Criterion Sunday 168: Monterey Pop (1968)

If you’re a fan of classic 60s rock and pop music, then there’s plenty here to enjoy, with beautifully captured performances by the Mamas and the Papas (who helped organise the festival), Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar, amongst many others. Of course there are still a few of those acts whose legacy has been somewhat obscured by history (I have no idea who Country Joe are, nor much surpassing interest in finding out), but on the whole it’s a fine document. The filmmakers tend to prefer the close-up which can be a little frustrating at times, and their cameras wander to the audience with regularity, though plenty of little moments are captured thereby, the film being at times as much a document of late-60s counterculture fashion and style as of the music. But with the excellent soundtrack, it all coasts by very amiably.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director D.A. Pennebaker | Cinematographers Nick Doob [as James Desmond], Barry Feinstein, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy and D.A. Pennebaker | Length 79 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 September 2017


Criterion Sunday 167: The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

This box set collects the 1968 documentary Monterey Pop with two shorter pieces culled from outtakes and released in 1986, Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey. All are taken from footage shot at the June 1967 Monterey Pop festival, and even aside from the two shorter stand-alone pieces, there’s several hours of unused concert footage, a lot of which is for bands who perhaps are not quite as well known anymore (if they ever were), some of which was not used because some of the set is missing, and some of which just gives more tunes by acts who already feature in the main documentary (most notably, and perhaps to my ears the best, being the Mamas and the Papas). There are also contemporaneous audio interviews with key figures, an audio commentary by Pennebaker, and (on the latest release) a short film by Richard Leacock called Chiefs.

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Robby Müller | Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017

Criterion Sunday 165: C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992)

Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde | Writers Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier | Cinematographer André Bonzel | Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017

My Favourite Films of 2017

Another year, another favourite films post! I’ve done one on Letterboxd, but that’s just my top 25 of films that were actually released in the UK in 2017, so it includes films that were on my favourite 2016 films list. Over there I’ve also got a list of all the 2017 films I’ve seen, which are the ones with a 2017 production date, and that list will keep changing and growing. Below is a list of my favourite new films that I saw in 2017, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. As ever, it means it’s missing some that only got festival screenings which I haven’t yet seen (most notably Agnès Varda’s Faces Places, which I’m very much looking forward to), so expect those next year.

But to the statistics, because I love the statistics! In total, I saw fewer films in 2017: 340 medium- or full-length feature films (almost a hundred fewer than in 2016), 143 of which were in the cinema (which at 42% is exactly the same percentage, though still represents a drop from a high of 62% of films seen in the cinema back in 2013).

However the big news is that I achieved my resolution to see 50% of films directed by women and 50% of films directed by people of colour. I saw exactly 170 women-directed films and 170 PoC-directed films, which particularly in the latter case represents a huge year-on-year increase (last year I saw 43% films directed by women, and 26% directed by non-white directors). In total, I saw exactly the same number of films directed by women of colour as by white men (95 films, i.e. 28% of my total). Now that I’ve hit that, I probably won’t try to achieve it again in 2018, as it did mean I actively avoided a lot of films, especially when it got to December, and I want to focus on filling in some film history gaps, which is going to mean more (old) films directed by white men, but I will certainly try to keep watching a diverse range of new filmmaking.

In terms of quality, there were lots of brilliant films, and plenty that I loved which I haven’t been able to include here… I mean, somewhere below the 25 listed there’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (flawed, yet sensitive, with a brilliant performance from Rebecca Hall, maybe my favourite acting performance of the year), On Body and Soul (a strange, odd Hungarian film), Félicité (an African film with another brilliant central performance), Angels Wear White, Jeune femme, The Death of Stalin, Step, I Am Not a Witch, Good Time (a critical favourite, and with an undeniably brilliant Robert Pattinson), not to mention 2016 films only released in the UK in 2017 like Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women, Toni Erdmann, the list goes on… So yes, I’m a big fan of 2017.

25 Girls Trip

Girls Trip (2017)It’s not perfect but this comedy is great fun, not least for Tiffany Haddish’s great performance. It also makes a stark contrast to Rough Night, which would be my least favourite film this year if I made a list of those (but generally I avoid films that look terrible).

24 Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth (2016)British cinema (and television) is littered with dull, worthy, handsomely-mounted period films, but this one is very far from being either dull or worthy. It is, however, very beautiful, and Florence Pugh is brilliant in it (after impressing in a small role a few years ago in The Falling).

23 Toivon tuolla puolen (The Other Side of Hope)

Toivon tuolla puolen (The Other Side of Hope, 2017)There have been plenty of films about refugees and immigrants over the last few years, for sadly obvious reasons, but this one from Kaurismäki has his usual glacial deadpan cinematic gaze but with a beautifully moving underlying empathy. Should probably have ranked it higher.

22 Human Flow

Human Flow (2017)Another film about refugees, and one with both grand, complex images of masses of desperate people, but also the filmmaker/artist (Ai Weiwei) moving among them. It’s not so much about their individual stories, as about the overall story, and it’s heartbreaking.

21 Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky (2017)Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature filmmaking this year may have had all his usual hallmarks, but its story of poor people marginalised by capitalism yet desperate for something better has all the hallmarks of that classic American theme wrapped up in its heist plot mechanics.

20 All This Panic (2016)

All This Panic (2016)A coming-of-age documentary in NYC with stark characters, alternately awful and yet growing into themselves, framed by a beautiful aesthetic from director Jenny Gage and her DoP.

19 Colossal (2016)

Colossal (2016)Surely the oddest film of the year, a strange hybrid of monster movie and small-town allegory. It’s pretty wayward at times, but at its best, it’s brilliant, not so much about the destructiveness of alcoholism as (in a late film twist) about toxic masculinity.

18 Wo bu shi Pan Jinlian (I Am Not Madame Bovary, 2016)

Wo bu shi Pan Jinlian (I Am Not Madame Bovary, 2016)The title character is a well-known femme fatale figure of Chinese literature, and this film is about a woman shunned. It’s also, pretty easily, the most beautiful film of the year I’ve seen, and the distinctive cameo-like picture framing is used to great effect.

17 The Big Sick

Film Review The Big SickI think in many ways this romantic comedy is best viewed as a film about being an immigrant and fitting in (it somewhat sidelines its female lead for understandable based-on-real-life plot reasons), but it’s also about finding empathy and being a better person, so I rate it highly for that.

16 London Symphony

London Symphony (2017)I live in London and I helped with the Kickstarter for this project years ago, so it’s great to finally see it. What could be an arch and rather affected conceit (hommaging the silent ‘city symphony’ films of the 1920s) is actually beautifully achieved, and makes London look a lot more beautiful than on my grumpier days I sometimes feel it deserves, but it makes me happy to live here.

15 Fences (2016)

Fences (2016)It came out in the UK this year hence its inclusion in my 2017 list (ditto the other 2016 films here), but Viola Davis is easily the MVP in this acting line-up, though Denzel is of course no slouch. Filmed theatre can be a tough ask and won’t work for everyone, but I thought this film was beautifully rendered, and it’s truly elevated by the acting above all.

14 Personal Shopper (2016)

Personal Shopper (2016)It wouldn’t be an end-of-year best-of list without a standout Kristen Stewart performance, and though I found this film somewhat more wayward than Olivier Assayas’ previous collab with Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria), it’s still a wonderful piece channelling grief and longing via some peculiarly 21st century mediation.

13 You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here (2017)When I read the précis in the festival brochure, I expected to hate this (a sort of ripped-from-a-Daily-Mail-headline revenge type fantasy), but Lynne Ramsay manages to achieve something with her beautiful, elliptical editing: a profound sense of moral ambiguity. [festival screening]

12 Ava

Ava (2017)At times with a hint of the surreal, this coming-of-age is another fine film about people on the margins of society. [Festival screening; released direct to VoD in UK]

11 Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)Something I too often take for granted, but libraries are great. Frederick Wiseman returns with another of his sensitive, multi-layered films about a public institution, this one showing the huge range of important things a library does for its community. [Festival screening]

10 The Beguiled

The Beguiled (2017)It received some pretty mixed feedback when released, but I loved Sofia Coppola’s latest film. Sure it’s very white in many ways, but it’s a film that seems to capture something about the traumas of adolescence as refracted via the Civil War. Also, it looks great.

9 The Fits (2015)

The Fits (2015)A film that took its time getting a UK release, and another film about adolescence, but it has a wonderfully understated atmosphere, a slow, quiet build, that completely hooked me.

8 Grave (Raw, 2016)

Grave (Raw, 2016)A pretty intense film, and yet another coming-of-age (of sorts), but it does what the best horror films do, which is to make literal something very primal.

7 The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017)This could easily be an exploitative film about poor white people living on the edges of the American Dream, abandoned (if not screwed over) by capitalism. I mean, it is a film about that, but it’s not an exploitative one: the love between mother and daughter seems profound, and it has real empathy for its characters.

6 Pop Aye

Pop Aye - Still 3Like Colossal above, this is an unusual film, but at its heart it’s a road trip movie about lives lost in the acquisitive forward thrust of modern city-bound society. Maybe it’s because it was one of the first films I saw at the London Film Festival and I just really wanted to love something, but I think this film is great. [Festival screening]

5 Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993)

Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017)Films about the experiences of childhood aren’t always great, but this Spanish one really takes an extra effort to centre its narrative (and its empathy) on the child at the film’s heart and that pays off. [Festival screening]

4 God’s Own Country

God's Own Country (2017)As a London-based city-dweller, I didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did (northern England, gay love story, set on a farm) but the interplay between the two lead characters is beautifully balanced by the cinematography and editing. It returns to the year’s favourite theme of being an immigrant, and it makes this outsider narrative compelling.

3 Wajib

Wajib (2017)The stand-out of this year’s film festival was this Palestinian film. It engages with the political situation there without being preachy, and in its story of a father and son hand delivering wedding invitations around their community, has something of the feel of an Abbas Kiarostami film. The best kind of humanist filmmaking in a conflicted world. [Festival screening]

2 Get Out

Get Out (2017)It’s fair to say this film has already been very widely discussed and lauded, but I just wanted to add my voice to that. The comic elements only underline the central — and very American — horror at its core.

1 Cameraperson (2016)

Cameraperson (2016)A film about the world we live in, and about the sometimes fractured and fractious ethics of documenting that world, it’s also a film about a person and a life and making a life within that world. It feels like a film about so many things, that could so easily fall apart, but instead it’s the strongest film I’ve seen this year.

Criterion Sunday 164: Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem) | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk | Length 166 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017)

Criterion Sunday 163: Hopscotch (1980)

It’s difficult in our techno-spy thriller era to take seriously such a bumbling joking character as Walter Matthau’s CIA agent here, Miles Kendig. He’s running rings around his bureaucratic superiors (most notably Ned Beatty antagonist Myerson), but I’m not sure it is always believable. It’s more akin to a comedic farce really, likeable I suppose and impossible to really hate, but very much of its time.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame | Writers Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield (based on the novel by Garfield) | Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson and Brian W. Roy | Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 July 2017

Criterion Sunday 161: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930)

A fascinating early sound film from René Clair, which could properly be described as a musical-comedy, I suspect, although a bittersweet one at best. There’s a love triangle featuring a beautiful Romanian woman (because the actor, Pola Illéry, was born there), within a story of working-class people whose lives are often a shade away from criminality, enticed here by the dubious moustachioed crim named Fred (Gaston Modot). The sound is used only sparingly, presumably because of the limitations of the nascent technology, but there’s a freshness to the enterprise that belies its generic themes. It’s something Clair would develop further in the following year’s Le Million and À nous la liberté but it still impresses here on this early sound outing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair | Cinematographer Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet | Starring Albert Préjean, Pola Illéry, Gaston Modot, Edmond T. Gréville | Length 96 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017

Criterion Sunday 160: À nous la liberté (1931)

A fine early sound film which deploys its synched sound only sparingly and has a sort of musical structure to it. The plot is convoluted, but revolves around two friends who attempt a prison escape together, are separated and thereafter take a different path through life. Its key conceit seems to be that prison and factory work are pretty much interchangeable, and for something billed as a comedy, it’s comic in only the most cosmic sense as there’s little that’s really uplifting in the plot and paves the way to Tati’s own later satires on modernisation.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair | Cinematographer Georges Périnal | Starring Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017

Criterion Sunday 159: Akahige (Red Beard, 1965)

Undoubtedly one of Kurosawa’s stronger films, the central drama in Red Beard (named for Toshiro Mifune’s defining facial accoutrement, even if the film itself is in black-and-white) isn’t introduced with any big flourishes or self-aggrandising camerawork. The focus remains on the small events, inside a clinic where Mifune’s Dr Niide schools a cocky young intern (Yuzo Kayama as Dr Yasumoto) on what it means to be a compassionate doctor. Yasumoto’s journey towards caring about his fellow people is moved forward by a number of encounters with patients, which unfold slowly without any big setpieces (though Mifune dispatching a town of hooligans is the closest to that), just the riveting human drama of one man’s education. Fundamentally decent.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the collection of short stories Akahige shinryotan by Shuguro Yamamoto) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama | Length 185 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 June 2017