I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.
Lebanon is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East (although it certainly hasn’t always been that way) and one of the most politically progressive. It is a country with a wide range of religious practices and ways of living, despite its small size, and it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of women have been involved in filmmaking in the country (for example, Jocelyn Saab, who recently died, was a pioneer back in the 1970s). Lebanon’s troubled recent history forms the basis of the two documentaries I review below, both directed by women, and both made in 2017.
One of the most prolific auteurs in modern Korean art cinema is Hong Sang-soo, who has moved on stylistically from early, rather formalist pictures like The Power of Kangwon Province (1998, a film I adore), to a looser, more improvisational method. His films often feature central characters who are film directors or lecturers, who have desultory affairs with their young female students or film workers, and spend a lot of time moping about as a result (frequently including some glorious drunken acting scenes). Sometimes, though, he spins the scenarios so that the woman is more centred in the story, and these are generally the stronger films. His collaboration (professional and personal) with younger actor Kim Min-hee has resulted in a number of fine works, none better than On the Beach at Night Alone, made in a year of three films from him. This may pale next to some of the output of those 60s studio directors like Lee Man-hee, but in the current marketplace, it’s prodigious.
There are a lot of contemporary films about city life, about young women, about precarious living arrangements, and about getting older and losing some of the connections that brought you together at university and in your 20s, and most of them sort of glide on by as just so much cinematic filler, not bad but hardly memorable. But this Korean film has a little something extra, a very poised and precise framing, and an excellent central performance, which really brings out the pathos and the quiet desperation without any excess or even much in the way of extraneous dialogue. The film holds a warm yet slightly quizzical distance from Mi-so (Esom), a 30-something woman who is still working as a cleaner and has given up her small apartment because the rent has gone up and she’d rather not give up her small vices (cigarettes, primarily, and a glass of whisky every so often too). She reconnects with her former bandmates from college as she sorts out where to live, but this isn’t a Nick Hornby film, and meeting them only emphasises the different paths they’ve all travelled. And so we’re left with the melancholy, after a fashion, but it’s all just so achingly evoked.
Director/Writer Jeon Go-woon 전고운; Cinematographer Kim Tae-soo 김태수; Starring Esom 이솜, Ahn Jae-hong 안재홍; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 4 April 2019.
A warm, human story about an excellent father (Eriq Ebouaney) and his kids trying to make a new life in Paris after fleeing civil war in the Central African Republic. It moves slowly, showing the father’s life working in the markets (having been a French teacher back home), and that of his brother, who’s a former philosophy professor, still dressed up snappily in a suit and tweed jacket as, dispiritingly, we realise he’s heading towards a shop where he’s working on security. All of them have new connections, new relationships, they have jobs and places to live, and yet ultimately no security, and the film is absolutely focused on just how tenuous everyone’s hold on security is in this kind of place, especially as we move towards the end, surveying the bleakness that awaits, the systemic deracination that Western nations (and Europe specifically) have effected on those who are in this desperate situation.
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.
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
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)
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)
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
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
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)
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)
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)
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
I 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
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)
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)
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
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]
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
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
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)
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)
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
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
Like 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)
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
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.
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
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)
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.
At some level this is a black women’s twist on a gross-out comedy, which is not traditionally a genre I’ve liked, and yet… It may be too long (at 122 minutes, a good half-hour could easily have been excised), it may be quite mean about celebrity gossip journalists and women posing for selfies on Instagram (I felt like something personal was going on there), it may wrap things up with an excess of saccharine (though admirably focused on women’s friendship with one another rather than on men), but it really is very funny. At times it’s exceptionally funny, especially Tiffany Haddish as Dina, a performer I wasn’t aware of before, but whom I now expect to be in everything, and deservedly so (the scene where she imagines her revenge on a cheating man is satisfying in so many ways). It also features quite the most unexpected male nudity.
It feels like Bridesmaids was in the writers’ minds as a touchstone (not least because they have an actor, Kate Walsh, apparently doing her best to imitate Kristen Wiig), but it also has the brio of Magic Mike XXL in both its setting in the American south (here New Orleans), and its single-minded focus on the buddies-on-a-trip narrative (the presence of Jada Pinkett Smith helps in that regard; she and Queen Latifah also inspire a sweet shout-out to Set It Off, a real 90s classic of the black women buddy genre). Plus, the focus on the women means it dispenses with some of the unpleasantness that marked the women characters in the same director’s The Best Man (1999).
In all, a top comedy, which really deserves its success.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Malcolm D. Lee; Writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver; Cinematographer Greg Gardiner; Starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Wednesday 2 August 2017.
A film about an enormous maternity hospital in Manila, it doesn’t take long to realise how crowded things are when you see expectant mothers rolled on to the edges of beds already occupied, even playing with their babies two to a bed as well. Indeed, by the end we see the hospital celebrating the birth of the 100 millionth Filipino, and you get a sense that a fair few of them have come through here. The lack of funds means those with weak babies — which is the area of the hospital this film largely focuses on — don’t get incubators but are instead encouraged to wear tube tops to hold their babies close to them as part of the ‘kangaroo medical care’ programme. The women are admonished for not using them 24/7, while a nurse on a microphone at the end of the ward dispenses life advice like a Greek chorus. From out of this chaos the film starts to introduce individual stories and eventually we get to know the situations of a few of the (very poor, very Catholic) women, some of whom are very young, others of whom have five or more kids already. We see them turn down free contraception for frustratingly vague (but obviously religious) reasons, and we see the struggle to come up with even the very small fees being charged, though some of them at least have supportive husbands who are allowed to visit briefly and get to wear the tube tops as well. Like the best documentaries it’s a fascinating look into a world most of us won’t see and it’s a compassionate one too.
Director Ramona S. Diaz; Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 7 August 2017.
I was actually in Beirut and Lebanon the week this was released in UK cinemas (well, in one cinema), and I can attest to the fact it’s a very small country — we did some travelling within the country and it only takes a few hours to drive across the width of the country, through the fertile Bekaa Valley towards the Syrian border (there are some very beautiful Roman ruins at Baalbek), and it can’t be that much longer north to south. It is also, not just relatively but by most measures, a very peaceful country.
Prior to the war in Syria, it had somewhere around 4-4.5 million people, with a fairly even mix of religions, but now there’s fully a third more just of Syrian refugees, most of them Muslim. Everywhere you go, you can clearly see these encampments, and Lebanese resources are stretched thin dealing with the issue. It’s not of course just Lebanon’s problem, though, and there’s one European aid worker in the film (Fritz) who is very clear about the way that the western governments (who have done little to mitigate the effects of war in Syria, and much to fuel it) are largely derelict in their duty of care to those displaced.
What Lost in Lebanon does is to humanise the issue through focusing on a handful of those displaced from neighbouring Syria. It’s not all gloomy — they are all trying their best to help their fellow refugees, to get involved with educating the children, and trying to find a diplomatic solution and a way to keep improving facilities — but the film captures very well the frustration, the sadness and even, at times, the rage. Nobody wants to live away from their home, especially when it’s so close you can practically see it at times, and certainly not as a virtual prisoner within another country, unable to move around or take a job or get further education or improve your situation. That said, the people in this film do their best to present a vision of relative normalcy in what is an unfortunate situation, and one can only hope that one day Syria will return to stability and peace, and that the people here are able to be involved in its rebuilding.
Directors Georgia Scott and Sophia Scott; Cinematographer Sophia Scott; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 1 June 2017.
There’s almost a subgenre of documentary that deals with activist issues of social justice campaigning, and that’s very much the wheelhouse of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Complicit is a fine example, focusing on the global electronics industry, specifically their factories in South-Eastern China (on the Pearl River Delta). It’s not so much the sweatshop conditions here as the workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals (benzene most notably, which causes leukaemia), a situation not really being tackled by the enormous global companies contracting out the work. The filmmakers here are canny to focus not on the Chinese government but on these companies in their (as the title suggests) complicity with human rights violations — though that complicity obviously extends to the audience also, those who use these electronic devices (a certain fruit-based designer is particularly targeted). It’s the stories of the workers, and their often futile attempts to get recompense from or to even be heard by the companies, which are the heart of the film.
Directors Heather White and Lynn Zhang [Jialing Zhang]; Writer Christopher Seward; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Monday 13 March 2017.