November 2018 Film Roundup

Another month (a week or so into it anyway)! And I’ve been watching plenty since October’s rundown, trying to catch up on some classics, though disappointingly too many of the films I saw this month were directed by men. Still there’s some interesting stuff I think. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Widows (2018, dir. Steve McQueen)
Time for Ilhan (2018, dir. Norah Shapiro)
Roma (2018, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Black Mother (2018, dir. Khalik Allah)
Charm City (2018, dir. Marilyn Ness)

I saw all of these films in the cinema! That much is unusual because there’s reliably always a few that only pop up on Netflix or Mubi these days. I even went to see my top-rated film twice, mainly because the first time I didn’t feel I saw it in the best way, plus I was a bit sideswiped by its tone. It’s billed as a generic heist movie, but it lacks a lot of those genre elements, and it’s a far quieter, far more emotionally fragile film about people (women) who have been knocked back in life and are struggling to rebuild, which is where the heist comes in. Anyway, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are all on top form, plus there’s some really brilliant from Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry too.

Three others are documentaries, all of which I really liked, two of which present more challenging urban US environments and try to find the positives within them (whether through the political candidacy of a charismatic Muslim-American woman in Time for Ilhan, or the engaged presence of community organisers working to curb violence in Baltimore in Charm City). The other documentary, Black Mother is by a filmmaker who’s cropped up a bunch of times on my round-ups this year, whose work I’m really enjoying, although this film by Khalik Allah is somehow both more beautiful and more troubling at times in its evocation of his idea of womanhood.

Finally, there’s room for Roma, which most people will be seeing on Netflix because it was made by them, but which I saw a rare cinematic screening of, and it is quite lovely in its busy set design details and sometimes frenetic action, but all covered by a glacially moving camera that sweeps and glides across everything with equanimity.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


Pyaasa (1957, dir. Guru Dutt)
The Passionate Friends (1949, dir. David Lean)
Hao Nan Hao Nu (Good Men, Good Women, 1995, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Moloch Tropical (2009, dir. Raoul Peck)
Winchester ’73 (1950, dir. Anthony Mann)
Ore wa Sono Sion da! (I Am Sono Sion!, 1985, dir. Sion Sono)
Last Holiday (2006, dir. Wayne Wang)
Cinnamon (2006, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
Wakefield Express (1952, dir. Lindsay Anderson)
3 Women (1977, dir. Robert Altman)

Like last month’s list, the ones down the bottom of this month again were a little disappointing (I don’t think this is Altman’s finest film by any means, but it has its moments). However, the Guru Dutt was a revelation and I look forward to watching some more of his output, which gained a feature on Mubi online streaming this month.

The Everson film was part of a series of his work on Mubi (I’ve put a few others on the last few months’ lists), as was the Anthony Mann western, while the Wayne Wang holiday film was on Netflix — largely forgettable, but also largely likeable thanks to Queen Latifah in the lead role, but most of the rest were on DVD. The Hou film I’d been meaning to catch up with for a long time (given it had its moment just before I started getting into cinema in the late-90s). The Passionate Friends is David Lean following up Brief Encounter in the same vein, and largely succeeding — I watched it on the recommendation of the Pure Cinema podcast, a couple of intense and literate film nerds who cover a decent range of releases, who were strangely enthusiastic about this film (I think it had had a Paul Thomas Anderson nod at some point). I do also want to note the Raoul Peck film, on a French boxset of his work, and a surprisingly powerful (and beautiful) evocation of a dictator losing touch with his people.

The only one I saw on a big screen was Sion Sono’s debut medium-length film, which is punky and vibrant and quite exciting as an experiment in form, part of the London East Asian Film Festival.

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October 2018 Film Roundup

I’m starting to get reliably late with these round-ups, though September’s round-up was sort of on time. Much of my October filmgoing was taken up with the London Film Festival, which I’ve written about separately here. As most of those titles haven’t (yet) been given a release this year, most of them don’t qualify for my new films list, which for some arbitrary reason is just films “on release” (hence excluding festival screenings), but I think I manage to scrape a few through on the basis of the rest of the month. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Columbus (2017, dir. Kogonada)
Shirkers (2018, dir. Sandi Tan)
Yours in Sisterhood (2018, dir. Irene Lusztig)
Tonsler Park (2017, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
A Star Is Born (2018, dir. Bradley Cooper)

One of these titles was in the London Film Festival, but also got released on the same date online by the streaming service Mubi: Yours in Sisterhood, a film in which women read unpublished letters sent to Ms. magazine in the 1970s, in the places where the letter writers were from, and comment on them. It’s straightforward and simple in form, but quite lovely (mostly). Two others are documentaries released online: Tonsler Park (also on Mubi) is by far the more minimal, showing the work of African-American volunteers in an election polling station in 2016; while Shirkers (on Netflix) has a playful sense of engagement with its own film history, being the story of a young Singaporean girl who made a film with some friends then had it stolen by its director.

The films that bookend the list are the cinema releases. Columbus was in last year’s London Film Festival, and is a lovely story of two people meeting in a small midwestern town most notable for its modernist architecture (Columbus, Indiana, not Ohio). There’s a really keen sense of the architecture, and much of the film is framed beautifully within and around these structures, as the two characters talk about their lives. And then there’s Bradley Cooper’s latest retelling of the old Hollywood story, and, well, it does what it needs to do, rather messily and sloppily at times, but effectively all the same (and Lady Gaga is excellent).

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


Enamorada (1946, dir. Emilio Fernández)
Possibly in Michigan (1983, dir. Cecelia Condit)
Ears, Nose and Throat (2016, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
Pas de Deux (1968, dir. Norman McLaren)
Thunder (1982, dir. Takashi Ito)
Nugu-ui ttal-do anin Hae-won (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, 2013, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Katatsumori (1994, dir. Naomi Kawase)
The Island of Saint Matthews (2013, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Ni tsutsumarete (Embracing, 1993, dir. Naomi Kawase)

I stretched a bit to get ten films this month, as most of my viewing was new films, so the bottom three or four are probably not what I’d call solid recommendations. The Kawase mid-length films are from a screening in the London East Asia Film Festival of her earliest documentary works, while the Everson documentaries are part of a season on Mubi that included his most recent work, featuring in the first list. Then there’s the Criterion film by Ingmar Bergman, which is lengthy and not without its positive features, but has a slightly dull 1970s made-for-TV aesthetic.

The top film was in the LFF, and I mentioned it there, but it’s a full-blooded Mexican golden age melodrama. A number are short films (Possibly in Michigan, Pas de Deux and Thunder) which I watched online on YouTube, as I didn’t have much time, and they ended up being really interesting, though Ears, Nose and Throat is also a short film, and just shows how much you can pack into such a concise format.

Finally, the Hong Sang-soo film is one I caught up with a few years late (it got a cinema release, rarely for Hong’s work), and is one of his more straightforwardly enjoyable exercises.

London Film Festival 2018: My Favourite Films

I’ve had a successful year in terms of attending other film festivals, but being based in London, naturally a lot of my focus every year — especially when it comes to the best of new films (rather than the archival screenings of, say, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna) — is the London Film Festival. This year, the stewardship of the festival had been taken over by Tricia Tuttle (as acting director initially, but now confirmed), who as a deputy director of the festival in previous years had always been a lively and engaged presence in Q&As, and undoubtedly has been very busy behind the scenes, because it seems to me to have been a particularly strong selection this year. Obviously a lot of that is down to the vicissitudes of availability of various titles (the lack of the new Claire Denis film was the only one I really felt I missed), but what films I saw were all interesting, and almost all screenings had an introduction if not a Q&A with the director or producer afterwards.

Of course, I cannot claim that my festival experience is that of everyone else; any film festival necessarily exists in multiple guises. The screenings that tend to get all the attention are the big galas and premieres, primarily in Leicester Square cinemas (or the festival’s large pop-up space in Embankment Gardens), and as a regular filmgoer I largely avoid those: they are expensive, and all the films generally already have release dates, so the only attraction is to see a film early and with its famous stars in attendance, and while that’s fine for the festival itself as far as getting press coverage go, it’s not where my interests lie (I did go and see the Sight & Sound gala premiere of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, though). Instead, I tend to choose the titles that have no distribution in place, many of which are directed by first-time directors. In order to narrow my choices down, and not read up on every film in the programme endlessly, I usually shortlist films directed by women or people of colour — which also generally has the benefit of diversifying the range of cultures and experiences I see on screen during the festival.

As in previous years, the largest number of films I booked to see were from the Middle East and Arab-speaking world (programmed by Elhum Shakerifar, who also produced one of the films I saw in the festival), but it seems to me that the strongest selection out of what I ended up seeing were Spanish-language films. My favourite was the second (or third, depending on how you’re counting) feature by Dominga Sotomayor, whose debut De jueves a domingo (Thursday Till Sunday, 2012) I had caught up with on DVD earlier this year, and which is a strong film about a family breaking up, conveyed during an extended car trip across the country. When I saw that, it made me think of the child’s-eye point-of-view of Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017, dir. Carla Simón), one of my favourite films from LFF 2017, and it may be that there’s a certain circle of inspiration that moves from Sotomayor’s own debut to that film, and into Sotomayor’s second — indeed, the car of De jueves a domingo makes a reappearance in the opening shot of the new film, though this isn’t a road movie — and I thought of all of them again watching Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young). It’s set in a sort of hippie commune outside Santiago in the early days of the new democracy in the 1990s, conveyed through subtle details (it wasn’t until Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” swelled up on the soundtrack that I fully realised we were in the mid-90s). It’s all beautifully shot and acted (largely by non-professionals), and I can strongly recommend it. It’s also a film for dog lovers (in the way that most festival cinema, if we’re being honest, is really about cats).

Also making a strong impression was young Mexican director Lila Avilés’s first feature La camarista (The Chambermaid), which follows Evelia (an amazing Gabriela Cartol, another first-time actor), a young native-born woman working in a luxury hotel in Mexico City. It lacks any strong, melodramatic plot contrivances, preferring to subtly loop in ideas of class and race as markers of difference, feeding into the way that guests react to Eve’s presence, and her own ability to work her way around within the hotel’s confining hierarchical structure. It makes its points without fuss, and using a slow, long-take sensibility that really conveys a sense of place, even as the film never strays beyond the bounds of the hotel itself. Also dealing with race is Miriam miente (Miriam Lies), a film from the Dominican Republic made by a husband and wife team (native-born Natalia Cabral and Spanish transplant Oriol Estrada) previously known for making documentaries. Here the race angle is more explicit, because it’s about a young Black Dominican girl growing up in a rich white society of debutantes, and the film’s drama (such as it is) revolves around the preparations for Miriam’s quinceañera and the guy she has invited as her date, whose constant non-appearance turns out to be because he also is Black and therefore not considered a suitable partner by her family or friends, hence her lies of the film’s title. Without ever being overtly angry, the film very ably expresses some of the race and class-based resentments that thread through this society. Both films remind me of other recent films from the region dealing with class and race, such as the Colombian drama Gente de bien (2014, dir. Franco Lolli) or the Venezuelan Pelo malo (Bad Hair, 2013, dir. Mariana Rondón).

It’s also worth mentioning here that my highlight of the ‘Treasures’ strand of the festival was Enamorada (1946), a Mexican melodrama from its 1940s golden age, directed by Emilio Fernández. Its restoration was premiered by Martin Scorsese (whose Film Foundation took the lead in the restoration work) at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, before I arrived at that festival, hence why I missed it there. The BFI will be doing a season next year of Mexican films, which will undoubtedly be a real highlight, given how many of these films offer unrestrained pleasure in their melodramatic plots and forthright performances. In this case, it’s María Félix who tears up the screen as Beatriz in a small Mexican town during the revolutionary era, arms akimbo and both nose and eyes flaring at every moment, seemingly from having to be around such incompetent men. It’s a delight.

Returning to Middle Eastern films, my second-favourite film at the festival and the highlight of that strand, was for me the Iranian film Tehran: City of Love by another debut feature director, Ali Jaberansari. In a Q&A afterwards with Ms Shakerifar, he mentioned taking inspiration from the deadpan work of such directors as Aki Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Jim Jarmusch, and all of that is quite evident on screen. It tells three stories, which only briefly intersect, but all of which seem to suggest a different aspect of romance, with specific reference to body image. One is an overweight woman working as the receptionist at a cosmetic surgeon’s office, another a self-loathing funeral singer who has just split up and doesn’t know how to be happy, and the third is an ageing bodybuilder with repressed gay desires (or so it seems; the film is very circumspect on this) who feels a chance to connect with another person when a younger man needs training for an upcoming championship. Because it’s Iranian, there’s a strong sense of melancholy that weaves through all these stories, but ultimately the deadpan humour is evident at all times and there’s even a small hint of hopefulness, even if nothing seems to go quite to plan.

Another highlight of this region’s cinema was the Egyptian pseudo-documentary Dreamaway, by directing team of Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke, which in its play with performance and the light fictionalisation that is applied at certain levels, brings to mind Alma Har’el’s work (like LFF 2016’s LoveTrue or her earlier Bombay Beach). In this case, you get the sense that the fictionalisation is partly to protect the workers themselves, who limn the conservative attitudes of their society with the relative hedonism and freedom of this entirely separate resort area. Indeed, the resort at Sharm-el-Sheikh, which seems strictly for foreign tourists, is also portrayed as largely desolate and empty — artistic licence, perhaps, but one that speaks eloquently to the drop-off in tourism as a result of Egypt’s recent turmoil. And so we see these young Egyptians cleaning rooms, doing fitness/dance routines, mixing drinks and performing as mimes (one man in full black-and-gold body makeup pretending to be a bronze cowboy is exactly the kind of thing you might find amongst the crowds in Covent Garden, or wherever your city’s tourist heart is found) to an audience of just each other. The uncanniness is further heightened by the conceit of a man in a monkey costume eliciting confessions from the back of a flatbed truck, and there are occasional brief interstices with these workers wandering aimlessly through the desert much as the characters traipse along roads in Buñuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie — surrealism is never far from the surface here.

I want to round up my summary with a trio of American films, two of which I saw when I visited the States at the end of August, and which I featured in my round-up of that month. If I’d seen Madeline’s Madeline and Sorry to Bother You at LFF 2018, they’d be in my top 5 (indeed, the former film, directed by Josephine Decker, would probably be my #1). As it is, I saw Andrew Bujalski’s latest Support the Girls at LFF (it was on release when I was in the States, but I couldn’t fit it in back then). It initially seems fairly unpromising — it revolves around the workers at a Texan ‘breastaurant’, a strangely American phenomenon of a family-friendly diner staffed by young women wearing revealing tops — but turns out to share more in common with some of the films discussed above than expected. Bujalski himself comes from a very specific type of NY-based indie improv background (he was one of the early filmmakers in the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement, though with 2015’s Results he showed a tendency towards the kind of space he deals with in his latest film as well: a brightly-lit space redolent of the worst trends of modernity, with a cast of charismatic screen-friendly name actors). As such, there’s a strong sense of fellow consciousness with the women who work at the restaurant, their struggles with uncaring, bottom-line and image-obsessed management (embodied by James Le Gros), and with a generalised feeling of class-based disconnect within wider American society. It’s also tied together with a pair of divergently strong performances by Black woman leads: Regina Hall as Lisa, the very competent and well-liked general manager of the restaurant, who would probably never be seen in this environment if it weren’t for needing work, and Shayna McHayle as worker Danyelle, whose eye-rolls and attitude enliven the film no end. The versatile Haley Lu Richardson (familiar from Columbus and Edge of Seventeen) is also on fine form, and completely unrecognisable from those other performances. It’s a slow-burn comic highlight.

My Top 20 Films at LFF 2018 (that I saw there)

  1. Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, Chile/Argentina/Brazil/Netherlands/Qatar, dir. Dominga Sotomayor)
  2. Tehran: City of Love (Iran/Netherlands/UK, dir. Ali Jaberansari)
  3. Enamorada (1946, Mexico, dir. Emilio Fernández)
  4. La camarista (The Chambermaid, Mexico/USA, dir. Lila Avilés)
  5. Support the Girls (USA, dir. Andrew Bujalski)
  6. Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic/France/Germany, dir. Radu Jude)
  7. Dreamaway (Egypt/Qatar/Germany, dir. Marouan Omara/Johanna Domke)
  8. Miriam miente (Miriam Lies, Dominican Republic/Spain, dir. Natalia Cabral/Oriol Estrada)
  9. Beoning (Burning, South Korea, dir. Lee Chang-dong)
  10. Jiang Nu Er Nu (Ash Is Purest White, China/Japan/France, dir. Jia Zhangke)
  11. Monrovia, Indiana (USA, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
  12. Netemo Sametemo (Asako I & II, Japan, dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  13. Ai to Ho (Of Love & Law, Japan/UK/France, dir. Hikaru Toda)
  14. Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, China/USA, dir. Cathy Yan)
  15. Rafiki (aka Friend, Kenya/South Africa, dir. Wanuri Kahiu)

… with a special mention to Madeline’s Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker) and Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley), which I’d already seen, and which would rank highly. Any of the films above, indeed, could have been higher-placed had I perhaps been in the right frame of mind to take them in, and there was plenty to like in all of them I thought. There was also an excellent “surprise treasure” film screening (a newly-restored 1988 medium-length film), but we were asked not to speak about that.

Disclaimer: I am not a film journalist or writer (you may be able to tell; this is all strictly amateur), I did not get press accreditation, and I paid for all my screenings.

September 2018 Film Roundup

My August round-up was late, so here I am back (more or less) on time with September. The start of the month I was in LA with family, but since then I’ve been back to the cinema. In fact, 63% of the films I saw last month were at the cinema, though I only scraped by with one film per day on average in any location including home (which is the lowest of the year so far and will certainly be surpassed in October, which is London Film Festival month). In fact, generally it was a poor month for women directors and directors of colour so I’ll be looking to redress that with my film festival picks. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Skate Kitchen (2018, dir. Crystal Moselle)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018, dir. Desiree Akhavan)
A Simple Favor (aka A Simple Favour, 2018, dir. Paul Feig)
Lucky (2017, dir. John Carroll Lynch)
Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017, dir. Agnès Varda/JR)

All of these films were seen in the cinema, for a change, including the very belated UK release of Agnès Varda’s documentary (which premiered at Cannes last year). Lucky was also a slow road to UK cinemas — its star Harry Dean Stanton sadly passed away in the meantime — but it has that kind of Straight Story/Jarmusch vibe, so it holds up. The others are far more current and vibrant, and I was in particular surprised by A Simple Favor which was silly and genre-bending, but had comedy, thrills and some excellent acting from Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick.

As for the top two, I’ve definitely seen some far less sympathetic write-ups — and I do agree that Skate Kitchen‘s actual story is a little bit rote — but in both cases I love the style, that sort of quiet reflective almost accidental way of coming across a narrative. The first is also infused with documentary influences, which work really well.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973, dir. Ivan Dixon)
Samson and Delilah (2009, dir. Warwick Thornton)
Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City, 1927, dir. Walther Ruttmann)
Onibaba (1964, dir. Kaneto Shindo)
Ukigusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
Chameleon Street (1989, dir. Wendell B. Harris Jr)
Salvatore Giuliano (1962, dir. Francesco Rosi)
Le Corbeau (1943, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Listen to Britain (1942, dir. Humphrey Jennings/Stewart McAllister)
People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (2016, dir. John Torres)

I saw three of these in the cinema, two of them in a “Black and Banned” retrospective at the BFI of under-seen filmmaking by Black filmmakers — though neither The Spook Who Sat by the Door (a wild satire which reminded me of last month’s Sorry to Bother You) nor Chameleon Street (another satire, and a Sundance favourite) were banned per se, they did de facto slip into that category by being shunned by distributors and then locked away in purgatory, meaning they never got proper distribution. The other film I saw in the cinema was a Filipino film about film history and representation, People Power Bombshell, a very thoughtful and multilayered film which probably should be in the top list (can’t imagine it’s had any other kind of release).

Mubi stepped up for Berlin and Listen to Britain, but otherwise I’ve mainly been watching short films there (the latter is a short), and somewhat more complex (and clearly unsatisfying) films this month. A very strong four films come from the regular Criterion Collection watching, so expect reviews of them in upcoming months. Finally, there’s Samson and Delilah, which I rented on DVD because I really liked the director’s recent Sweet Country, and it is indeed an excellent (if expectedly depressing) story about Aboriginal Australians.

August 2018 Film Roundup

I was on holiday at the start of the month, so I entirely neglected this at the time, hence the lateness. My July round-up was a bumper bonus crop, so I’m back to the usual five new and 10 old films this month, though you can rest assured I saw more of both, a total of 44 films including rewatches. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Madeline’s Madeline (2018, dir. Josephine Decker)
Sorry to Bother You (2018, dir. Boots Riley)
Las herederas (The Heiresses, 2018, dir. Marcelo Martinessi)
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018, dir. Susan Johnson)
Las Sandinistas (2018, dir. Jenny Murray)

First up, the most important point to make is that the first two films haven’t even been released in the UK (though they’re new films obviously, hence their inclusion). Madeline’s Madeline is about an experimental theatre troupe and deals with issues of performance, and socialisation in groups, and is being shown at the London Film Festival in October. I adored the same director’s previous films Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) — the latter, in particular, has imagery that still sticks in my mind, so I feel I should really revisit it.

The second film is a raucous satire about black people in modern America, and I can only presume distributors don’t think it will appeal to British audiences (which is just ridiculous). It fizzes with energy, even if it can seem a little madcap at times — though there’s no amount of comic stretching that could really compare to the reality of the situation — so I’m inclined to allow the film its wilder imagery. The performances are stellar too, not least Lakeith Stanfield in the central role, and Tessa Thompson as his nihilist artist girlfriend Detroit. I hope it gets a UK release before the year is out.

The other three are a mix of films in the cinema — The Heiresses a slow-burn Paraguayan drama about two an elderly lesbian couple, one of whom suddenly finds herself needing to express her independence, and Las Sandinistas a documentary about that Nicaraguan movement, especially during the 80s and 90s, which takes the form of an almost rock-and-roll assemblage and moves along nimbly.

Finally, there’s a rare triumph of a Netflix film (To All the Boys…) which may not be the most cinematically advanced film, and may rely on at least some hoary old genres, but manages to feel fresh and also, crucially, just utterly delightful and charming.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Samuel Fuller)
Se, Jie (Lust, Caution, 2007, dir. Ang Lee)
Le Bonheur (1965, dir. Agnes Varda)
Public Housing (1997, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
Bei Xi Mo Shou (Behemoth, 2015, dir. Zhao Liang)
La Pointe-Courte (1955, dir. Agnes Varda)
Werewolf (2016, dir. Ashley Mackenzie)
Fruitvale Station (2013, dir. Ryan Coogler)
Blue Black Permanent (1992, dir. Margaret Tait)
Malgré la nuit (Despite the Night, 2015, dir. Philippe Grandrieux)

The Mubi streaming service again provides a number of these — an Ang Lee season allowed me to catch up with his Lust, Caution, which turns out to be an effective and lush film about espionage and relationships wartime China, while a season of new Canadian films yielded Werewolf, my favourite of the bunch I’ve seen, which despite the title deals with methadone addicts in small-town Canada, and has a striking style (also, it may technically count as a ‘new film’ I guess, given I daresay it hasn’t had any kind of screening before now in the UK). Finally, Blue Black Permanent was something they put up in collaboration with the wonderful Cinema Rediscovered festival at Bristol’s Watershed, and is a fine film made by a poet, and which has that sensibility to its imagery.

A couple of others come from a touring Agnès Varda season that’s been doing the rounds ahead of her upcoming Faces Places film (released in the UK on 21 September, finally). I’d seen neither Le Bonheur (a spiky relationship drama) nor her debut La Pointe-Courte (about a small fishing village), but both are excellent, though dare I say it perhaps Varda is getting a little overexposed now…

The top place goes to a film I saw as part of my regular Criterion watching, a film by Samuel Fuller that’s equal to his muckracking tabloid-style movies of the 60s, and has noirish style to spare, in its story of wartime espionage, Communist spies, and a wonderful Thelma Ritter as an embittered lady who’s not taking it anymore.

The rest are all films I rented over the month, a range of documentaries (Behemoth about strip-mining in China, and Public Housing about, er, well you can guess… in Chicago), a film torn from the headlines (Ryan Coogler’s fine debut Fruitvale Station, about a shooting on the San Francisco BART system), and Philippe Grandrieux’s bold expressive film about his usual dark subject matter: relationships gone bad.

July 2018 Film Roundup

A bit late with it this month, but after my lacklustre effort in June to watch new films (I only managed three in total), I’ve redoubled my efforts and can for July present you an EXPANDED new films list, that even so manages to miss out the wonderfully enjoyable Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again… It’s been a month of SUN and HEATWAVE temperatures (for Britain) which means that the cool comfort of a cinema screen has been particularly welcome. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Last month I also promised an update for stats fans, and I can confirm that 50% of the features I watched in July were directed by women (20 out of 40 films in total), and as you can see six of them show up in each of the top 10s below. Moreover, 53% of the films I saw (i.e. 21) were directed by people of colour.

Top 10 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Leave No Trace (2018, dir. Debra Granik)
Cold War (2018, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Shakedown (2018, dir. Leilah Weinraub)
In the Fade (2017, dir. Fatih Akin)
Naila and the Uprising (2017, dir. Julia Bacha)
Outside In (2017, dir. Lynn Shelton)
Speak Up (2017, dir. Amandine Gay)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Claire’s Camera (2017, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Pin Cushion (2017, dir. Deborah Haywood)

I saw all but one of these films at a cinema (the odd one out was Netflix-only release Outside In). For some of them, saying they were on “release” is a little misleading (Claire’s Camera was a one-off Korean Film Festival preview screening, Speak Up was another one-off screening, while Cold War is being released properly at the end of August).

It’s good to see more 2018 films finally making these lists, and the two up the top are surely the strongest of 2018’s dramatic narrative films I’ve seen so far this year. Leave No Trace for me is superior to the same director’s Winter’s Bone of almost ten years ago, and the young woman at the centre of the story is a New Zealand actor it turns out. In any case, she gives a great performance, coming across (and I mean this as a compliment) as an unrehearsed non-actor, someone who’s really living the part. Ben Foster also disappears into the film, as he tends to do (he’s been in so many good films, but I still don’t really know how to spot him). Cold War, meanwhile, in a sense extends Pawlikowski’s black-and-white historical Polish stories after Ida, but strikes a quite different tone. There’s a heavy sense of doomed romance, and Pawlikowski cuts out everything that’s extraneous, so that it comes in at under 90 minutes.

Elsewhere, there’s a strong showing from documentaries, which this past month have ranged across subjects like underground LA queer sex workers in Shakedown (a fascinating story of people who aren’t much represented on screen) to reminiscences of the Palestinian Intifada in Naila and the Uprising, and French feminists of colour speaking direct to camera in Speak Up.

Outside In and Pin Cushion are little indie dramas from the US and UK respectively, the latter of which has a bleak edge that makes what initially seems like a twee coming of age story feel a little more raw by its conclusion. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the blockbuster on the list (which feels a little rote now in this franchise, but still manages to pack plenty in), and In the Fade is a fine German film anchored by an amazing performance from Diane Kruger. Finally, if you haven’t really enjoyed some of Hong Sang-soo’s recent films, you probably won’t like Claire’s Camera because it continues his improvisational non-style-as-style technique, and has a daffy Isabelle Huppert wandering around Cannes.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

beDevil (1993, dir. Tracey Moffatt)
I Am Somebody (1970, dir. Madeline Anderson)
Chocolat (1988, dir. Claire Denis)
The Battle of Chile (1975-79, dir. Patricio Guzman)
Mamma Mia! (2008, dir. Phyllida Lloyd)
Mossane (1996, dir. Safi Faye)
Little Fugitive (1953, dir. Morris Engel/Ruth Sorkin/Ray Ashley)
Thursday Till Sunday (2012, dir. Dominga Sotomayor)
The Man by the Shore (1993, dir. Raoul Peck)
The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood (1990, dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

After last month’s blow-out at Bologna, most of these were seen at home, although it’s notable that the top two were seen at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, which takes direct inspiration from Bologna. It’s a new festival, but Bristol is a lovely city with plenty of sense of artistic discovery and I look forward to revisiting it. Tracey Moffatt is an Australian artist of part Aboriginal descent, and beDevil was her only feature: it is very much the film of an artist, and has a singular sense of place, with the kind of stage-bound feeling of old Hollywood movies but riven through with a confrontational sensibility that makes it very much an outlier of everything else being made at the time. I Am Somebody, meanwhile, is a short film made during the Civil Rights movement which deals with intersectional ideas of the struggle for social change at a time when these ideas were still in their infancy.

The others largely just reflect what I’ve been renting from my video shop, although the Raoul Peck film is from me struggling to work through a box set of his Haitian films, and Mossane was a one-off screening at the BFI of a singular Black African woman filmmaker (one of very few).

June 2018 Film Roundup

Sadly, I have failed in my third month of my sub-quest to watch more than 50% films directed by women (last month was more succesful), though my general 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day continues apace. This comes down to my own poor planning in advance of a week-long jaunt to Bologna for its fantastic Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival. I loved that festival, I loved the town, I loved having dinner and Aperol/Campari spritzes with friends as well as meeting new people (mostly film writers and academics), and I loved the food and general vibe of both the town and the festival. However, as it’s a festival dedicated to old and archival films (as well as new restorations of old films), it does mean the demographics skew a bit white and male — not just on the films, but on the attendees too it might be added. I got the feeling that the festival was trying to address the diversity at least a tiny bit (it was my first year so I can’t really be sure), and I tried my best to fit as many films directed by women in, but it was not enough to pass my own little quest for this month. That said, I’ll redouble my efforts in the (not named after a woman) month of July. Also, I didn’t even watch enough films to get a top 5 for new release movies, but I blame that on film distributors — the weather has been rather sunny and lovely, and a few blockblusters clogged the screens.

PS Once again, I’m still posting notes on all the films I see over at Letterboxd but herewith my summary.

Top 3 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

Another Country (2015, dir. Molly Reynolds)
Casa Roshell (2017, dir. Camila José Donoso)
The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017, dir. Nancy Buirski)

The first two films were on Mubi this past month, and only the last had a cinema release. Moreover, I only really liked the first film; the other two are the only other two new-release films I saw, so they’re there by default (and even then, I’m including Another Country because I believe this is its first proper release in the UK, aside perhaps from some one-off screenings).

That first film is a documentary about Aboriginal people, and the way in which their lives have been affected by racist policies of the Australian government: it’s a strong film about giving a sense of a community, but it’s also depressing, with little apparent hope for change to the way these Aboriginal reservations are organised. The other two are also documentaries, the first sort of a hybrid documentary-fiction about a Mexican nightclub and its genderqueer and trans performers, the second about a footnote to the early history of the Civil Rights movement in the USA largely composed of historians and archival footage.

Top 15 Old Films (but new to me)

Cabaret (1972, dir. Bob Fosse)
È piccerella (1922, dir. Elvira Notari)
Late Chrysanthemums (1954, dir. Mikio Naruse)
Lieutenant Kizhe (1934, dir. Aleksandr Faintsimmer)
In Jackson Heights (2015, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
Journey to the West (2014, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Crown Prince of the Republic (1934, dir. Eduard Ioganson)
Jane B. by Agnès V. (1988, dir. Agnès Varda)
Black Goddess (1978, dir. Ola Balogun)
Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975, dir. Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina)
Lights of Old Broadway (1925, dir. Monta Bell)
Mysterious Shadows (1949, dir. G.W. Pabst)
Haitian Corner (1988, dir. Raoul Peck)
The Winter of Three Hairs (1949, dir. Gong Yan/Ming Zhao)
Carita de cielo (1947, dir. José Díaz Morales)

Because of the shorter list above, and because of the Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival (accounting for all the pre-80s films above except the Naruse), I’ve expanded the list this month to 15 choices, and there are plenty more I could have added that I’d still have liked more than even my favourite new-release film this month.

In Bologna, most of the films I saw were vintage 35mm prints from various archives. The Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles furnished vintage Technicolor prints, clearly the best and most impressive way to see Cabaret for the first time — a film I loved, despite its Oscars success (never a guide to quality, of course). Various national archives came through for the rest. There were Soviet films, and two of the four I saw from their 1934 strand are above, both amusing and wry. There were silent films, both my choices above by women filmmakers (Monta Bell in the States, and Elvira Notari in Italy), and both also amusing, if broad, comedies. There was a strand of Chinese films, from which I saw three films, with the one above my favourite, a beautifully shot portrait of an era filtered through a comic book sensibility. I didn’t end up including any of the 1930s Fox films, or the John M. Stahl melodramas, perhaps because in the case of the former, they were not the best films (though they were interesting), and in the latter I’m just not a huge melodrama fan, even if I can appreciate the artistry Stahl brought to his work. However, one of the Mexican melodramas sneaks in, the grandly enjoyable and daffy Carita de cielo, though I’m kicking myself I missed Victims of Sin, which I hear was wonderful.

Additionally, there was a programme called ‘Cinemalibero’ that included various activist and revolutionary films, not least Nigerian filmmaker Ola Balogun’s Brazilian film Black Goddess, who was there to introduce it, and was a real highlight (and a rare film to get to see). The other film I’ve included above from that strand was a new restoration (therefore presented in digital format), the grand and sweeping story of Algerian independence, taking in much of the early-20th century, the beautiful Chronicle of the Years of Fire (its director was also there, but I didn’t get the chance to listen, and my French wouldn’t have been up to it, in any case).

Finally of the Bologna films was another recent restoration in digital 4K, which was the late Pabst film Mysterious Shadows. It may not have been a masterpiece, but it was great fun — taking in cave exploration, ice skating, bad capitalists trying to exploit science, a romantic three-way, and some deft camerawork. With all that, and the relatively cheap eating and drinking, I shall definitely be returning to this film festival.

May 2018 Film Roundup

Nearing the mid-year point in my 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new, or new to you) every day, May is the second month in my sub-challenge to watch more than 50% films directed by women (as it’s a month with a woman’s name… please keep up). Again, I’m still posting notes on all of them over at Letterboxd, but a round-up is required. Turns out that as the sun and warmth has returned slowly to Britain, I’ve been watching fewer films, so closer to 30 than 50 this month, and far more short films.

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

The Breadwinner (2017, dir. Nora Twomey)
The Dreamed Path (2016, dir. Angela Schanelec)
Waru (2017, dir. various Maori woman directors)
Raazi (2018, dir. Meghna Gulzar)
Tully (2017, dir. Jason Reitman)

Three of these films were given a release at cinemas; some other films that came out in May that I’d already seen include Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which I’d probably have put on this list if it were new to me, although it took my second viewing to get into it fully, so perhaps it’s a grower. The Indian film turned out to much stronger than I usually expect of Bollywood features.

The German film was given a premiere at Genesis Cinema but otherwise was just on streaming service Mubi. However, after seeing a number of other Angela Schanelec films this past few months thanks to Mubi, I found it to be an enigmatic and mysterious film with what I perceived to be hidden depths that may reveal themselves if I were to watch it again.

Finally, there’s Waru which (as yet) has had no UK release in any form, but my mum sent me the DVD. It’s a series of short films all based around the same fictional premise (the death of a young child) on a marae. Given the format, some are better than others, but on the whole it’s a strong piece.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

A Tale of the Wind (1988, dir. Joris Ivens/Marceline Loridan)
The World (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000, dir. Jonas Mekas)
24 City (2008, dir. Jia Zhangke)
The Holy Girl (2004, dir. Lucrecia Martel)
Urban Rashomon (2013, dir. Khalik Allah)
Peppermint Soda (1977, dir. Diane Kurys)
The East Wind (El Chergui) (1975, dir. Moumen Smihi)
There’s Always Tomorrow (1956, dir. Douglas Sirk)
Together (1956, dir. Lorenza Mazzetti)

None of these are Criterion films. Instead, there are a few shorter pieces I caught up on to fill my daily gap (the Allah film is on YouTube, as is the Mazzetti, although it was on the BFI’s “Free Cinema” set of British new wave films and documentaries of the 1950s). As Lucrecia Martel’s latest was out, I thought I should go see a retrospective screening of one of her earlier films, the wonderful (and possibly underrated by me) The Holy Girl. Another celluloid screening was the rare Moumen Smihi film, a Moroccan filmmaker whose work isn’t much shown or available.

Two of the others were on Mubi (the almost-5hr long Jonas Mekas assemblage and the Sirk film, as part of a season of his work). Finally there were some I rented, including the Ivens film I put up the top, several Jia films (of which I think The World is my favourite, dealing with alienation in the modern world), and the Diane Kurys period film, a slightly sentimental but lovely coming of age set in 60s Paris.

April 2018 Film Roundup

My 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day proceeds apace, and April sees the first of three months in which I’ve dedicated myself to watching at least 50% films directed by women (for these are all months with women’s names, or at least that’s my tenuous thematic connection). I watched 50 films this month, not counting short films, and I managed 27 directed (or co-directed) by women, although I am (perhaps cheekily) including a trans filmmaker who as far as I know doesn’t identify as either.

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

Western (2017, dir. Valeska Grisebach)
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017, dir. Mouly Surya)
Wonderstruck (2017, dir. Todd Haynes)
Even When I Fall (2017, dir. Kate McLarnon/Sky Neal)
Isle of Dogs (2018, dir. Wes Anderson)

In a rare top five for me so far, all of these films were given a cinema release during April, even if Marlina was a very small and targeted release, which in London meant only a handful of screenings. One of them was at the East End Film Festival, at the wonderful Genesis Cinema, and it was great both to see the film — a western in form, albeit set in Indonesia, with a woman seeking vengeance — and to hear the young woman director talking about its making afterwards.

My top place is another pseudo-western, one that even has that as its title, although it’s set in Bulgaria amongst a group of German workers. It’s another in a long lineage of films about masculinity and about codes of manly behaviour as seen by a woman (think Chevalier or Beau travail, the latter of which I caught up with a few days ago for about the fifth time, and which I still esteem as one of the best films ever).

The documentary in fourth place is about young Nepali women more or less abducted from their poor families at childhood into rural Indian travelling circuses, and for a film about human child trafficking, it has charismatic central performers, it depicts an arc of lived experience which moves towards a more hopeful resolution, and it has a keen cinematic eye for a good shot.

The other two films are relatively big budget and given plenty of fanfare, even if the Todd Haynes piece was (in my opinion) rather unjustly neglected as a minor work, but I suppose that was always likely to be the case with any follow-up to Carol.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

Repast (1951, dir. Mikio Naruse)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960, dir. Karel Reisz)
Twenty-Four Eyes (1954, dir. Keisuke Kinoshita)
Marseille (2004, dir. Angela Schanelec)
Winter Light (1963, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Something Must Break (2014, dir. Ester Martin Bergsmark)
Battles (2015, dir. Isabel Tollenaere)
All I Desire (1953, dir. Douglas Sirk)
Canyon Passage (1946, dir. Jacques Tourneur)
Documenteur (1981, dir. Agnes Varda)

Rarely, only one of these films comes from the Criterion Sunday project (that’s the Bergman film), for we’ve had quite a run of films I’d either seen before (by Fassbinder) or films that are just too attenuated to hold my interest (which accounts for the rest of the Bergmans, an extensive documentary about him, and a rather wacky Shohei Imamura). Of course, my top place is a Naruse film that, like all his work, should feature in that collection but somehow doesn’t, but it’s wonderful as ever, with a nimble touch in dealing with an unhappy marriage as lived in a society very rigid in its etiquette and codes of public conduct.

Two more come from cinema screenings: the Reisz was part of a ‘Woodfall Films’ season at the BFI to which a friend took me along, a wonderful slice of working-class Northern life in which Albert Finney plays a rather annoying lad; while the Kinoshita film was presented by the Japan Foundation, and while it may have been projected from a DVD, it was still affecting to see it (and I will be returning to it again in many years for the Criterion project).

Several others come from the Mubi streaming service, not least a season of Angela Schanelec films, of which Marseille is my clear favourite, though they all share a particular interest in narratives which seem to come across their subjects rather by chance, and elliptical editing strategies. Another of their seasons (of women filmmakers), provided Battles, a haunting, poetic documentary about the legacies of 20th century warfare in the European built environment, while there were also a number of Varda films (even if I caught up with Documenteur on DVD after it had left Mubi; it’s another of her LA-set films, a light blend of documentary and fiction modes). Finally, Mubi provided a number of mid-century period films: the high melodrama of the Sirk film, and the glorious Western beauty of the Tourneur.

Rounding out my list is a film about trans and gender non-conforming identities via the Swedish film Something Must Break written and directed by a trans artist, which I ordered on DVD because it was cheap and I’d seen some good notices for it. It shares some DNA with A Fantastic Woman, but seems somehow less exploitative, and has another fantastic performance at its heart.

March 2018 Film Roundup

Three months have passed in my 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day, with the bonus proviso that it’s ‘March Around the World’ month (a Letterboxd-based film-viewing challenge) so there’s an international flavour to my watching (more than usual), with a specific reference to Africa. Expect African films! Again, I’m still posting notes on all of them over at Letterboxd, but a round-up is required.

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

Sweet Country (2017, dir. Warwick Thornton)
Annihilation
(2018, dir. Alex Garland)
Malila: The Farewell Flower
(2017, dir. Anucha Boonyawatana)
Untitled
(2017, dir. Michael Glawogger/Monika Willi)
Close-Knit
(2017, dir. Naoko Ogigami)

Only one of these films was actually given a release at cinemas (the first one), although I should note that I also caught up with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here for a second time (I originally saw it at last year’s London Film Festival), and it’s surely my favourite film that was given a cinema release in March, a bleak anti-genre film pulling apart the mythology of the lone hitman.

There are two films from streaming services, with the poetic documentary about nothing in particular, Untitled (the last film by documentarian Michael Glawogger) on Mubi, while Annihilation was of course only given a Netflix release in the UK (aside from a few measly one-off screenings at Everyman cinemas).

My final two films above, Malila and Close-Knit, were screened at the BFI Flare film festival (which deals with LGBTQI+ themes), though I daresay they won’t get a ‘proper’ release. The first is by a trans woman filmmaker although it doesn’t explicitly deal with transgender people (it’s sort of a gay love story set in the Thai jungles, but more than that it’s a Buddhist-inflected meditation on what it means to be alive), while the Japanese film is a more commercially-orientated film about a family unit featuring a trans woman (played by a cis male, as it’s early days for Japan I suppose).

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) and Lovesong (2001, dir. Stan Brakhage)
Daratt (aka Dry Season) (2006, dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
Happy Hour (2015, dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Umberto D. (1952, dir. Vittoria de Sica)
Faat Kiné (2001, dir. Ousmane Sembène)
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Samba Traoré (1992, dir. Idrissa Ouédraogo)
Yeelen (1987, dir. Souleymane Cissé)
XXY (2007, dir. Lucía Puenzo)
Melancholia (2008, dir. Lav Diaz)

The Criterion Sunday project of watching Criterion Collection films provides my joint number 1, two short films by Stan Brakhage, which is a bit of a cheat I suppose but as they’re both under 10 minutes, it seems fair. Brakhage has a number of these painted-directly-on-the-celluloid works, and Untitled is perhaps my favourite, dedicated to his wife. Almost every image is like an individual painting, overwhelming in its cumulative beauty, though you do need to put on a good soundtrack (they’re both silent). Criterion is also responsible for Umberto D., a sensitive and nuanced De Sica film, very beautiful and very sad. The Lodger was also projected off a Criterion disc, but this wasn’t part of my project (not yet), as the night I saw it was more dedicated to the musical trio providing accompaniment (hence the rather patchy film projection).

There’s a number of African films, as trailed in my intro above, because of the ‘March Around the World’ focus on African cinema this year. My favourite was the Chadian film Daratt, which has a beautiful simplicity to it. Indeed, uncluttered narratives are a bit of a feature of my favourite films, including Samba Traoré (Burkina Faso), Yeelen (Mali) and Faat Kiné (Senegal).

At the rather more epic end of the scale are the 5½ hour Happy Hour (a recent Japanese film about four women) and the 7½ hour Melancholia (another of Lav Diaz’s customary overlong meditations on Filipino history and society). Finally, bringing things back to the LGBTQI themes mentioned above was XXY, a beautiful Argentine film about a gender non-conforming person.