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2017, the best of the year: films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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2017, Best of the half-year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Moving pictures 2017, #17

The run of Chinese films from LoveFilm is still going, although only one of the two in this post from that country was actually a rental. We also have the re-appearance of Hollywood… although it’s a 1950s Western by a German director. And there’s a British “quota quickie” in there too.

Antareen, Mrinal Sen (1993, India). This is the only other Sen film I can find available on DVD, which is weird as he seems to be held in equal regard in Bengali cinema as both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, but he also seems to have been working much later than Ghatak. But then Ray was the most prolific of the three, and has been championed in the west for years by David Merchant. Neither Ghatak nor Sen had such a champion – in fact, of the two, Ghatak probably has a higher reputation, although only three of his eight films were ever released on DVD outside India. The two Sen films I now own are both part of NFDC’s Cinemas of Indias restoration of Indian movies, and, I think, the only two by Sen in the  their three box sets. Which is a shame. In Antareen, a writer house-sits a friends decrepit old house – well, it’s more like small palace – and one day the telephone rings. He explains to the caller, a woman, that the owner is away, but they continue to chat. She’s in a loveless marriage and desperate to reach out to someone, and he’s lonely on his own in the big house. He sits by the phone, waiting for her to call. They become friends. Then they decide to meet. Sen’s films seem to have a gentler approach to drama than Ray’s. They also seem less stagier, too. Ray’s films feel like they’re often confined to sets, whereas the two movies by Sen I’ve seen are more cinematic. It’s a pity there’s not more available by him – he directed 27 after all, the last in 2002.

Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuiao (2005, China). I watched this twice before sending it back to LoveFilm, and I still think it needs another rewatch. The story is simple enough: the government moves a family to a provincial town, but all they can think about is returning to Shanghai. But their new life is never going to take them back. The film focuses on the daughter of the family, who is realistic enough to build a life for herself in the town but can never seem to do anything right in her father’s eyes. He meets with other volunteers who agreed to move to factories set up in provincial towns to ensure the survival of China’s industrial capacity in the event of war and they plot to return to Shanghai. His bitterness makes him aggressive, and he stalks the daughter. Things then go badly wrong for her, which precipitates the family into moving without permission back to Shanghai. After a couple of Chinese films that hadn’t really grabbed me, this one I thought really good – but then Wang was the director of Beijing Bicycle (see here), which I also thought very good. Annoyingly, those two appear to be the only films by him available in the UK – this is getting to be an all too common complaint.

The Seventh Veil, Compton Bennett (1945, UK). I had thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but that was apparently The Seventh Victim – a B-movie about a Satanist cult – and not this one, which is a great deal better, if overly melodramatic, but nonetheless quite typical of its time. Ann Todd – who I always get confused with Anna Neagle, and, to be honest, I’m not sure which is the better actress – goes to live with controlling uncle James Mason, playing that smooth-talking villain he did so well, who turns her into a world-class concert pianist. And he’s there to ensure she maintains the discipline needed to stay at the top. She, however, has other ideas – like: love, relationships, etc. The title refers to a piece of simplistic psychology used by the film – each mind has seven veils, like Salomé, and the psychiatrist, Herbert Lom, must persuade Todd to drop that last veil if he is to discover why she tried to commit suicide in the later-set framing narrative. (Hint: James Mason.) It’s melodrama with a capital M, and, I suspect, knocked out as a “quota quickie”. The film it reminded me of the most, strangely, was The Ghost and Mrs Muir, which has made a couple of editions of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Todd is probably The Seventh Veil‘s biggest handicap – she has to play her character from schoolgirl to, well, at least half a decade younger than her actual age – and is clearly Todd throughout. But Mason is certainly on top form. It’s almost as if the role were written for him – in fact, it’s a testament to his skill that so many of his roles did seem written for him. Mason deserves a lot more love than he received. He was one of our best actors.

Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I’m trying to work my way through Lang’s entire oeuvre… which sounds like an admirable ambition until you discover how varied his oeuvre was. I mean, is there a typically Lang-ian film? There’s those early German silent films, and they’re all blindingly brilliant. But then he moved to Hollywood and churned out a series of noir films that weren’t all that much better than his rivals, although one or two did shine. And then he ended up with the quite brilliant serial-drama oddities that were The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. And in between he made… all sorts of stuff. Like this Western, starring Marlene Dietrich. It tries really hard to subvert the form, but decades it feels almost typical of the genre. A man’s bride-to-be is gunned down in a robbery on a general store, and he vows revenge. All he has as a clue is the phrase, “Chuckaluck”. He eventually tracks this down to ex-prostitute Dietrich, who runs a ranch near the Mexican border which she allows outlaws to use as a hideout, for ten percent of their haul. The revengeful widower eventually ends up infiltrating the gang in residence at Dietrich’s, but he doesn’t known which one killed his wife. I think I’ve said before I’m not a fan  of westerns, and the ones that appeal to me are the ones that make a real meal of the landscape… which this one doesn’t. It seems ordinary, and I’d expected better from Lang.

Paper Airplanes, Zhao Liang (2001, China). This is the least satisfying of the three films in this box set, chiefly because it deals with drug addicts, who are, to be frank, not very interesting. On the other hand, this disc also includes three short films which are definitely worth seeing. So, in total, buying the box set was a good move – and now I have to get myself a copy of Behemoth, because Zhao is really very good indeed. In Paper Airplanes, the addicts discuss their addiction, with a surprising lack of self-awareness, but a very informed awareness of what the addiction is doing to them and what its consequences might be. Some of the addicts are in bands, and we see them performing, but if they’re looking for salvation, or even riches,  that way then they’re deluding themselves. Of the three feature-length documentaries in the box set, this is easily the weakest,. Nonetheless, Zhao Liang is a name to watch, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for anything new he produces.

The President, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2014, Georgia). Despite his stature in Iranian film, Makhmalbaf doesn’t seem to get Western releases to the same extent as other Iranian directors – pretty much the entirety of Abbas Kiarostami’s oeuvre is available in the West, for example, and yet Kiarostami’s Close-up is about a person passing themselves off as Makhmalbaf! Even Makhmalbaf’s most celebrated film, Gabbeh (see here), has never been released in the UK, so I had to buy a US release. So the fact The President is available for rental is a bit of a puzzle… although it’s not really an Iranian film. It’s set in an invented East European/West Asian country, but its cast are Georgian, it was filmed in Georgia, and the Georgian language is used throughout. Which makes it a Georgian film, even if Makhmalbaf is Iranian. I had noted Makhmalbaf’s black sense of humour in other of his films, but it’s in full force in this one. A dictator of an unnamed nation is ousted by rebels, and must flee across the country in disguise, with his young grandson. And… it’s beautifully done. The kid is by turns a charming innocent and a total brat, the dictator is angry, afraid, unrepentant but pragmatic. The final scene in which he is recognised by a group of angry peasants is like something out of a brutal Monty Python. And The President is quite a brutal film in places, and its humour is about the blackest I’ve seen – although not quite as black as the scene in Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar where an army of one-legged men chase after artificial legs thrown from Red Cross helicopters. Recommended.

1001 MoviesYou Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures 2017, #12

More movies from around the world. Two were from the first of the three Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets I bought (I can’t find these box sets for sale anywhere online, so I’ve linked the title to website promoting the original Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema‘s tour of, er, cinemas.)

beijing_bikeBeijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai (2001, China). As a fan of both Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, I was keen to see more films by modern Chinese directors, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s name cropped up as another of the “Sixth Generation”, which includes Jia. So I stuck one of his films on my rental list… Having cottoned onto Wang through Jia and Zhao, the director this film most reminds me of is Hou Hsiao Hsien, who is Taiwanese, although it does have the documentary feel Jia manages to give his films. Four teenagers from the provinces land a job at a bicycle courier company. They are each given a new mountain bike, the cost of which is taken out of their wages for the first six months. One of them is a week or two away from paying for his bike when it is stolen. So he fails to deliver the package that had been given to him – there’s an excellent sequence in which he turns up to a posh spa and gives the name of his contact, only for the brainless receptionist to assume he means a guest of the same name, and so he has to have a shower to enter the spa and afterwards is told he must pay for the shower – and is subsequently fired. He vows to find his stolen bike, and the company manager tells him that if he does, then he can have his job back. And he finds it. It had been sold to a schoolboy who fancies a girl in his class and has been accompanying her on her ride to school (but he stole the money from his parents to buy the bike). Unfortunately, the rest of the story rests on a fallacy – that the purchaser of stolen property owns the stolen property because they bought it in good faith. The moment the courier turned up and identified his bike, the schoolboy should have handed it over and demanded his 500 yuan back from the person who’d sold him the bike. But these are schoolkids, I suppose, and allowed to get it wrong – so wrong, in fact, that the courier and the schoolboy end up agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, the one so he can keep his job, the other so he can get closer to the girl he fancies. Who has already started going out with someone else anyway. This is not a cheerful film. (Does China even make cheerful films these days?) But it is a good one.

gods_egyptGods of Egypt, Alex Proyas (2016, USA). I knew this was going to be complete nonsense – I remember when the film was released last year, and what people were saying about it. But it was a Saturday night, I had a bottle of wine, and it couldn’t be that bad, could it, surely? Um, yes. Worse, in fact. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the whitecasting (especially since it’s equally troubling in the film following, although that at least has a more understandable excuse). So, skipping over the fact the film has a pretty much uniformly white cast playing the actual gods of Ancient Egypt from, er, Egypt, in North Africa… Even ignoring such a colossal failure, Gods of Egypt fails in so many other ways. For a start, it takes that mythology and turns it into a fantasy film. True, there is, as far as I know, no organised church of Isis, Horus, etc, to take religious offence at this appropriation; and Hollywood has done pretty much the same for Greek mythology since someone hand-cranked a camera in California for the first time. But neither past custom nor lack of a lobby group makes it acceptable in this day and age. And, as well as all that, Gods of Egypt is just, well, a shit film. The acting is terrible, the plot is nonsense, the production design looks wholly generic, and who really gives a shit about a bunch of super-powerful over-entitled people and their abuse of the population they rule? It might have flown forty years ago, but not now. Okay, so the way they made the gods all bigger than actual people was sort of cool… for about five minutes. But, to be honest, the entire film you just wanted them to put themselves out of your misery. Not only did Gods of Egypt make any random MCU movie look good, it also made it look positively left-wing. Avoid.

masterpieces_1Pharaoh, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1966, Poland). And from the ridiculous to the sublime. Well, not quite. But it was obviously perversity which made me put on another film about Ancient Egypt immediately after sitting through Gods of Egypt. Pharaoh, however, is an earnest historical drama, shot in the Uzbekistani desert with a blacked-up cast. A cast – and that’s pretty much all the speaking parts – in dark skin make-up so they resemble Ancient Egyptians is never going to be acceptable… although this movie was made fifty years ago and is Polish-language. Suitable Polish-speaking actors were likely impossible to find (in which case, the best answer: make a different film), but we have what we have. Fifty years ago, Kawalerowicz went ahead and made Pharaoh. And, to be fair to him, he made more of an effort at verisimilitude under much more constrained circumstances, than Hollywood ever did. As it is, Pharaoh is pure historical epic but, despite opening with a huge battle sequence, still feels somehow small-scale. Perhaps it’s because the two main exterior locations, the palace and the temple, appear to exist in an empty desert wasteland. I don’t recall seeing a city, or even a camp for the slaves working on the various monuments. The story centres on the power struggle between a pharaoh and his priests, with lots of intense scenes set in darkened chambers in either building. I’m not entirely sure what to make of Pharaoh – it’s well-made, although its sensibilities are no longer acceptable, but in many ways it’s a good old-fashioned Sunday afternoon movie. It’s worth noting, however, that DI Factory have done a lovely job with this Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. The packaging looks great, and the restored film’s transfer looks excellent. Happily, I have seven films in this box set yet to watch, and another two box sets in the series as well.

francofoniaFrancofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). There is a Curzon cinema here in Sheffield but, for reasons best known to themselves, Curzon chose to screen Francofonia only at their Bloomsbury and Soho cinemas, and not in a city which has an annual documentary film festival. Bastards. So I had to wait for the Blu-ray. I’d first heard about Francofonia some three years ago, and had expected it to appear in 2015. I had also been expecting something in a similar vein to Russian Ark, only this time about French history and the Louvre, albeit mostly focusing on the Nazi occupation of Paris. But I should have known better. Because Francofonia is actually closer to Sokurov’s “elegy” documentaries, especially Elegy of a Voyage, as well as bafflingly meta-fictional, like Mournful Unconcern (which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and features documentary footage of Shaw himself), not to mention Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, in which Sokurov discusses the writer’s oeuvre and then interviews him on several occasions (including during a walk through some woods near Solzhenitsyn’s home). It’s not that Francofonia distils Sokurov’s career, more that it feels like a film that makes use of more of the techniques he has employed in other films than any other. Part of Francofonia is a dramatic reconstruction of the Germans taking over the Louvre, part is a history of the Louvre and of its director at that time. Another part is Sokurov himself trying to hold a video conversation with an agent aboard a ship in mid-Atlantic, during a severe storm, about a container of items destined for the museum and which might be lost. Every now and again, Luftwaffe planes fly over Paris. There is also archive footage of Hitler arriving in Paris. Sokurov is, in many respects, a product of his career. Early documentaries stitched together from archive footage led to his ability to build narratives from snippets of historical film, as well as provide a philosophical voiceover to pin it all together; his early problems with the authorities rejecting his films led to a more elliptical way of making his points; and his often precarious funding resulted in him having to edit a finished product together out of an unfinished project, so much so the enigmatic narratives were often more pragmatic than deliberate. Add to that a tendency to lard his films with references to literature and art – such as Dostoevsky in Whispering Pages, Caspar David Friedrich in Moloch – to an extent that sometimes the reference overwhelms its role in the narrative. This is, after all, the director whose first episode of a five-episode series about soldiers in Afghanistan consists entirely of a filmed snowscape while a voiceover discusses the life and career of Mozart. Francofonia, more than any other film I’ve seen by Sokurov, including Russian Ark, shows the advantages of modern film-making technology. It is a gorgeous piece of work and seamlessly assembled. It probably looked fantastic on a cinema screen. (Bastards.) But it also showcases Sokurov’s genius to an extent I’d not previously witnessed – the things I love his work for? They’re all in here. I’d always thought it a crime Sokurov was best-known for the technical achievement of Russian Ark, ie, a single take of 99 minutes; but with Francofonia I think his genius might become more widely known for what it truly is. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s work for many years and have most – but not quite all – of the feature films and documentaries he has made. I consider him the most interesting film-maker currently alive, and I’m hugely glad that not only is Francofonia seemingly doing well but also that is so much more emblematic of his work than I’d expected. It is an astonishing piece of work, go see it.

eleneaElena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia). I’ve now seen all four of Zvyagintsev’s films (a fifth is due for release this year), and I think I rate Elena second-best after The Return. The title refers to the working-class wife of a rich Muscovite. They met when he was in hospital and she was a nurse. The husband has a daughter by his dead first wife, Elena has an unemployed brother with a growing family. Elena wants to provide for here relatives, who live in a tiny flat in a block in a Moscow suburb, but her husband refuses to fund her brother’s indolence. Then the husband has a heart attack while swimming, and is once again in hospital. When he returns to their penthouse flat, Elena nurses him… but when he reveals he is going to write a will in which his daughter gets everything and Elena only an annual allowance, she poisons him. Since he died intestate, she gets half of everything. Zvyagintsev typically takes his tme over telling his stories, and Elena is no exception. The first five or so minutes of the film are a silent tracking shot through the penthouse. And then, the introduction of the couple”s domestic life takes another thirty or so minutes before the dramatic tension which is at the heart of the story is revealed. If you like your 5-second jump-cuts, this is not the film for you – indeed, Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre is not for you. But well-drawn character studies with an eye for detail and insight? Then he mostly definitely is. All of Zvyagintsev’s films are worth seeing.

masterpieces_1Provincial Actors, Agnieska Holland (1979, Poland). I’ve seen Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), and thought it very good, so I was not expecting to be disappointed by Provincial Actors (AKA Aktorzy prowincjonalni), an earlier film. The title is an apt description of its story. A provincial theatre is putting on an important play, but the director is “modern” and some of his artistic decisions don’t sit well with the cast, especially the older members who have been in productions of the play before. I will admit I know nothing about the play – ‘Liberation‘ by Stanisław Wyspiański from 1903 (he appears to have been an impressively accomplished Renaissance man) – but it is clear it’s an important play in Polish theatre. I think where Provincial Actors really works is that it’s not entirely about the play and the young director’s re-interpretation of it – this is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong – but that the lives of the actors, and the history they have together, is just as important. There’s an astonishing moment set in the apartment of one member of the cast, who is ironing a dress when a body plummets past the window behind her. It is another member of the cast. There are external factors to the play which explain, and determine, how the various members of the cast behave, and their attitude to the play and its direction. It’s an accomplished piece of ensemble acting, shot with that sort of television docudrama conviction that Polish films of the 1970s and 1980s seem to do so well. I’d like to see more films by Holland. Happily, she has made a lot; not so happily, I don’t think all that many of her early works are available in the UK…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 853