number of world-class movies for more than half a century, and among those films Solás is a name to be reckoned. Lucía, like many Cuban films, is an exploration of the country’s history, through the lives of three women living in three different periods. It is its treatment of its material that is especially impressive. But watch more Cuban cinema, it is excellent.
The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia). If I have a favourite director, which I do, it is Aleksandr Sokurov. He makes both documentaries and narrative films, and the rigour of his work is astonishing. He is also not afraid to experiment with cinematic techniques, and many of his films use the presentation of the story as commentary on the story. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favourite Sokurov film, but the simplicity of this one has always appealed to me.
Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films post-L’Avventura and his new approach to cinema. But it is only in Red Desert that it really comes into its own. This is motion picture as art. It’s too long to be a video installation, but my love of this film is one of the reasons I love video installations. It is not just a new form ofe cinematic narrative, it is a new cinematic narrative language.
Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I was too young to see this film in the cinema when it was released, but I had already fallen in love with it because of its production design. And I still love it for that reason. It also has one of the most basic plots on the planet, and manages to present it flawlessly. If it has faults, they are a result of the state of the cinematic art in 1979. Alien kept its story simple and succeeded precisely because of that. None of its sequels have matched it.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I’m not a huge fan of Nolan’s films. Interstellar struck me as two movies badly welded together, neither of which made much sense. Inception felt like it thought it was cleverer than it actually was. So when I first watched Dunkirk, I was surprised by how much it appealed to me. It’s totally immersive, and yet entirely plotless. It’s far too emotional to be a documentary, yet it has a documentary’s authenticity.
Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). As mentioned earlier, this list has changed many times over the years, and Dunkirk and these last two films are all recent additions, watched for the first time in 2018. In Girls Lost – Pojkarna, The Boys, in Swedish – three teenage girls who are being bullied at school drink a potion and turn temporarily into boys of the same age. There are numerous Disney films with a similar precis, but Girls Lost certainly does not play its conceit for laughs. Despite that precis, its story feels completely believable.
War and Peace, parts 1 to 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, USSR). There is no good version of these four films in existence, despite its stature, its technical accomplishments, its expense, its sheer sweep and grandeur. The original 70 mm prints were left to rot, and only a 35 mm print, filmed in parallel and adapted for television broadcast, survives. Which makes watching it an odd experience, due to weird flips between dubbing and subtitling, not to mention French and German not being translated at all. But the film series truly is epic and deserves all its accolades. There is supposedly a fully-restored version from a recently-found print released by Criterion, but the only one currently available from them is a previous version.
I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.
Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.
1Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.
2Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.
3The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.
4As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.
5The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.
Honourable mentions:Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.
1Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.
2The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.
3Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.
4Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.
5Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.
Honourable mentions:War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.
However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.
1Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.
3Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.
4In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.
5Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.
Honourable mentions:Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.
I admit it: film posts are easy content. More so, as it’s easy to watch a wide variety of movies. So why the fuck don’t more people do it? They watch the same old Hollywood shit, and yet there’s an entire world’s worth of cinema out there to explore and it’s not at all difficult to find it. Amazon Prime even makes some of it available for free, and that’s over and above what publishers release on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK, or what TV channels broadcast, Scandi-noir or otherwise…
Of the five films below, only one was a rental, and only one was a purchase. The others were streamed. I am not, I must admit, a huge fan of streaming, if only because the available films are limited, or, for the more obscure films, it costs over and above for curated lists of movies. It’s the old argument: I buy a DVD for £10 and watch it twenty times; or I stream a film at £2 a view… And while it’s unlikely I’ll watch a film six times, although it has happened, at least I’ll know it’s always available, which is not something that can be guaranteed for streamed films. And for some streaming services, like mubi, it’s even a feature: you only get access to a movie for 30 days.
Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but I prefer the idea of controlling my own access to culture. True, when I buy a cinema ticket, it’s only good for one showing; true, when I pay to enter a museum, the ticket is only good for one visit. But we have sell-through for films, and books for literature… and both forms allow me unlimited repeated access to art I enjoy… and while that may not be particularly good for the creator, it is clearly less good for the publisher… who would like to charge for every single view because it maximises their revenue…
But I’ve drifted from the point. Here are five films I enjoyed. Some I’d like to see again. And can. Others I can’t… without paying for the privilege – and I have certainly done that: bought a DVD or Blu-ray of a film after watching a rental or streamed film, because I wanted a copy of my own.
Adelheid, František Vláčil (1970, Czechia). I really should write these posts shortly after watching the films. Especially since I have a bad habit of not focusing one hundred percent on the movies I’m watching. I’ve usually got my laptop on my, er, lap, and I’m writing a Moving pictures post from a couple of weeks previously… Oh the irony. So I don’t really need to explain that while I watched Adelheid and I enjoyed Adelheid, looking at the plot summary on Wikipedia I’m coming up blank. It doesn’t help that my memories of it are getting confused with Ucho. This is a film I clearly need to watch again… and I would stick it back on my rental list, except that’s not going to be a thing I can do after March… Oh well. I remember the movie being good, which is about all I remember, and I do like Vláčil’s films, so it’s definitely worth another go.
‘71, Yann Demane (2014, UK). This had been sitting on my watchlist on Amazon Prime for months, but I’d never felt in the mood to watch it, until, one night, it occurred to me I’d best get my watchlist trimmed down before I left the UK. At which point I discovered that ’71 is actually a pretty good film. It depicts the British Army in Belfast in the year of the title, and a young soldier gets cut off from his platoon after an ill-advised, and ill-managed, mission to assist the RUC search some houses. The army’s Military Reaction Force, an undercover unit who were no better than the terrorists they were supposed to take down, provide a bomb for Unionists to place in a Catholic pub, but it explodes prematurely… and is mistakenly believed to be an IRA attack. But the soldier on the loose knows the truth. The film did a really good job of setting time and place… except for the scenes that were clearly filmed in Sheffield’s Hyde Park flats. It pretty much blows it when a film set in one city is obviously filmed on location in your home town. The movie also demonstrated that even in 1971, the army was as shambolic as it was in 1941. Not a popular opinion given the death-toll, on all sides, caused by the Troubles; but the days of blindly supporting your country because it’s your country should be long over– Ah fuck, what am I saying? Brexit. It’s brought all that brainless shit back again. But so few people seem to have a built-in moral compass, or they let something else, like religion, overrule it. And let’s face it, those things that overrule it, they swing one way then the next on a weekly basis. All of which is by the bye. ’71 does a very good job of showing that both sides in the Troubles were complete bastards, although the RUC were clearly the worst. The film makes an excellent fist – Hyde Park notwithstanding – of setting time and place, and the performances are good. Worth seeing.
War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). I have a huge amount of respect for this film – or rather, all four films – and yet the only version we have available to us now is a terrible copy of the original. It’s a crying shame. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is a towering cinematic achievement, and the best adaptation of the novel too, but all we have is the 35mm print chopped down from the original 70mm, and a few scenes from the television version which were left out of the 35mm edit and subsequently re-inserted. With subtitles, rather than dubbing. But the dubbing is a bit erratic in the edition I watched anyway, with the Russian dubbed into English, but not the French or German (and no subtitles for those languages, either). I would actually prefer subtitles throughout – films should be shown in their original language, with subtitles (the Italian film industry’s penchant for featuring non-Italian actors, typically English- or German-speaking, and dubbing them into Italian notwithstanding). There’s not much to say about the plot of War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov as it consists of little more than the subtitle character wandering around a warzone and towns that have been all but destroyed by the fighting. It’s all physical effects, of course – no CGI back in the mid-1960s. And that’s one thing that has been impressive throughout all four of these movies: the scale of the effects. A Napoleonic battle, with real soldiers. Actual nineteenth-century palaces. A cast of tens of thousands. And behind it all, a showcase of technical innovation, and a genuine work of literature providing the story. (Note to self: reread War and Peace one of these days.) Bondarchuk’s War and Peace would be absolutely brilliant, if we had the original print. Sadly, we don’t. But what we do have is enough to hint how good it was.
Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). South American directors get little press in the Anglophone world, and female South American directors even less… and yet there are some excellent ones. Not just Martel, but also Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo. But of the three, Martel definitely has the highest profile at present. Llosa has not produced anything since 2014, and Puenzo since 2013 – which suggests it’s more about what’s available, which is criminal. While all three are South American – Llosa is Peruvian, the other two are Argentine – and they share a similar elliptical approach to storytelling, the stories they’ve chosen to tell are very different. Some are historical, some are contemporary. Most are stories about women. Zama is unusual, insasmuch as the title character is male. It is also adapted from a major work of Argentine literature, a 1956 novel of the same title by Antonio de Benedetto. Zama is a Spanish corregidor in late 1700s Paraguay, separated from his wife and children by the Atlantic, and desperate to return home. But his entreaties fall on deaf ears, and the decline of his mental state is reflected in the decline of his career, or vice versa. It’s beautifully shot – it looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray – and there’s something ineluctably South American about it all… so much so, that the film it put me in mind of most was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s biopic, The Dance of Reality (which is set more than 100 years later and in a different country on the same continent, but never mind). Martel, like Llosa and Puenzo, has an enviably varied oeuvre, but all three also have an enviably excellent oeuvre. Seek their films out, you will not be disappointed. And Zama is hot right now, so easy to find. Watch it.
A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper (2018, USA). Hollywood and the US film establishment, which is very much in Hollywood’s pocket, seems to love this film so much it has been made three times before – in 1937, 1954 and 1976 – although the 1954 one, with Judy Garland and James Mason, is generally reckoned the best of the three. Er, make that the best of the four. One thing you can say of A Star is Born is that it’s very much a movie of the time it is made… except when it isn’t. Because, seriously, Bradley Cooper’s rock-god character, and the music he plays, well, that hasn’t been a thing since the 1970s. Just watch a documentary about The Eagles, or any other big US band of the time. They played it then. No one plays it now. The last time Jackson Browne toured new material and filled an auditorium, Reagan was president. And Lady Gaga, who does well in her first major role, starts out like Linda Ronstadt before going all, well, Lady Gaga, at the behest of her record label, who think she will be more successful. Well, yes, playing twenty-first century music in the twenty-first century is more likely to be successful than playing 1970s music. The entire tribute band industry, er, notwithstanding. Anyway, Cooper is a rock god on the slide, drinks way too much, and, desperate for alcohol, stops off in a drag bar – nice call out to drag culture, but a bit off-the-wall, tbh (although check out the number of drag clubs that appeared in 1980s action movies) – and sees Lady Gaga, a faux queen, perform, and is smitten. Where to start with the disentanglement? The assumption that Gaga’s character is clearly cisgender to the drag club audience? That she shines in comparison to drag acts? That her career is so in the toilet she can only appear as a faux queen? Anyway, Cooper and Gaga hook up, and she plays him her material and he likes it and she even performs it onstage during his tour… But it’s all straight-up 1970s rock, and that’s not 2018, so it all seems weirdly alternate universe. But then Gaga’s record company moulds her into a twenty-first century pop artist like, well, Lady Gaga, and though it seems more believable as a career path, it doesn’t as a musical path from the material she’d performed earlier. None of which is to say the film is not entertaining. It is. Cooper does grizzled rock god to a tee, and Gaga is hugely likeable in her first major role (and I say that as someone who knows fuck all about her musical career). The movie looks good and the concert sequences are pretty convincing. It’s all very much a Bradly Cooper vehicle, but that’s hardly unexpected. And given the story, the story’s pedigree, and Cooper’s role in the project, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognition was hardly unexpected, if disappointingly predictable. I’ve always had a soft spot for movies about rock stars or rock groups, and A Star is Born ticks all the necessary boxes. But it still feels as artificial as its earlier incarnations – epitomised by the insertion of the long “Born in a trunk” musical number in the 1954 version, added by star Garland after director Cukor had left the production, and the fact the best copy of the 1954 movie currently available has stills and recorded dialogue to cover parts of the story that didn’t make the original theatrical cut but are now considered necessary to understanding the film’s plot… The reputation of the 1976 remake by Frank Pierson has not aged well – I’ve not seen it for many years, so I’ve no idea if the film itself has weathered the decades. I mean, Kris Kristofferson, okay, maybe; but Barba Streisand? I should try to watch it – suitably reinforced, of course. But it would not surprise me if, forty years from now, Bradly Cooper’s A Star is Born enjoys a similar reputation to Frank Pierson’s.
1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933
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 1The 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.
2The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK) . 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.
3The Rift, Nina Allan (2018, UK) . 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.
4Spring 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.
51610: 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)  [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)  [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 1The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska 2015, Poland)  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.
2Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK)  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.
3Girls 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.
4Shirley: 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.
5Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway)  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)  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)  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.
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.
1No 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.
2Slow 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.
I’m working my way through the backlog of these. And it’s time to start thinking about what films to pick for my best of the year – and o god, I’ve watched so many films this year…
First Man, Damien Chazelle (2018, USA). Well, I couldn’t not see this, could I? Back in 2009, for the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I read the (auto-)biographies of the three crew: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Collins’s Carrying the Fire is probably the best of astronaut auto-biographies. Aldrin has written a number of books but his first, Return to Earth, is remarkably frank. Armstrong, however, never wrote about himself, and it is the (official) biography of him by James R Hansen from which Chazelle’s movie was adapted. (For that fortieth anniversary, I also wrote a flash fiction piece, ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, about an invented Apollo mission… and from which the Apollo Quartet grew.) Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on an alien world, but he was only the point man in a remarkable achievement which employed tens of thousands of people, cost billions of dollars and took several decades. In all other respects, he was a pretty dull chap. Which presents a problem for a commercial Hollywood movie. It’s one thing reading about a boring man who achieved something remarkable in a dry biography – the book is going to appeal to a particular audience. But a Hollywood film has to appeal much more widely. Chazelle tries hard to make Armstrong interesting, but he is only as interesting as things he does. Which means opening First Man with one of Armstrong’s flights in the X-15, and making the whole thing come across as something that was forever seconds away from disaster. Yes, it was dangerous, and several pilots died. But Armstrong was notoriously cool. To increase the sense of the jeopardy, Chazelle takes a leaf out of Christopher Nolan’s book and ups the ambient sounds to ear-splitting levels. It worked superbly in Dunkirk, and it does work quite well here. But the characterisation of Armstrong doesn’t tally with the source material, and the tacked-on human drama feels like it diminishes the achievements of the Apollo programme. The Moon landings are an excellent subject for a blockbuster movie; Neil Armstrong as a person is not. First Man does some things really well – it’s very… visceral in places, but lacks the sheer presence of Dunkirk – but ultimately I was disappointed.
Jab We Met, Imtiaz Ali (2007, India). A young man walks away from his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to another man, leaves all his worldly possessions behind and wanders off… eventually finding himself at the railway station, where he jumps on the first train to… wherever. He ends up sharing a sleeper with a garrulous young woman from the Punjab, on her way home to see family. She prevents him from throwing himself from the train to his death. At the next stop, he disembarks, but she is worried about him and follows. And misses the train. So they catch a taxi to the next stop. But they miss it a second time. And so it goes. The scenes showing the taxi hurtling along the roads, or the train hurtling along the tracks, are sort of stylised model shots, like something out of Gerry Anderson by way of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. Which is odd – but works well. The female lead, Kareena Kapoor, is good, but male lead Shahid Kapoor is a bit bland. The scenes with the woman’s family are a definite highlight, especially the musical number. Of course, the two are mistaken for lovers, and so eventually become lovers. It’s a fairly standard Bollywood plot. But Jab We Met has bags of charm, and if it’s a bit of a downer to start – and that’s a Bollywood staple too – then it quickly warms up and proves lots of fun.
Manji, Yasuzô Masumura (1964, Japan). Apparently this film also had an international release under the name Swastika. I suspect it would do much better now with that title than it did back in the mid-1960s, what with press barons in the English-speaking world happily promoting Nazi ideology. Burn the press to the ground, it’s no longer fit for purpose and, if anything, is the enemy of society. None of which, sadly has anything to do with this film, and its story in no way explains its title. Because manji is apparently Japanese for ‘swastika’. The story is about the wife of a lawyer who falls in love with a model at her life-drawing class. The two women reject their men, then re-introduce one… and it all ends in a bizarre suicide pact. Except… the story is told entirely as flashback, with an opening scene in which the wife tells her husband’s boss (I think) how she came to be obsessed with the model. So clearly she survives the suicide pact – although she doesn’t know why the other two switched her dose of poison with something harmless. Manji has apparently been remade several times since, and while the tragic romantic triangle is a popular plot – sort of like Rome and Juliet but with a, er, third person – I couldn’t honestly see why this story has proven so appealing it had been remade. Meh.
Matilda, Alexey Uchitel (2017, Russia). The Russians have been churning out expensive commercial movies for a couple of decades now, but few of them make it out of the Russo-speaking world. Of course, they have a film tradition going back as long as the US’s, and have had their fair share of world-class directors, even under the Soviets… But go into HMV and all you’ll find are a handful of twenty-first century Russian movies, as curated by labels such as Artificial Eye. For example, Pavel Lungin’s The Island (AKA Ostrov) is readily available, but not his later Tsar (see here), which is arguably better. But now we have streaming, and curated streaming services such as Mubi and Curzon, for those of us who dislike Extruded Hollywood Product. But I found Matilda (AKA Mathilde AKA Матильда) on Amazon Prime, which has some pretty good stuff hidden away. But you have to look for it. Matilda was the mistress of Prince Nicholas Romanov, who became Tsar Nicholas II. The film opens with her about to disrupt Prince Nicholas’s wedding to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, with whom he probably shared most of his chromosomes anyway, as European royalty at that time was all as inbred as fuck. The film then flashes back to Nicholas spotting Matilda in the ballet, stealing her from her ducal boyfriend, and basically behaving like Prince Super-Entitled, so sort of like a nineteenth-century One-Percenter but without the arms-dealing and money-laundering and secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. The film is all very glossy, with visibly high production values, and some quite lovely visuals – a nicely-done commercial cinema treatment in other words. It’s not the most fascinating piece of history – who gives a fuck about inbred royals? – but it was good drama and presented well.
The Lilac Dusk, Yuri Konopkin (2000, Russia). I also found The Lilac Dusk (AKA Lilac Twilight AKA Сиреневые сумерки) on Amazon Prime, although I will admit I had no idea what it was when I started watching it. The black and white poster led me to think it was an older film, perhaps mid-twentieth century, but actually the film is in colour and less than two decades old – certainly well after glasnost. Having said that, I’ve no idea what the film is about. I think I can work out what it thinks it’s about, but for much of its length it felt like a poor Russian attempt at a Peter Greenaway film. A young man is sent to a strange sanatorium on an island. There don’t seem to be many patients, and the staff are as odd as the patients – if they are patients, it wasn’t entirely clear. The male lead isn’t always the lead in scenes, or indeed always on screen, although when he does appear he’s clearly the viewpoint character. It made for a confusing story, that wasn’t helped by its resemblance to a Greenaway film without actually feeling like it was deliberately trying to be a Greenaway film. More a similarity in approach than a deliberate homage. Parts of the film also reminded me of the work of Wojciech Has, but, well, cheaper. I know nothing about Konopkin’s career or oeuvre, but on the strength of this film I suspect his influences were not altogether homegrown…
War and Peace, Part 3: 1812, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). War and Peace 2, Natasha Rostova (see here) ends with a cut to the Imperial Russian forces gathering outside a village called Borodino. This is where they meet Napoleon’s armies in the, er, Battle of Borodino. And the entire 84 minutes of this third film in the series is taken up wholly with the battle. From the thick of it. It’s brilliant. Oh, it’s not visceral and gruesome like we do it these days, in Atonement or Saving Private Ryan, to name two recent films famous for their depictions of WWII. It’s very much old school, with physical effects and clever camera work. And for that reason it looks a little dated, if the viewer has the imagination to picture how it might be staged today… But for its time, it’s an amazing achievement, sort of like complaining that 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t have the twenty-first special effects, when what it does have are effects that still work today given a suspension of their limitations (to coin a phrase). These Bondarchuk War and Peace movies are bona fide classics of cinema and it’s a fucking tragedy there are no decent copies of the original print left. If there were any justice, some would be found in some ex-CSSR state, and the four films can take their rightful position in the history of cinema.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933
At least two of the films in this half-dozen I thought were on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but aren’t. And I’m not sure why Bondarchuk’s War and Peace – at least one, if not all four, of the films – never made the grade.
Conversation Piece, Luchino Visconti (1974, Italy). Visconti seems to have a thing about veils, as at least one woman in his films appears wearing one. In this film it’s a flashback to the mother of the character played by Burt Lancaster, as the movie itself is set in the 1970s. You can tell from the fashions. Boy, can you tell. Lancaster plays a wealthy professor who lives in a Roman palazzo with large collection of books and “conversation pieces” (a type of informal group portrait, typically British and typically eighteenth-century). He is pressured into renting the top floor of is palazzo to an overbearing jet-setting marchesa, ostensibly for her daughter and her daughter’s fiancé, but actually for her own lover. Things go wrong from the start. The lover, under the impression the apartment has been purchased for him, starts knocking down walls… But despite getting off to a bad start, he and the professor become unlikely friends. The professor tries to hide the shady things going on in the lover’s life – at one point even hiding him from the marchesa, at another providing him with an alibi for the police. As he does, so he becomes less of a recluse and, surprisingly, less attached to his books and conversation pieces. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the film, given it didn’t have much in the way of a plot, or indeed a cast, which was small but high-powered. Lancaster was especially good, better I think than in The Leopard, and Helmut Berger managed a remarkable transition from dislikable to sympathetic. But the film suffered somewhat from having too small a story – evident in the fact it was shot entirely indoors.
Cold Skin, Xavier Gens (2017, France). Not sure what prompted me to add this to my rental list. Perhaps it was something in the description. Certainly neither the director nor any member of the cast was known to me. And while I’ve identified the film as French – although these days few films are the product of a single nation – Cold Skin is actually a French-Spanish production, adapted from a 2002 Spanish novel, but filmed as English language. An Irishman during WWI hitches a ride to a remote South Atlantic island to work as its meteorologist. There is only one other person on the island: a lighthouse keeper. And he doesn’t seem all there. The reason for that the Irishman discovers during his first night on the island when his hut is attacked by a horde of fish-people. He manages to survive and moves into the fortified lighthouse. Where he discovers the keeper has a fish-people woman as a sex slave. And, er, that’s about it. The Irishman learns the fish-people are not monsters (but the keeper is), even though the lighthouse is attacked nightly by swarms of them. It felt a bit like a less-commercial del Toro film, to be honest, and I’m not a del Toro fan. The fish-people were done well, and the two actors were of the type where you know their faces but you can’t think of their names and you can’t remember what you’ve seen them in before. Meh.
The Scarlet Empress, Josef von Sternberg (1934, USA). The empress in question is Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (a principality in Prussia), but she is better known as Catherine the Great. She’s played by Marlene Dietrich in what is pretty much a straight-up Hollywood biopic. She’s taken to Russia to marry the Imperial heir, Peter, but he turns out to be a half-wit, so she finds her pleasures elsewhere, all the while trying not to offend the actual Empress of Russia, and eventually seizes power six months after Peter is crowned. And goes on to rule Russia for thirty-four years. Despite not being Russian. Neither was Peter. He was born in Kiel, in Schleswig-Holstein, was at one point declared the King of Finland and at another the heir presumptive to the Swedish throne. His mother, however, was Russian, as was his aunt, the Empress of Russia was his aunt. However, despite the manglings and mischaracterisations, The Scarlet Empress proved surprisingly entertaining because of the production design. I don’t know who was responsible – von Sternberg obviously, in some part – but the sets were completely bonkers. Giant doors with Lovecraftian marquetry on them. All the walls designed to resemble the logs of a wooden fort. And the chairs! All designed to look like gargoyles from some deranged hell. It’s a shame it was in black and white. It must have looked like Hope Hodgson on acid in colour. Perhaps one day someone will colourise it. I hope so: it would certainly rival Mughal-E-Azam (see here) for eye-curdling visuals.
Rififi, Jules Dassin (1955, France). There’s a famous scene in Rififi, where the thieves have taken over the flat above a jewellery shop and cut a hole in the floor and lower themselves into the shop. While this was playing, I was convinced I’d seen it before. But in colour. I’m thinking maybe it was pastiche of the scene in something by Buñuel but I’m not sure. Rififi is a well-known film, and highly-regarded in French cinema, so it’s likely it inspired a similar scene in another movie. Dassin, despite the name, was American, and after being outed as a Communist and blacklisted in the USA (Land of the Free kof kof), fled to France, where he continued to direct movies. Rififi was apparently a rush-job, based on a novel that no one thought any good – Truffaut said of it, “Out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. The plot is pretty basic. A jewel thief finishes a five-year sentence, recruits a gang, and robs a jewellery store under cover of night. Then it all falls apart. Because one of the gang gives a stolen diamond ring to his girlfriend, a singer at a gangster’s club, and the gangster subsequently figures out who was responsible for the robbery. Cue shoot outs. Rififi is straight-up American noir, but set in France and with a French cast. But then the French were quick to adopt film noir – the Cahiers du Cinéma were big fans of the genre, and Godard, for one, pastiched it several times during his career. And that, I think, is one of the problems with Rififi. It’s film noir, and the French made better film noir when they were making knowing take-offs of it. The fact the only thing that stands out about Rififi is its inventive robbery probably tells you all you need to know. Worth seeing, but fans of film noir will appreciate it more than others.
Kin, Jonathan & Josh Baker (2018, USA). A young adopted black boy with a white father is helping a gang he was fallen in with steal old wiring from a derelict factory when he gets caught in the middle of a firefight between two groups of armoured aliens who appear through some sort of portal. As you do. He manages to escape, but returns later and discovers one of the high-tech blasters carried by one of the aliens. Meanwhile, his stepbrother has returned home having finished his sentence. But his dad doesn’t want him around. And with good reason. It turns out he owes money to a gangster who protected him in prison, and the only way he can arrange to pay it off is to help the gangster rob his father’s construction office. But they’re caught in the act, the father is shot and killed, as is the gangster’s brother. So the step-brothers go on the run. Along with the alien blaster. Kin suffers because it doesn’t know if it’s a science fiction film or a gangster film. The latter are ten a penny, and need to be really special to stand out. Kin isn’t. The former, well… there isn’t enough there for the film to get a good grip on its science-fictional ideas, not even given the film’s final twist. For all that, it’s a reasonably accomplished piece of movie-making. The cast are generally good, although James Franco’s gangster joins a long line of clichéd psycho movie gangsters, Dennis Quaid’s blue-collar honest Joe dad is no less a stereotype, and and as for Zoë Kravitz’s kind-hearted lapdancer… Meh.
War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, Russia). Two films in and I think these are actually quite brilliant. They were massive technical achievements for Soviet cinema at the time, and every rouble spent, every technical ambition realised, is up there plain to see on the screen. Not to mention the cast of thousands. I believe Ilya Muromets holds the records for the most number of extras – I’ve heard figures ranging from 100,000 to 250,000 – although a lot of sources claim Gandhi had 300,000 extras. But the Ilya Muromets extras were costumed, which makes it a more impressive achievement. Some of these War and Peace movies must have casts numbering tens of thousands, again all in period costume (well, uniform). Anyway, this second film focuses on the eponymous heroine, and her burgeoning relationship with Prince Bolkonski. There are lavish balls – and they are lavish. But we see much of its from Rostova’s point of view, although the POV does jump about a bit, with swathes of cloth sweeping across the screen, which is odd. Also odd is the inclusion of occasional scenes where the dialogue is in Russian, since the rest of the film has been dubbed into English (well, except for the French and German dialogue, which isn’t dubbed at all. This is apparently because the original 70mm masters have degraded beyond restoration, so an edited version was used for the DVD release, but with some scenes – the ones that aren’t dubbed – added from other surviving copies. It’s plain the full film, all 431 minutes, in 70mm – albeit on apparently awful Soviet film stock – must have been amazing. And there isn’t a single copy in good enough condition remaining to capture that – although some DVD editions are apparently better than others. That’s a shame. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and someone will find a well-preserved copy in some fleapit in a former SSR. Something similar happened to Metropolis. And to Limite. Although both are still incomplete. But they’re also much older films. Anyway, War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova finishes with the opening shots in the Battle of Borodino, and it lokos fantastic. I can’t wait to watch War and Peace, Part 3: 1812.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933
No Anglophone movies in this bunch, which is unusual – there’s typically at least one. An odd bunch as well, mostly rental DVDs or Amazon Prime. There’s some good stuff on the latter, but it’s not easy to find. I think I may have said this before…
Casque d’or, Jacques Becker (1952, France). To be honest, I had thought I’d seen more films by Becker. He’s one of those French cinema figures from the 1940s and 1950s whose films I thought I’d watched. Apparently not. It seems Casque d’or is my first Becker. And for all that, it felt like half a dozen directors of the period could have made it. I admit I’m not so knowledgeable on film techniques that I can comment technically on the films I watch. My interest lies in narrative, and my experience is mostly in science fiction; so that’s what interests me. But I also appreciate good visuals, or innovative visuals, and I usually comment on such. But effective, or excellent, use of existing techniques I’m unlikely to notice. And it seems that’s what this film is chiefly known for. I couldn’t even tell you what the story was as it seemed that generic. The title refers to a woman, played by Simone Signoret, who is a celebrated beauty. But she falls for the wrong man, a carpenter, instead of her gangster pimp. And so it goes. The carpenter accidentally kills the pimp and has to flee. The woman goes with him. But the carpenter returns to face justice when he learns a friend has been framed for the murder of the pimp. The final scene of the film, in which Signoret watches her lover’s execution, has been much remarked upon, but I thought there was little there deserving such commentary. It’s done well, and it may well have been seminal in its time, but nowadays the film is very much an historical document. And I freely admit that French cinema from the mid-twentieth century is not a genre that especially appeals to me. Even Godard’s work – it’s the films he made from around 1970s onward I find mostly appealing. Meh.
The Class, Laurent Cantet (2008, France). The title pretty much tells you what the film is about. It’s a faux-documentary set in a Parisian school, based on the director’s own experience teaching at such a school. It’s a school that has a lot of second-generation immigrant children – ie, they were born in France, but their parents weren’t, and they’re a product of two cultures, although perhaps closer to that of their parents. Much, for example, is made of the male pupils’ support of African football and the national teams of the countries from which their parents originate. The same thing is used in this country by racists to browbeat Anglo-Indian or Anglo-Pakistani people because they’d sooner support India or Pakistan at cricket than England. But, seriously, when people show you that you’re not welcome in the country of your birth, why the fuck would you support their cricket team? Racists should shut the fuck up. They’re an embarrassment to the rest of us. But, The Class. It’s not just that the film shows how multiculturalism can fail in small ways as often as it succeeds, it’s not even how it shows the teacher losing his temper because some pupils refuse to behave… It’s that The Class shows that a French school runs on consensus decision-making, with pupils involved, and that the system works so much better than the UK one of top-down management. British education has always been about producing sons of empire or the bare minimum required for working in factories. But “sons of empire” are a breed long past their sell-by date, and a “stiff upper lip” in front of uppity natives was never good for anything other than a justification for punitive action. The British Empire was built on the relationships created by experts, but run by those who knew nothing about the cultures they ruled. And it is the latter the UK always celebrates: Winston Churchill gets a state funeral but no one knows who Gertrude Bell was. Typical. Fuck the British. But The Class is worth seeing.
Presence of Mind, Antoni Aloy (1999, Spain). I’m not sure where the title came from but this Spanish-American film is an adaptation of Henry James ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Shameful admission time: I have never read any Henry James. Some people consider him the greatest writer the US has produced, and certainly he occupies a high place in their canon of literary greats (the one composed of Dead White Males, that is; though I suspect he would also feature in a more diverse canon). Anyway, I didn’t know the story of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ when I sat down to watch this film. And after watching it, I can’t say I’m all that wiser. Sadie Frost is hired, by Harvey Keitel, as governess for two children whose parents have died. The kids are a bit weird, and Frost starts seeing ghosts. And it’s hard to give a shit because none of it really ties together. I can’t imagine James’s story is this bad, and reading up on it, it sounds like an exercise in gaslighting as much as it is a ghost story. Presence of Mind is not that. It’s a director out of his depth with material he can’t handle and a cast he doesn’t know how to direct. Neither Frost nor Keitel are good actors but they’re especially bad in this. It all feels like a private project by someone who fancied himself as a director. This is Aloy’s only feature film. Figures.
Devil’s Three, Bobby A Suarez (1979, Philippines). There’s some right crap hiding away on Amazon Prime, but one of the good things about the platform is that it’s not all Hollywood crap. There are other countries with prolific and well-established film industries and some of their output is available – if you look for it – on Amazon Prime. Like Nollywood. But the two from there I saw really were fucking awful. But also Russia (or rather, the USSR) – see later – and India – see later… And the Philippines. Bobby Suarez is perhaps best known outside the Philippines for his three Cleopatra Wong films, a character designed to appeal to fans of Cleopatra Jones and Hong Kong martial arts films. Devil’s Three (AKA Pay or Die, Devil’s Angels, Mean Business) is the second of three Cleopatra Wong films. If there’s a plot to Devil’s Three, I couldn’t tell you what it is. There was something about a gangster whose daughter is kidnapped, so he hires Cleopatra Wong to recover her. And Wong’s team comprises an overweight woman and a transvestite, and they go up against a gang run by a white man – American? Australian? I don’t remember – and there are lots of clumsily-staged fight scenes. Marrie Lee is fine in the lead role, but this is low-budget film-making and having a lead to act is not enough. I don’t know if the other two Cleopatra Qong films are available on Amazon Prime – I’ve not been able to find them, but finding films on Amazon Prime is next to fucking impossible – but perhaps the earlier two, or at least the one that kicked off the series, is worth seeing.
War and Peace, Part 1: Andrei Bolkonsky, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, Russia). Back in 1985, I retook my A Levels at a Nottingham CFE. I was living in Mansfield at the time, so this required a 45-minute bus ride to and from college. On arriving in Nottingham, I’d meet up with a friend and fellow pupil at a cafe on Maid Marion Way, a couple of hundred metres from People’s College, for a milky coffee. I remember one day sitting there one morning when a man pulled out a guitar and began to play and sing. It was a bit strange. Anyway, during that 45-minute bus journey, I got lots of reading done. Including Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Which, I seem to remember, took a couple of months. Thirty-three years later and I don’t recall much of the book, other than a few character’s names and a general feeling of having enjoyed it. There have been plenty of adaptations, the most recent of which was by the BBC in 2016. But, well, I never watched any of them. Bondarchuk’s four-film series is considered the best adaptation of the novel, and happily it is currently available for free on Amazon Prime. War and Peace, Part 1: Andrei Bolkonsky covers the (sub-)title character’s career from the moment he joins the Imperial Russian Army, in the war against Napoleon, to the death of his wife and his introduction to Natasha Rostova. This was a high-profile, high-prestige Soviet film project, so it has a cast of thousands. The battle scenes have to be seen to be believed. It also introduced a raft of techniques not used before in Soviet cinema, from handheld cameras to helicopter shots to a six-channel audio track. The end result is… epic. Unfortunately, the copy on Amazon Prime has a somewhat eccentric approach to dubbing – some of the Russian is dubbed into English, some of it isn’t. There are subtitles for the Russian and English… but not for the French. I have fond memories of the book – its enormous cast, its detail, its scope – and although I know this century it’s all about the feels and bringing it down to the personal, I do much prefer stories that tackle the big picture (no pun intended). I’m looking forward to watching parts 2 to 4.
Goynar Baksho, Aparna Sen (2013, India). This is not a Bollywood film but a Bengali one, although it’s so polished it might well be mistaken for one by someone who didn’t realise it was not in Hindi. An eleven year old girl is married and widowed at twelve. Her only wealth is the contents of a jewellery box, 5000 gm of gold. She grows up to become the embittered matriarch of a family sharing a large mansion with another family who claim ownership of it. Then she dies. Her ghost persuades the niece – from a poor family and not a good match – to hide the jewellery box so the rest of the family can’t sell it to enrich themselves. The ghost continues to appear to the niece, telling her not to use the jewellery, but eventually the niece does so in order to set her husband up in business selling saris. And then, when the business hits a cash-flow crisis, the grandmother relents and allows them to pawn more of the gold. This is a film in which the men are uniformly useless – when a cousin manages a shop while the nice’s husband is away in on business, he hikes all the prices and so drives away customers and gives the shop a reputation as a rip-off. The niece has to step in and take over. The ghost is initially depicted as selfish and evil, but as the film progresses she mellows, to the extent she begins helping the niece succeed. I really liked Goynar Baksho. It was funny and the ghost was well-handled (and the sfx were seamlessly done). I see it’s no longer free to watch on Amazon Prime, which is a shame; but it’s definitely worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932