Criterion Sunday 498: Paisà (Paisan, 1946)

This film of Rossellini’s is less contained than his first in the “War Trilogy” that started with Rome, Open City. After all, it tells six separate stories rather than the one, across the length of Italy in the period leading up to the end of the war, as the Americans and British are found fighting the Germans on Italian soil. We see stories of partisans but also of women and children — whether living in poverty and desperation (as in the second and third stories), or helping out on the frontlines (as in the first and fourth) — and their encounters with the Allies. It’s not a film of hope, as there’s plenty of bleakness, but it feels like a series of stories that is trying to say something about the experience of war rather than (perhaps more usual) propaganda-friendly stories of triumph against adversity, or victory against fascism. In most of these stories, there is no victory because there aren’t really any good or bad guys, there’s just the struggle to survive when there are so few opportunities, and then in the fifth story there’s a different struggle that seems entirely abstracted from the war, of a group of Catholic monks whose primary interest is in ensuring the souls of the non-Catholic Americans can be saved. There’s a bit of humour in it, but a wealth of humanity, and even if the individual stories can sometimes seem a little bit moralistic, as a whole it offers a sweeping view of wartime struggle that it may be my favourite of his works.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carmela Sazio, Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, William Tubbs; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 497: Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945)

I’ve seen this before, but I must have underestimated it. When you’re studying film and told that something is a classic, you can’t help but want to react against it, find it a bit boring, especially when you’re young. In fact, I’ve seen it twice and don’t recall much about it, but I think I wasn’t coming to it in the proper frame of mind. It practically invents the “neo-realist” style of filmmaking, shooting on the streets (in a Nazi-occupied city no less), telling a story with next to no budget, but with some great actors and some evocative faces. In fact, it’s pretty great, as indeed everyone knows, and not just for its technical achievements. The blend of heartrending tragedy (I mean, it’s wartime; most everyone dies) and moments of levity, like the priest earnestly turning away a statue of a monk from the naked bottom of another statue, or playing football with a bunch of kids. Moments like that make it all the tougher to see the same characters in much different circumstances. It’s about resistance to fascism, it’s about surviving in an occupied city, but it’s also about transcending that spiritually. I’m not even sure the church had a particularly great record during the war in terms of resistance, but these are the things you want to believe, that there were those who had a more ennobled spirit. It makes the difficult times worth bearing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Ubaldo Arata; Starring Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 22 August 2001 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, October 2000, but most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Tuesday 18 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 496: Che (2008)

The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.

Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Criterion Sunday 495: “The Golden Age of Television”

Back in the 1950s, a lot of filmmakers and actors made their breaks in filmed plays, initially an hour in length but later longer, both in the United States and in the UK too. Dramas were staged regularly, after a few weeks’ rehearsal, and shown live on television, mainly because pre-taping didn’t exist. However, it does seem as if they were filmed for posterity and while they may not be perfectly preserved, at least they do exist, unlike a lot of early television, which has been wiped forever. The Criterion’s set seems to follow the selections made for a repeat in 1981, and the introductions made at that time for each of the films are presented in this collection as well.


The first film in the collection, 1953’s Marty, is also the one which went on to greatest acclaim later, remade two years later as a feature which swept most of the major Academy Awards for that year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay). Looking back at the original TV production at almost 70 years’ distance, it feels as if this is a cute twist on the idea that women are constantly pestered for marriage, but flipping it on its head: here it is the lumpen titular character (Rod Steiger), nearing the age of 40, who is constantly pestered as to when he’s getting married. He has a large Catholic family, and all of them seem to have been paired off, but the problem is: he’s perceived as ugly. Perhaps that’s just the fishbowl lenses of these clunky old TV cameras (they add more than 10 pounds), but at least he’s not a “dog”, as seems to be the insult for unattractive women (the ones we see don’t seem to have weight issues like Marty). It’s hard to find oneself in these old dramas, of course; Marty, for all his unluckiness in love, is also a little bit too persistent and comes across at times as rather an unlikeable character, prone to mumbling then shouting, liable to press for a kiss a little too eagerly. Still, we’re encouraged to be on his side, and I suppose there is an empathy developed for his character. The primitive technology is used nicely by the director for some dramatic camera movements, but mostly this sticks to the play-on-screen format with a tight structure (the complaints of Marty are matched nicely with the moaning of the mothers about their sons abandoning them, though the expected roles for women remain very much of the period) and a small number of settings for the action.

It’s easy to forget that these 1950s TV plays were filmed live. Sometimes that can be obvious for various reasons, but in a film like Patterns (1955) it’s almost hard to tell, so fluid and elegant is the camerawork. It’s obvious the cameras were clunky and the picture is weirdly distorted, but there’s a freewheeling sense to this boardroom drama, as various egos are torn and frayed and words are exchanged back and forth. It gives a particularly visceral sense of the American office which eschews interpersonal drama for a battle of the wills between the company head and his vice-presidents. That said, there’s a lovely speech from our lead character’s wife that sets out the moral compass of the film by being realistic and hard-nosed rather than preachy and virtuous, a tone that you sometimes forget the 1950s was capable of, but is present in the darkness that underlies plenty of that decade’s cinematic output.

More than the first two productions, No Time for Sergeants (1955) seems particularly stagey. The other films managed to find ways to adapt their teleplays into something visual, even on the primitive recording equipment available, but this sticks with non-naturalistic effects like stage lighting and very simple sets. In a way that makes sense because it’s a comedy, but it harks towards a future of TV sitcoms rather than prestige films, and its star Andy Griffith went on to dominate that medium after all. It’s likeable enough, a wartime-set comedy about a slightly foolish Southern man who signs up and bumbles his way through various scenarios, seemingly good natured in his eagerness to please but managing to get his sergeant into hot water along the way — Griffith plays this straight rather than knowing, but he’s certainly less of an idiot than he seems from his accent, and this production exploits that tension nicely.

A Wind from the South (1955) is set in Ireland, which leads to a lot of fairly painful (but certainly could be worse) stabs at an accent. Julie Harris does a good job in the central role, a repressed woman whose brother is the controlling force in her life, who’s been brought up in the traditional ways but starts to feel something for a man who comes through town. There’s some nice work here but it still feels a bit unfocused at times, and perhaps I just react a little negatively towards all those on-screen Irish stereotypes.

After having watched a few of these films, I think it’s the simplest ones that work best, because after all there’s not a lot of budget (or technical ability) to do much more than a few small rooms. Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) draws attention to its staging by having our hero, a baseball player whose nickname is “Author” due to his constant writing (which within the play itself doesn’t seem particularly accomplished), introduce us to his story and break the fourth wall throughout by guiding us the audience through the events. It’s a nice touch but it allows us to forget the very basic sets and focus on the interrelationships between “Author” (a young Paul Newman, and already a pretty magnetic screen presence) and his roommate (Albert Salmi), who’s had a terminal cancer diagnosis and whom he is trying to protect within the team. You get a good sense of the workplace management situation (or lack thereof), the behind the scenes bullying and jockeying for position, it’s all very nicely done and — as mentioned already — well-acted from its cast packed with plenty of talents.

Throughout this collection, Rod Serling (as writer) continually proves his worth. After Patterns the previous year dealt with ad men, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) is a boxing drama, which has always been a sport that translates particularly well to the screen. We don’t even see any of the matches themselves, as the focus remains on the difficult decisions that both Jack Palance’s boxer and Keenan Wynn’s coach need to make to survive, the latter by entering into shady deals with dodgy guys that push him towards bad decisions, and the former who’s belatedly coming to the realisation that he needs to remake himself and find some new life because he’s reached the end of the line in the ring. It’s all passionately acted, not least by Palance and Wynn, though it’s also good to see Keenan’s dad Ed mixing it up with some serious dramatic work as well. There are some big scenes and big emotions, but this is the soul of this kind of small scale TV drama and it works really well.

Serling had some of the snappiest scripts of all the films featured and another of his, The Comedian (1957), is also that: a high-tone melodrama about a comedian at the top of his game (Mickey Rooney) who behind the scenes is a bullying tyrant of a man, who treats his brother (Mel Tormé) like dirt and has frequent run-ins with his head writer (Edmond O’Brien, continuing to channel all those noirs he was in over the previous decade). Somehow, despite these characters being in the world of entertainment, they all still feel like heavies, mainly because they are all deeply flawed people scurrying around like rats trapped in a cage trying to get out. And I think it could really land except that maybe because it’s shot live for television, there’s something just a little hammy about it. Too often it feels like Rooney, O’Brien, all of them have just been asked to be a little bit extra, go a little bit further, and so there are spittle-flecked scenes of shouting, characters screaming in one another’s faces, where perhaps a little bit of subtlety might have been rewarding? I don’t know, but it feels like a very aggressive film, I guess because it’s about such difficult people, and that is, after all, the world they all operate in. Given the live filming, it’s incredible that some of the scenes came off, montage sequences, a freewheeling jaunt through a TV studio bouncing from character to character that could have come straight from an Altman film. There’s a lot here that’s genuinely quite great, but then again director John Frankenheimer was even by this point a seasoned veteran of live television.

Indeed, there’s no doubt Frankenheimer was a slick director at the format. And while by 1958 there was a small amount of pre-taping that was possible apparently, for a largely live production this all cuts together superbly well. The problem I have in the case of Days of Wine and Roses (1958) is the broadness of the acting. It’s about alcoholism and the toll it takes on people, but this is straight up a soap opera level of melodrama, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie alternately bawling and spluttering drunkenly at each other. It has a certain intensity to it, but it’s all too easy to laugh — something I attribute more to changing expectations of subtle dramatic work over the ages rather than anything inherent to their choices. It’s all very nicely done, but like the characters it’s all a bit messy.

  • Each of the seven films has an introduction taken from a 1981 series of broadcasts that presented these films again to television audiences for the first time since their original broadcast. In it, a famous host introduces a series of interviews with cast and crew, who talk about the filming and the time and contextualise the importance of these works for viewers of the early-80s, for whom some of the actors first seen on TV in these shows were now household names.
  • There is an additional 15-20 or so minutes of footage of John Frankenheimer being interviewed in 1981 talking about his two productions, and he’s a good interview subject, eloquent about his work and with a pretty good memory given how many films he made.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
The Philco Television Playhouse: Marty (1953)
Director Delbert Mann; Writer Paddy Chayefsky; Cinematographer Al McClellan; Starring Rod Steiger, Nancy Marchand; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 4 January 2022.

Kraft Television Theatre: Patterns (1955)
Director Fielder Cook; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Everett Sloane, June Dayton; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 5 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: No Time for Sergeants (1955)
Director Alex Segal; Writer Ira Levin (based on the novel by Mac Hyman); Starring Andy Griffith, Harry Clark; Length 50 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 6 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: A Wind from the South (1955)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer James Costigan; Starring Julie Harris, Donald Woods; Length 51 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: Bang the Drum Slowly (1956)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer Arnold Schulman (based on the novel by Mark Harris); Starring Paul Newman, Albert Salmi; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)
Director Ralph Nelson; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Ed Wynn; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: The Comedian (1957)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer Rod Serling (based on a story by Ernest Lehman); Starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O’Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Tormé; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Days of Wine and Roses (1958)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer JP Miller; Starring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie; Length 80 minutes.
Seen home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 10 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 494: Downhill Racer (1969)

This is an interesting film, not least because it wasn’t what I was expecting from a sports movie. In terms of its visual style, it unexpectedly looks forward to those political thrillers that Redford would do in the 1970s, with a sort of shifty energy to the camerawork, which has an almost documentary quality at times, capturing little moments in the lives of these professional skiers competing in various German and French resorts for a place on the Olympic team. That’s not to say it’s perfect; as others have mentioned, it seems to lack the strong driving narrative tension that such movies usually deploy in terms of the arc of the champion towards either ultimate victory or defeat. In that sense, perhaps it’s better to see it as a character study than a traditional sports movie, and as the lead, Redford takes a chance in playing him as a deeply unsympathetic self-involved narcissist. Given the frosty alpine settings, that does tend to make this a tough sell in terms of emotional investment, but somehow that does make it rather interesting at the climax when it’s hard to know whether you want him to succeed or to fail spectacularly. Certainly, he crashes out in personal interrelationships long before he gets a shot at Olympic glory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Ritchie; Writer James Salter (based on the novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall); Cinematographer Brian Probyn; Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Jim McMullan, Kenneth Kirk; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a hotel (DVD), Queenstown, Saturday 1 January 2022.

My Favourite Films of 2021

So, there was plenty of context (both global and personal) to kick off my 2020 list and 2021 was effectively a continuation of that year, the second year of our global pandemic and the first entire year I’ve been based back in New Zealand. This was both good for helping to steadily increase the number of films I saw at a cinema, but also bad in terms of the range of available options (though honestly looking at world cinema distribution, it could also be a lot worse if I lived in some other countries, so I should count my considerable blessings).

I continue to keep pretty comprehensive lists of the films I watch (going back to the late-1990s, and particularly thoroughly since I started this site in 2013). I’ve discussed these in each of my favourite film round-ups over the however many years I’ve been writing these, because where there are lists there are STATS. Therefore, it makes sense for me to post visual depictions of these stats, so here are some graphs…

Film Stats - Place Seen 2013-2021

First up, let’s look at where I’ve been watching films, home (whether mine or someone else’s, whether with friends/partner or without, but a private location) or the cinema (into which latter category I’m including galleries or any communal venue for watching). As you can see I was doing so well in improving my films seen in cinemas up to 2019, and I attribute a lot of that in recent years to attending Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, but also just a real attempt to get out of the house via various cinema memberships. After 2020 it will probably be a while before I can build that back up to the same level (maybe it will never be possible, or at least not until I get back to Europe), but this year was certainly better than 2020, what with not having any extended lockdowns or moving halfway around the world. We did actually have a few weeks’ lockdown back in August, but luckily the local film festival was unaffected (things would look different had I been living in Auckland).

Film Stats - Directors Gender 2013-2021

Next up is my statistics around the director’s gender. Sadly I still don’t have enough films by transgender or gender non-conforming/non-binary directors to include that as a stat (I’ve seen a handful this year), so we’re going to continue to break it down against fairly essentialist lines. Well, things have dropped off since I started making a proper effort in 2015, and that one year I went all out to even things up (2017) — even if that year mostly meant just not watching films by white guys. These past couple of years my focus on getting through Criterion releases — as well as more generally an attempt to improve on classic cinema (i.e. Hollywood) — has meant things have trended downwards in that regard. 40% of the films I saw in 2021 were directed by women, the lowest by percentage since 2018 (39%).

Film Stats - Directors Ethnicity 2013-2021

My final graph deals with the director’s ethnicity. As with all of these stats, this is all a fairly sledgehammer approach to tracking such things. Films, more than most art forms, are communal undertakings and these stats make no attempt to account for writers, producers, cinematographers, actors or other creatives involved. And my delineation of ‘white’ vs ‘person of colour’ is probably open to further caveats were I to get into it in any detail, so let’s just take this as a rough estimate. Last year I did well (and that may be down to watching more things at home or on streaming vs what gets distributed in cinemas), but the 37% of films I saw directed by people of colour is the lowest since 2016 (26%). I guess my stated intention to watch more Japanese movies didn’t really materialise significantly. Let’s try to do better in 2022.

I have all kinds of ways of doing my best of lists but over at Letterboxd I list all the 2021 films I’ve seen (which are the ones with a 2021 production date), and that list will constantly be changing and being updated as I see more 2021 films in future years, and ranked according to my changing whims and such.

However, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2021. These may be festival films, they may be ones that had an official cinematic release, they may be slightly older films that have just dropped on a streaming service (like Netflix or Mubi). There may even be some that I could have seen in previous years but just didn’t catch up with until now, though I’ve tried as much as possible to ensure that these are just films that were “officially” “released” here in NZ in some form in 2021, but as we all know, the multiplicity of platforms and sites makes that hard to verify.

30 Las mil y una (One in a Thousand, 2020)

Las mil y una (2020)This Argentine drama has an elegance that belies its rough setting. I remember really liking this film, even if it rather fades in my memory now, having been a little while since I saw it. [Online: Mubi]

29 Night Raiders

Night Raiders (2021)A Canadian co-production with Aotearoa New Zealand, this deals with sensitive issues of indigenous rights and a troubled history under colonialism, but viewed through a lense of sci-fi dystopian drama, which has its generic drawbacks but turns out to be pretty captivating, with some excellent central performances. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently released online]

28 Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds)

Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has never really missed yet for me. If this is one of his weaker efforts, it’s still better than most other cinema out there, and deals with a young woman trying to get an abortion in the African country. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

27 Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)It is fair to say my expectations for this film were not high. I’m not a huge fan of Chloë Grace Moretz, the film is self-consciously B-movie and shlocky in style (with the budget to match), and it has a wartime setting. But I really enjoyed it! Some films, however low their budget or constrained their settings, just work cinematically and this worked for me. [Cinema]

26 Shiva Baby (2020)

Shiva Baby (2020)I think this came out most other places last year, but it took until the NZIFF for it to screen here, and it’s an emotionally tortuous family film which also manages to be, somehow, comedic. Makes me worry for the young people, though. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

25 Aline (2020)

Aline (2020)I like to put divisive films in lists, or ones that you may not be familiar with, because a lot of my tastes still tend towards the arthouse/familiar/overrated. I imagine most people will hate this biopic-a-clef which fictionalises the life of Celine Dion. I’m certainly not a fan of her music, but she’s a fascinating presence, and this self-indulgent rendering of her life is just weird, not least when the director/writer/star plays her as a child. [Cinema: French Film Festival]

24 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)My list of favourites doesn’t include the Hong Sang-soo film I saw this year at the festival, but it does include this film from a few year’s back (getting a belated online release) made by his former producer. A finely judged and acted South Korean film about middle-aged aimlessness. [Online: Mubi]

23 A Night of Knowing Nothing

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)This sort-of-documentary is impossible to sum up. It looks like footage recorded through layers of time and gauze, a hazy recollection of a collective national shame that recalls poetic films by Chris Marker or Ruth Beckermann perhaps, but its appeal is not really something I can capture. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

22 Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka (2021)

My favourite film last year was Garrett Bradley’s Time and this is her portrait of the famous Japanese-American tennis player. She can be a cagy, diffident subject, but the film captures all of this beautifully I think, even if, technically, it’s a three-part episodic TV series. [Online: Netflix]

21 O Marinheiro dos Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains)

O Marinheiro das Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains, 2021)Another documentary I have difficult summing up, another poetic take on family history, nostalgia and encountering the Other via travel. None of us are really doing much travel these past few years, so cinema remains the best way to do this. Here a Brazilian filmmaker goes back to his roots in Algeria. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

20 Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)Bosnia in the 1990s was not a happy place to be, and boy does this film put that across, following the titular character of Aida as she tries to help her nation and its people. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

19 Minari (2020)

Minari (2020)This is a solid film, a good film which presents an interesting perspective on immigration and work. I perhaps have overrated it thanks to its awards attention and also the presence of Steven Yeun, but I can’t deny I liked its simple, gentle rhythms. [Cinema]

18 Pleasure

Pleasure (2021)There’s something here that reminds me of the Danish film Holiday a few years back. It also divided audiences with its story of women precariously positioned within a patriarchal society, but it’s not quite as bleak or as judgemental as you fear it might be given its setting. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

17 The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground (2021)I remain a big fan of Todd Haynes, and of the 1960s New York art band The Velvet Underground.  Haynes picks into each of the band’s members and gives time to the less familiar aspects, like their sonic indebtedness to drone, or the interpersonal dramas. It’s not quite as straightforward as the simple title suggests, and Haynes finds plenty of ways to mess with the structure. [Online: Apple TV+]

16 Memoria

Memoria (2021)Is my high rating for this film a sign of my falling for the cinematic Ponzi scheme of slow cinema? Maybe this film actually is boring and I’m ascribing something more to it, and yet I do really like slow cinema and have loved the works of its Thai director in the past (though I still really resist a few of his films). [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

15 The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter (2021)First off, I actually watched this film in 2022, but before I compiled this list and it was released on 31 December, and what can I say? I was on holiday, not unlike Olivia Colman’s character. I was about to say “title character” but it feels like that could apply to loads of people in this film, most of whom are lost. It’s been a great critical success, and who’s to say if I’m not just succumbing to that, but I think it really works as a drama, a slow burn with a sharp if enigmatic payoff. [Online: Netflix]

14 Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class)

Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class, 2021)I’ve still yet to see Frederick Wiseman’s last film (2020’s Town Hall) but he’s getting very old and in the meantime there’s this German film about a handful of teachers and students (including the one in the title), carefully shot and edited with the space to allow them all to become fully realised. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

13 Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)I’m a sucker for a multi-strand or portmanteau film and while Wes Anderson’s latest didn’t quite make my list, here’s an Iranian film that couldn’t be different in tone, but also has a number of stories linked by a central theme. That theme is the death penalty, so this gets pretty dark. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

12 Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)My music listening during the pandemic — perhaps because of the times, perhaps because I’m getting older — has tended towards the nostalgic so this film is a tonic. It’s about a 1969 series of concerts in Harlem, and while it is contextualised with interviews and narration, it also extensively features a lot of really great music. [Cinema]

11 Dune: Part One

Dune (2021)This, like most big screen blockbusters this year, is very long and undoubtedly ponderous. But in eschewing the comic book mould of fights and explosions, this makes a real impact in a rather diminished mainstream. It’s my favourite of Denis Villeneuve’s films and it lingers in my mind; I want to watch it again. It’s a sonic experience as much as anything else. [Cinema]

10 Gagarine (2020)

Gagarine (2020)Housing estates have never seemed as beautiful and as otherwordly strange as in this French film. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

9 Annette

Annette (2021) 2Even taking into account some of my choices, this may be the most divisive film this past year. Some of it is genuinely infuriating, some of it is boring; Leos Carax is not a director to give audiences what they want. Earlier in the year I caught up with the band Sparks via Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers and this musical is written by them. It is messy and sprawling, but when it works it really does come together, and I’ve had trouble getting its opening number out of my head ever since. [Cinema]

8 Ich war zuhause, aber (I Was at Home, But…, 2019)

Ich war zuhause, aber (2019)I expected to love this film given I’ve loved director Angela Schanelec’s previous films. It picks up on her previous film, the mysterious The Dreamed Path, by extending the strange dreamlike logic which can make it a little difficult to find your bearings within. I should probably watch this again though. [Blu-ray but also released online to Mubi]

7 Titane

Titane (2021)Another strange, divisive film, which like the director’s previous film Raw uses a gory horror film setup to explore the issue of familial love. Not, as they say, for the faint of heart, but also propulsively cinematic. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently given a cinema release]

6 Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road)

Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)A lot of Iranian cinema since those early days of Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami has been about road trips and families with kids. But there’s a peculiar sensitivity that Iranian directors have brought to this topic, and this one from the son of the great Jafar Panahi also interrogates the matter of borders and young people’s future. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

5 First Cow (2019)

First Cow (2019)My best of list from last year confidently predicted this would get a high ranking when it finally got a release, and then it finally did. It’s slow, sure, and it ends badly for our protagonists (though it’s fair to say that everyone from that period of American history is dead now too), but there’s a real tenderness to it. [Cinema]

4 Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy)

Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)This isn’t even my favourite Ryusuke Hamaguchi film that was released in 2021 and it deserves plaudits and praise, but it’s been eclipsed (rightly so) by his other film. This is a three-part series of short stories and all of them have their own arc and strongly drawn characters. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

3 Petite maman

Petite maman (2021)This is about a young girl dealing her mother’s response to the death of her mother (the young girl’s grandmother). It’s a gentle film, and a concise one. Not much happens plotwise, but it’s deep and intense all the same. [Cinema]

2 The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)Unlike the film above, this one is heavy with symbolism and allegory, but like Petite maman it runs deep with emotion like the creases in the land that dominates its protagonists. My favourite Jane Campion since the last one she made for the big screen. [Cinema]

1 Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car)

Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)So far it’s just had a film festival release in NZ, and its three-hour running time probably makes a proper release difficult, but it deserves to be seen. It has a deeply literary bent (the same director’s other film this year was a series of short stories), but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively talky. Sure, it’s about an actor putting on a production of Uncle Vanya, but a lot of the best scenes happen nearly in silence. One of the leads is a young woman who barely has a line of dialogue, and it ends with the silent (if only because signed) rendition of a scene from the play, as emotional a scene as the one that ended my 2019 favourite[Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

Criterion Sunday 493: Gomorra (Gomorrah, 2008)

This film about the Camorra, a criminal organisation operating around Naples and Campania, harks back to those films so popular in the 1990s, in which multiple different strands cohere into a full narrative picture. There’s not much in the way of overlap in terms of the characters between these five stories, but together they give a sense of the grunt work involved in propping up the business interests of a gang. There’s the expendability of the foot soldiers, especially when they become damaging to the organisation, but also the limitless resource of workers disaffected through poverty and urban alienation; there’s the middle managers, guys just trying to keep their heads down and get by but who nevertheless get dragged into violence and revenge; and then there are the artisans (like the tailor Pasquale) who have little interest in the vested interests, but cannot help but be pulled in and affected by the control wielded by those with power. We don’t see any kind of coherent power structure, just a bunch of loud older guys with guns in the background, and a lot of meek and young people up front in this film, which ultimately seems to be about the corrosive effects of corrupt government and poverty leading to few available choices for its protagonists. And for all its multiple strands, it manages to cohere nicely by the end with a lot of small character-based touches that deepen the film’s interest and reach.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Matteo Garrone; Writers Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio and Massimo Gaudioso (based on Saviano’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Marco Onorato; Starring Gianfelice Imparato, Salvatore Cantalupo, Toni Servillo, Salvatore Abbruzzese, Marco Maror, Ciro Petrone; Length 137 minutes.

Seen at the Ritzy, London, Friday 24 October 2008 (and on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 30 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 492: Un conte de Noël: Roubaix ! (A Christmas Tale, 2008)

The very first full film festival I went to, when I was really starting to get into world cinema, was back in 1997, and I still remember that my least favourite film was probably Arnaud Desplechin’s How I Got into an Argument (My Sex Life), massively overlong and also melodramatic in a way that I didn’t connect to at all. To be fair, I was probably too young for it, but it did introduce me to Mathieu Amalric, who was already a veteran of Desplechin’s films by that point. I can’t say I’ve necessarily warmed up on the strained familial drama, but I still find myself only tolerating this film. The title, it should be said — at least going by the film’s title card — is actually Un conte de Noël: Roubaix! I’m not exactly sure that this setting deserves the point d’exclamation, looking to be a fairly unmemorable town just on the Belgian border in the north-east of France, not too far from Lille, but it appears to have some kind of hold over this family, who are coming together not just for Christmas but to support Catherine Deneuve’s matriarch, who has been diagnosed with cancer.  It’s where the director was born, though, so it makes sense as a setting for his Christmas film. He still loves a long film, too, it seems, but amongst it all there are some tender and touching moments, in quiet times when Amalric just takes it down a notch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Arnaud Desplechin; Writers Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Emmanuelle Devos; Length 152 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 23 December 2021.

Global Cinema 32: Cape Verde – Djon África (2018)

Getting back into my Global Cinema strand, which involves me paraphrasing the Wikipedia entries for the country and cinema, along with a review of a film so apologies if that seems lazy. I am hoping it helps me learn about the world. Anyway, the country I’m covering today has always been known in English as Cape Verde, but they prefer Cabo Verde (even in English) so that’s the name I’ll use for the rest of this article. Pedro Costa has dealt with Cabo Verdeans in a number of his films, but there are also some good local films like this one (a co-production with Portugal and Brazil). I’m very worried now about my next visit, which is to the Central African Republic, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.


Flag - Cape VerdeRepublic of Cabo Verde (República de Cabo Verde aka Cape Verde)
population 484,000 | capital Praia (128k, on Santiago island) | largest cities Praia, Mindelo (70k), Santa Maria (24k), Assomada (12k), Porto Novo (9k) | area 4,033 km2 | religion Christianity (85%, mostly Catholic), none (11%) | official language Portuguese (português) with Cape Verdean Creole (kriol) also recognised | major ethnicity not officially recorded but mostly mixed ethnicity | currency Cape Verdean escudo ($) [CVE] | internet .cv

An archipelago and island country in the Atlantic Ocean, comprising 10 islands starting from 600km west of the Cap-Vert peninsula in Senegal, part of the Macaronesia ecoregion. The name comes from the peninsula which itself takes its name from the Portuguese for “green cape”, a name given to it by explorers in the mid-15th century. There was no indigenous population but first became populated by the Portuguese in the 15th century, who used it as a convenient location as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th century onwards. The earliest settlement Ribeira Grande (now called Cidade Velha) was sacked by Francis Drake amongst others, and Praia became capital in 1770. The decline in the slave trade led to an economic crisis, though ship resupplying continued to be important. Growing nationalism in the mid-20th century led to Amílcar Cabral organising the secret PAIGC for the liberation of Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, which was followed by armed rebellion and then war in Guinea, which culminated in independence there and then in 1975 for Cabo Verde. A one-party state ceded to multi-party elections in 1991, and the country is now a stable democracy.

Cinema on the archipelago dates back to the early-20th century and naturally still has a lot of ties with Portugal. The first cinema was established in 1922 and there are now two film festivals. A number of films by Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa have been set on the island (such as Casa de lava) or amongst expatriate communities of Cabo Verdeans in Portugal, but a handful of native filmmaking efforts have been made over the years, fiction features as well as documentaries.


Djon África (2018)

This is a very thoughtful film about displacement and belonging, about the lingering effects of a colonial past on a present population, left disconnected from culture and family in profound ways. At the same time it’s a rather likeable film about a young man (Miguel Moreira) who has grown up in Portugal, who’s grifting and getting by, doing some petty thievery and with a girlfriend, but who finds himself drawn to find out something about his father. And so he travels to Cabo Verde, where his dad is from, in the hope of finding him and somehow forging some meaningful connection. His journey takes him around the islands, from the capital Praia to some small towns, and like a lot of road movies, it’s actually a voyage of self-discovery and so there are very few words I could choose to describe this that don’t make it sound like nauseating sentimental nonsense (“he finds out the real meaning of family” or “by facing up to what it means to not be from any place, he discovers where he’s actually from” or something), but actually it’s perfectly judged. It limns the divide between documentary — presenting this man in a world he’s only just discovering, which to a certain extent was the actual lived reality of the actor playing this role, and really conveying the textures of this country — alongside a fictional narrative. The scenes are scripted, and there’s also a febrile sense of the magical or the nightmarish that crops up every so often, blurring distinctions between lived reality and hallucination, and yet it still feels natural and at times improvised. For all that it’s very conscious and thoughtful about its process, though, it never sacrifices naturalism to formal rigours, and retains throughout a loping forward momentum.

Djon Africa (2018) posterCREDITS
Directors João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis; Writers Miller Guerra and Pedro Pinho; Cinematographer Vasco Viana; Starring Miguel Moreira, Isabel Cardoso; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 16 August 2019.

찬실이는 복도 많지 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

I’m fairly sure that if I watched this little Korean indie film again I’d like it even more. It has a relaxed vibe that may owe a little to Hong Sang-soo, but is mostly down to the film’s director/writer, one of Hong’s former producers, whose directionless character of the title starts to find a little bit of it as the film goes on.


This is hardly even the first South Korean film directed by a woman that I’ve seen about someone who’s already lived a bit of their life (I hesitate to say middle-aged, but sort of on that cusp of it) who feels directionless and unmotivated and unfulfilled. I’m thinking of Microhabitat, though it has a quite different vibe, but also the fact that the central character is a film worker makes me think of Korea’s great indie auteur Hong Sang-soo (again, his works have a quite different feeling, though it turns out that this film’s director did indeed produce many of his films for a period). In any case, Chan-sil finds herself out of a job as a film producer and unwilling to keep on trying to do it, wracked with depression, renting a room off a cranky older woman (“Oscar­™ winner” Youn Yuh-jung), working as a cleaner for a young actress, and generally feeling down. She even gets visited by the ghost of Leslie Cheung (obviously not really him, and with plenty of self-deprecating dialogue at his own lack of resemblance thereto). It’s amiable, if understandably a little meandering (given Chan-sil’s malaise), but I liked it.

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (2019) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kim Cho-hee 김초희; Cinematographer Ji Sang-bin 지상빈; Starring Kang Mal-geum 강말금, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Yoon Seung-ah 윤승아; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Wednesday 20 October 2021.