December 2018 Film Roundup

Because really what I need to post is my ‘best of 2018’ lists, I just need to get this out of the way first. Lots of good films come out around the end of the year, and I watched a few more directed by women than in November, but it’s still pretty heavily dominated by the traditional filmic voices. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

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


Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters, 2018, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018, dir. RaMell Ross)
Private Life (2018, dir. Tamara Jenkins)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, dir. Bob Persichetti/Peter Ramsey/Rodney Rothman)
The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

All but one of these I saw in the cinema, and these are all easily contenders for my top 10 of the year, so it’s been a strong crop. The documentary (Hale County) isn’t officially out in the UK until mid-January, but it’s a lyrical ode to southern US Black lives in a way that doesn’t focus on the usual tropes, but just allows them to have ordinary lives in a rather beautiful, elliptical way. The others are all fairly well written-up by now, but I will just note that Private Life was a Netflix-only release, though it probably should have had some cinema screenings, because it features some excellent performances in a story about a couple trying to have a baby via IVF and other means, with an undertow of sad desperation (pretty sure this is required for any film starring Paul Giamatti), but not wallowing in that.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento)
Hellzapoppin’ (1941, dir. H.C. Potter)
Karnavalnaya noch (Carnival Night, 1956, dir. Eldar Ryazanov)
Possession (1981, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)
The Clock [excerpt] (2010, dir. Christian Marclay)
Last Resort (2000, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Le Marin masqué (2011, dir. Sophie Letourneur)
Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016, dir. Sharon Maguire)
La Bataille de Solférino (Age of Panic, 2013, dir. Justine Triet)

Only one of these I saw in a proper cinema — the Soviet festive satire Carnival Night, which was a real surprise, but very much in a tradition of Soviet-era comedies — but I should note that The Clock was the most comfortable cinematic viewing experience of the year. It’s a 24-hour long compilation of film clips in which the time is shown, edited to be accurate to the actual time, and the Tate Modern (where it’s being screened now) is set up with some very comfortable sofas. I wish more UK cinemas had plush, comfortable chairs like this. Anyway, I stuck around for 90 minutes of it, and would have happily watched many hours more.

The rest are divided between viewings on Mubi (the original version of Suspiria is awash with colours and hysteria; Hellzapoppin’ is just frantic, non-stop carnivalesque madcap nonsense, but very engaging all the same; and the two French films down the end there were both ones of French Mubi while I was there on holiday, and both show strong women directorial talent, and in particular I’d love to see more by Sophie Letourneur, a name previously unknown to me), one on Netflix (the surprisingly pretty good Bridget Jones’s Baby which I honestly did not expect to like at all), and the rest being DVDs I had kicking around, meaning to watch. The Criterion Sunday club went into abeyance in December, but I will need to get back on track before too long, so some more of those titles may start to filter through in 2019.

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Criterion Sunday 221: Ikiru (1952)

Clearly one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, it’s also perhaps a little forgotten — possibly not amongst hardened cineastes, but that at least is the feeling I get when talking about Kurosawa with other casual film lovers. Part of this is undoubtedly that it’s not set in the shogun era of samurai and peasants (like, say, Seven Samurai), but rather contemporary Japan. It’s about a humble bureaucrat (played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) who mournfully realises the failure of his life as he gets a cancer diagnosis, and has to deal with that. There’s a hint of Rashomon to the latter half of the film, as people argue at his wake about his lasting achievement — the construction of a children’s playground — but the framing of it, as flashbacks from his funeral, clearly indicate that it is altogether too late in his life. It is, however, poignant and heartbreaking, and feels like a movie that’s not so much depressing in its accounting of a person’s life, as perhaps a little hopeful that some may at least achieve something despite all the obstacles placed in their way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • A fairly easygoing documentary (an episode of a TV series, It Is Wonderful to Create, which pops up on most of Criterion’s Kurosawa releases), which uses interviews with surviving members of Kurosawa’s cast and crew to shed light on how he made his films. This one features Miki Odagiri (the young woman who befriends Kanji after his illness is diagnosed, and then finds him a little creepily intense) talking about Kurosawa’s methods of inspiring her performance, as well as screenwriters and technicians. There’s not a huge deal of insight, but it’s pleasant enough.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri | Length 143 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 July 2018 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1997)

Criterion Sunday 220: Naked Lunch (1991)

I worry that this is a film for those who like to vaunt the magisterial status of author William S. Burroughs, or who laud the cinematically outré and self-consciously cultish qualities of David Cronenberg as director — and I assume many of the same people will rep for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam and/or Thompson) in many of the same ways, or perhaps something out of the filmography of David Lynch. For this is a film about being a writer as well as a habitual user of narcotics, and is made with an attendant kind of insane dream logic that leads to hallucinatory bugs-as-typewriters who speak through anus-like holes and set up complex plots in alternate worlds (the Interzone) that touch as much on Burroughs’ own life (his well-known murder of his spouse for one) as on any kind of verifiable reality. Peter Weller is a capable straight man for this carnivalesque creepshow, which has some of the qualities of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (maybe I’m thinking of the prosthetics) and a typically Gilliam-esque crowded mise en scène, while of course the spirit of Kafka seems to hover over it all… and if any of these swaggering artistic men do not thrill you, then perhaps this is not the project for you.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg (based on the novel by William S. Burroughs) | Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky | Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 16 July 2018

Criterion Sunday 219: La strada (1954)

Nights of Cabiria remains my favourite Fellini film, but of course Giulietta Masina was pretty great in everything she did with Fellini. Here she plays a wide-eyed naïf, but almost a caricature of that, so very ingenuous does she appear, so simple in manner and trusting in affect. Of course, the story takes her down some bleak narrative turns, as she becomes hitched to a travelling sideshow performer (Anthony Quinn, looking unwashed), and the film follows in the footsteps of that profession by itself becoming something of a picaresque journey narrative. It’s a little bit winding and sometimes goes down dead ends, but for the most part it is carried by its performances, as well as the simple generosity of the writers towards their characters.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano | Cinematographer Otello Martelli and Carlo Carlini | Starring Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 June 2018

Criterion Sunday 218: Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Connoisseurs of the heist film may be able to speak lyrically about the various differences between them all, but at some stage all these (often French) mid-century heist flicks blend together in my mind. There’s a long, silent sequence of them pulling it off, which harks back to Rififi (if I’m not mistaken), which had a similar wordless heist procedural section. This one also has Alain Delon in a trenchcoat — somewhat as he is in Melville’s other films — but it’s a taut, well-told story with plenty of suspense. Quite why everything is happening is a little vague, but the performances and the snappy filmmaking pull it through, and keep it entertaining.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, André Bourvil | Length 140 minutes || Seen at Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018)

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.

Criterion Sunday 217: Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953)

Oh sure, yes, it is deliberately paced, as so many Ozu films are, but for all its acclaim (it used to regularly show up on best-ever lists, and I think it still does), it is one of those films that really does deliver. I’m not even personally very good at communicating with my family sometimes, but I still get all up in my feelings whenever I see the way all these grown children act atrociously towards their elderly parents, who are visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Obviously Ozu is, to an extent, commenting on modern society, and we get interstitial shots of trains and built-up urban areas, but none of that is particularly forced, and this works very well too on simply an emotional level — what it means to get older, the responsibilities you continue to have to family, showing respect for the elderly. Only Setsuko Hara’s character (the daughter-in-law) seems to make much of an effort, and the way she radiantly smiles at the camera even when she’s clearly upset just seems to make it all the more poignant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara | Length 136 minutes || Seen at Victoria University, Wellington, Monday 27 April 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 May 2018)

Criterion Sunday 216: La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939)

Ah, “the game”, it’s a terrible thing isn’t it? A lot of “all-time classics” can seem a little tired with age and endless plaudits, but La Règle du jeu, while it has elements that are very much of its era, still seems to hold up. It can be as furious as a slapstick at times, but underlying it all is this sense of the decadence of the bourgeois: switching partners, shooting animals, and beating each other up with no sense of consequences involved at all. Even when one of the servants, a gamekeeper, goes berserk with a shotgun, everyone treats it as just a bit of fun for a party. The magic is that Renoir, who stars as one of wealthy set, orchestrates this all without the sense of simplistic judgement or finger-wagging. It’s evident what’s going on, but there’s an indulgence to it that I think would be difficult to present today when observing the same kind of people. The staging, too, is fantastic, with some deep shots recalling Tati’s best work, and fluid sequence shots that track around all the cameras with lithe choreography. It still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Renoir and Carl Koch | Cinematographer Jean Bachelet | Starring Nora Gregor, Marcel Dalio, Paulette Dubost, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir | Length 110 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 August 1999 (and earlier on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, September 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Monday 14 May 2018)

Criterion Sunday 215: Nóż w wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962)

I’m not exactly rushing to watch old Roman Polanski films at this point in my life or his career, but it was up next in our Criterion watching, and, well, his debut is quite a taut piece about masculine brinkmanship. It’s a classic genre, of course, that genre wherein two men are vying over an attractive young woman (Jolanta Umecka) — in this case, one of them (the older man, played by Leon Niemczyk) is married to her and the other (Zygmunt Malanowicz) is a young hitchhiker and student who seems, well, a little bit sketchy, which means the title might start to suggest a horror/thriller film premise. Instead, what develops is a subtle story of shifting power dynamics aboard a pleasure yacht on a Polish lake, which never quite goes where you think it might, but also holds things in nice tension. There’s a fine use of tight close-ups and shots with several different planes of focus, but it’s a canny way to kick off a directing career (that really should consider wrapping itself up now).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski | Writer Roman Polanski, Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski | Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman | Starring Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 30 April 2018

Criterion Sunday 214: The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy, 1941)

I was not enthused upon the prospect of watching this Criterion release, but its merits grew on me. It’s a moral fable, taken from the story of Faust, and like other tales of wealth coming to the wrong people (I’m thinking of Barry Lyndon myself), its central character is in some ways the weakest, with Jabez Stone being an insufferable weed of a man who sells his soul to the devil (consarn it!) and finds himself the recipient of untold wealth. It’s interesting though in the way it moralises about the responsibilities of wealth, siding it seems against capitalist exploitation (surely the natural mode of the American industrialist), this perhaps one of the surprising ways in which the wartime mood shifted people’s interests towards the common good. It all has the sheen of a fine picture, with some nice supporting performances, but it’s the film’s strong moral convictions that carries it through.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director William Dieterle | Writer Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benét (based on the short story by Benét) | Cinematographer Joseph H. August | Starring James Craig, Anne Shirley, Edward Arnold, Walter Huston | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 April 2018