Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday

Happy New Year!

I used to put up more film reviews over on this site, but now most of that is over on Letterboxd, so my blog is currently limping by with its weekly Criterion Sunday posts. This is hardly a huge amount of content to thrill my regular readers (hello, are there any?) and it also misrepresents my filmic interests, given that the Criterion Collection has been often criticised in the past (and not entirely unfairly) for its focus on a certain strand of largely Eurocentric arthouse filmmaking, driven by prominent male auteurs (Bergman, Fellini, Fassbinder: the usual suspects), and neglecting even major non-Western film-producing cultures (aside, arguably, from Japan). In fact, the number of films directed by women which are featured in their collection has always been very low, even compared to the number of directors working in the industry, though it appears they are making efforts to correct this somewhat (there have been recent releases of films by Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Euzhan Palcy and Susan Seidelman, amongst others), but it will take, er, decades for that to filter through here given my one-a-week posting schedule…

So, I thought it would be good to start a new regular strand to focus on some filmmakers whose work I’ve enjoyed or found interesting, who aren’t featured often enough in the usual lists. It is almost certain this year that my Letterboxd list of every feature film I’ve seen directed by a woman will pass 1000 entries, and yet too often I’ve barely read anything about some of these directors. Even a cursory internet search for ‘films by women’ tends to bring up the same names all the time (Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola), which doesn’t represent nearly enough of the really great work that women filmmakers have been putting out in the last decade or two, not to mention historically (I have yet to really get stuck into Kino Lorber’s recent “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” box set, but it’s just one of a number of such releases recently, and looks likely to help change some of the conversation around film history and how it’s understood and taught).

I’m quite sure plenty of people will be familiar with a lot of the names in my series — anyone who has made an effort to keep up with the most interesting world cinema — but, as with my Films by Women page (a list that I try to keep updated regularly), I just wanted to add a little bit, however amateurishly, to the writing about the work of all these creators. I also hope it will be a spur to my own watching habits, as many of these women’s films can sometimes be quite hard to see.

(I shall update this post each week as I add new directors, and link it from my Films by Women page.)

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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.

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.

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.

 

February 2018 Film Roundup

So I’m back again this month with the second episode of my 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day. February is a shorter month but I still packed plenty in (including two visits to see Lady Bird at the cinema). Plus, as anyone in Europe knows, it’s been getting quite cold the last few days, so sitting inside watching films seems like a particularly fine pastime; when it gets to the summer months, I feel my challenge will be more stretched. Anyway, 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)

The Nothing Factory (2017, dir. Pedro Pinho)
Phantom Thread (2017, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Princess Cyd (2017, dir. Stephen Cone)
Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler)
Lady Bird (2017, dir. Greta Gerwig)

Continuing last month’s theme of poetic documentaries screened at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), my favourite film of the month was another slightly leftfield experimental work released by them, a three-hour-long Portuguese documentary-like fiction feature set amongst the workers at a factory, who’ve been laid off and want to wrest back control. It’s thoughtful and artful, covering a range of genres and formal discourse while reflecting carefully on the state of the worker under capitalism: it can be boring at times, but it’s also compelling and beautiful.

Netflix was also responsible, finally, for releasing a good film in the form of Princess Cyd, which had a screening last year at London Film Festival, but slipped under the radar and got the modern equivalent of the straight-to-DVD. Well, it’s exquisitely made, and deals beautifully with its middle-class characters. (Although I’m being a bit mean about Netflix, since they also had a film on my last listMy Happy Family, another fine drama.)

There were also several ‘big’ releases that stood out too. As I mentioned, I went to Lady Bird twice, probably because that was the most straightforwardly enjoyable: small town, closely-studied characters, the beauty of which is in their interactions (so, not entirely unlike Princess Cyd). However, I loved P.T. Anderson’s newest film, finding it less about an awful man, as about the subtle warping of traditional power dynamics of the controlling mercurial artist (a great performance from Vicky Krieps). And of course Black Panther was a phenomenon which I was happy to get on board with, world creation in a way that seemed fresh and new after all the tiresome bombast of some previous superhero films (although still with, well, plenty of bombast).

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

Il posto (1961, dir. Ermanno Olmi)
The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971, dir. Stan Brakhage)
Thelma (2017, dir. Joachim Trier)
Boy (2010, dir. Taika Waititi)
I fidanzati (1963, dir. Ermanno Olmi)
The Blood of Jesus (1941, dir. Spencer Williams)
Initiation Love (2015, dir. Yukihiko Tsutsumi)
Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946, dir. Spencer Williams)
Black Panthers (1968, dir. Agnès Varda)
Bad Moms (2016, dir. Scott Moore/Jon Lucas)

Streaming services again offered up a few interesting recent films I’d somehow missed, and while only Thelma makes it onto this list (via Mubi), it stands up to the other Joachim Trier film they screened last month (his 2006 Reprise) — this one may indeed be better, but it’s mysterious enough that I think I need to let it sit with me a while. Still, it has a fantastic control of atmosphere.

Continued Criterion watching threw up the wonderful Ermanno Olmi films listed there, as well as the challenging Brakhage, all of which I will give fuller write-ups in time, when their entries show up on my Criterion Sunday feature.

The two Spencer Williams movies were from the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set that I helped to Kickstart, and because it’s Black History Month, it seemed like a good idea to crack on through (I also watched some slightly sub-par Oscar Micheaux features from the early sound era). The Williams ones, though, are fascinating in the way they are pulled between overt moralising and also the thrill of sinfulness: the acting can be amateurish, but the period detail is wonderful. Black Panthers, too (a short Varda documentary from the late-60s), seemed a propos not just in relation to black history but also the feature film of (almost) the same name — well, it at least contextualised Oakland, CA’s symbolic importance through its footage of the activist group.

There was a short season of Japanese cinema at the ICA by the Japan Foundation which threw up a few intriguing films, best of all for me being Initiation Love, which I believe was a made-for-TV movie but with a bold time-looping premise and a big twist that makes it all retrospectively even more interesting (although the film is enjoyable enough as a relationship drama). Plus, I finally got around to watching Taika Waititi’s early feature Boy, which is as charming and delightful as most of his work has been, and almost entirely set amongst a poor, working, rural Maori community in New Zealand. Incredibly, it’s only just had a DVD release in this country.

January 2018 Film Roundup

I rarely post here nowadays except for the weekly Criterion Sunday films (some day, some day, I’ll get round to posting more once again)… But I’ve still been watching films! My friend Pete has been doing a 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day, so that’s quite a few films. I’m posting notes on them over at Letterboxd, but hey why not have a round-up here!

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

Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog (2017, dir. Julian Radlmeier)
Tempestad (2016, dir. Tatiana Huezo)
Field N—-s (2015, dir. Khalik Attah)
The Post (2017, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Journey’s End (2017, dir. Saul Dibb)

Signing up to the Mubi streaming service has introduced me to a wide range of new films, including some new releases that never came out in the cinema. The films of Julian Radlmeier are notable amongst these, and while his first two shorter works were interesting, it’s his first full-length feature which had me hooked on his particularly deadpan satirical style (a little bit reminiscent of Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, by way of Jarmusch).

Then again, a couple of these favourites are poetic and somewhat experimental documentaries screened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (the two pre-2017 films above), so perhaps my tastes are taking me a little way from the multiplex these days. Rey (2017, dir. Niles Atallah), which I caught in the cinema but was also on Mubi during January, was another rather interesting film, a staged fiction but which intersected with documentary in surprising ways.

Of the big releases I saw, The Post was probably my favourite, but I found plenty to like in Journey’s End (a rendering of WWI via a stage play), and — just missing out on my top 5 — The Commuter (2018, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), wherein Liam Neeson punches people on a train, albeit in an efficient and entertaining way.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

Street Without End (1934, dir. Mikio Naruse)
Snow Canon (2011, dir. Mani Diop)
My Happy Family (2017, dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß)
Reprise (2006, dir. Joachim Trier)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972, dir. Jonas Mekas)
Mur Murs (1981, dir. Agnes Varda)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953, dir. Ida Lupino)
Dead Slow Ahead (2015, dir. Mauro Herce)
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969, dir. Toshio Matsumoto)
Jubilee (1978, dir. Derek Jarman)

My old film watching takes in one film first released on Netflix last December, which for my purposes counts as ‘old’ but isn’t really (My Happy Family, a wonderful Georgian film). Elsewhere, a screening of Mati Diop’s early short and medium-length works opened my eyes to a bright new talent I’d been missing this decade, and makes me excited for her upcoming feature-length debut.

As for older works, I’ve been trying to catch up on the classics of Japanese cinema, which brought me to Mikio Naruse’s silent works (most of which I watched towards the tail end of last year) and also Funeral Parade of Roses, a sort of unclassifiable piece of drama which seems to throw everything into the mix.

Several of the rest of my list above screened on Mubi, so they’re a blend of films I’ve long meant to get round to watching (Varda and Mekas) peppered with others by directors largely unknown to me, but whose films I was surprised by (Trier and Herce). I know Joachim Trier in particular has a profile, but like Diop, I’ve somehow missed his films. I shall have to do some catching up.

New Year’s Resolution 2017

In 2015, I made a New Year’s resolution to watch all films directed by or written by women which were released in UK cinemas, which it turns out was just a little too much of a project to achieve (I came pretty close though!).

The following year, the American group Women In Film came up with a similar idea (I’m no kind of innovator; it’s hardly original) and got #52 Films By Women trending on various social media sites, and so I just sort of allowed 2015’s resolution to continue, albeit with a somewhat less strenuous target. That said, in the end I saw 189 feature films directed (or co-directed) by women in 2016, which ended up being 53 more films by women than I saw in 2015.

This year, I thought I’d be a little more targeted. I keep spreadsheets of my viewing (because of course I do), and I noted that 43% of my total feature films seen in 2016 were directed by women. At the same time, 26% of the total feature films I saw in 2016 were directed by people of colour (being the currently-accepted phrase in the US to designate non-white people), up by 10% on the previous year. For the first time, too, the total number of feature films I saw which were directed by white men dropped to under 50% of the total (45%) in 2016.

So my 2017 New Year’s Resolution is to focus on diversifying my film viewing — not just films made by marginalised communities within anglo-dominated countries, but films from parts of the world which aren’t Europe (I do love French films, it’s true). I want to try to up those percentages to 50% for films directed by women, and 50% for films directed by people of colour. Whether I’ll achieve this remains to be seen. It’ll probably be very difficult unless I watch a lot of films by women of colour, so of course the other side of my resolution is that I go to every film given a release in the UK which is directed by a non-white woman (though that’s admittedly not going to be a huge number).

I have also — and I more or less started doing this a few months ago — but, aside from Criterion Sunday, I’ve stopped posting reviews on this site of films directed by white men, because why should I bother? I still watch them, but they get plenty of awards and media coverage. #sorrynotsorry