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.

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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.