Friday, January 04, 2019

Welcome to Marwen

There was always something creepy and off-putting about the characters who populated Robert Zemeckis’s run of CGI movies in the first decade of the 21st century. The motion capture techniques he adopted in The Polar Express presented us with awkward, dead-eyed figures more chilling than endearing, and although improvements were made in the subsequent Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, a core elements of these movies always felt unnervingly off. While Zemeckis has subsequently returned from the uncanny valley to live-action filmmaking, he’s always had one foot firmly planted in the digital world, and Welcome to Marwen feels like a film that no other director could – or would – have made.

Fortunately, the plastic quality of the CGI characters in Welcome to Marwen is intentional. Inspired by the life and works of Mark Hogancamp, whom some viewers will have already met in Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol, Zemeckis’s film brings to life the models he captured in still photographs, creating spectacular WWII battles for these toy soldiers to engage in. The film’s Hogancamp (Steve Carell) has his own tiny avatar in Hogie, a tough American soldier who we meet in the opening scene as his plane crashes into enemy territory. He disembarks from his flaming jet, swaps his burned boots for a pair of women’s heels, and walks straight into some Nazis, before being saved by gang of gun-toting Barbie dolls. There’s a strange and unnerving dissonance in effect as we watch these toys shoot at each other; we don’t see any blood, but the Nazis scream in pain as their bodies are riddled with bullets, and when their corpses hit the floor they do so with an amusingly hollow clatter.

There is a point to all of this. The original town of Marwencol was an art project that Mark Hogancamp began as he recovered from a brutal beating that he suffered at the hands of a gang of men, prompted by his admission in a bar that he liked to wear women’s shoes. The attack left him with no memory, a loss of cognitive functions, and a deep trauma that he filtered through the highly detailed scenarios and tableaux he created with his dolls. The fighting women of Welcome to Marwen are all based on real people in Mark’s life who in some way helped him after the attack: his friend from the model shop (Merritt Wever), his Russian nurse (Gwendoline Christie, struggling with a dreadful accent), his rehabilitation partner (Janelle Monáe), etc. There’s also Nicol (Leslie Mann), whose likeness is added to Marwen when she moves in across the street.

Mark’s sense of longing for the sweet and understanding Nicol gives the film one of its central narrative threads, but Mark’s relationship with women in general is complicated and confounding. He has a collection of 287 pairs of women’s shoes, claiming they connect him to “the essence of dames,” and he’s constantly making full-throated declarations like “Women are the saviours of the world!” and “I love dames!” But he clearly fetishises these women rather than understanding or connecting with them. This is, after all, a man who claims his favourite actress is a porn star (played by  Leslie Zemeckis, the director's wife) best known for the Bodacious Backdoor Babes series. The women he can control in his model village are preferable to the women in the real world who come with layers of complexity and messy emotions. Mark withdraws when Wever's Roberta raises the possibility of them going on a date, but he's happy to have her toy version's blouse torn as she flees the Nazis, her plastic boobs bouncing as she goes.

All of which might go some way to suggesting how weird Welcome to Marwen is. The film is presented as an uplifting tale of triumph over adversity, of the power of community to lift up a broken man, of the value of art as a means of processing trauma, but it's full of jarring, awkward pieces that don't always fit together elegantly, if at all. Zemeckis introduces a tonal whiplash as he cuts between Mark's real world and his imagined one, with the dolls and their battles often crashing unbidden into his real-life situation. (One even disrupts a porn film he’s trying to watch. Nazis really do ruin everything.) Credit is due to the actors who work hard to find moments of truth even as they are being asked to do a lot of seriously goofy shit, with the sensitively played scenes between Carell and Mann giving the film a crucial emotional ballast. In particular, I’m thinking of the moment when the damaged Mark mistakes Nicol’s kindness for reciprocity, a scene that unexpectedly took my breath away, with Zemeckis capturing the moment in a static shot that doesn’t gives us the chance to look away from the characters’ awkwardness and pain.

Regardless of its uneven tone, the misjudged stabs at humour (the “More ammo”/”More gumbo” gag doesn’t make a lick of sense) and the often clunky writing, Welcome to Marwen is a beautifully made film. Zemeckis is a director who has always known how to frame his images for emotional impact, who prefers to move his camera rather than to cut, and who understands how to tell a story visually. The manner in which he pulls us in and out of Mark’s fantasy world, blurring the barriers between the two, is frequently ingenious and surprising. As in his undervalued 2016 Allied, this old-school filmmaking craftsmanship feels like a breath of fresh air, and it’s hard to understand the outraged, mocking and dismissive nature of the film’s critical reaction. If you want to see Mark Hogancamp’s story, I’d advise you to watch Marwencol, because Welcome to Marwen  for better and for worse  is every inch a Robert Zemeckis movie. It’s an eccentric, flawed, risky and sincere picture that is attempting to get at complicated emotions in unusual and imaginative ways, and in the current climate of American studio filmmaking, that's not nothing.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Best Films of 2018

25 - Shirkers (Sandi Tan)
Shirkers is an amazing, one-of-a-kind, unrepeatable story. Fortunately, Sandi Tan's filmmaking is able to do it justice. She's clearly an imaginative and passionate filmmaker, and that's what drove her to make a feature film with her friends in Singapore in 1992 at the age of eighteen. What happened to that film over the course of the next 25 years is revealed in this remarkable documentary, with Tan delicately reconstructing the narrative as a detective story, gradually getting closer to the truth through a series of interviews and personal recollections, and sharing footage of the film itself. The 16mm images that Tan shot in 1992 still appear wonderfully vibrant, and Shirkers is on one level a celebration of the durability and value of physical media, with letters, photographs, audio tapes and documents from the time of shooting also playing a crucial role. At the dark heart of Shirkers there's one of the year's most fascinating and dastardly screen villains, the man who stole the dreams that Sandi and her friends worked so hard to achieve, and changed the course of their lives. They'll never know what, if any, impact their film might have had on their lives and careers had it been released in 1992, but at least they now have this marvellous testament to their youthful creativity.

24 - The Queen of Fear (Valeria Bertuccelli, Fabiana Tiscornia)
Robertina (Valeria Bertuccelli), a successful Argentine actress, is just one month away from her eagerly anticipated solo stage show, but she still doesn't know what it will be. Will it involve dancing? Will there be nudity? Maybe she should get the tree transported from her garden and placed in the centre of the stage? As the deadline gets closer, Robertina's anxiety grows, prompting her to flee the country entirely and spend time looking after her dying friend (Diego Velazquez) in Denmark. While Robertina's one-woman show may hang in the balance, The Queen of Fear is an (almost) one-woman triumph for Bertuccelli, who wrote the film as a starring vehicle for herself and who shares directing duties with Fabiana Tiscornia. Behind the camera, she has crafted a poignant, funny, mysterious character study about a woman edging inexorably towards a point of either success or disaster, and the film is full of arresting individual scenes that add up to something haunting and elusive. In front of the camera she's utterly compelling, simultaneously frustrating and sympathetic, and while Robertina's future prospects may be open to debate, I'll be keeping an eye out for Valeria Bertuccelli.

23 - Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)
Can You ever Forgive Me? was originally set up as a Nicole Holofcener film, with Julianne Moore playing Lee Israel. That production fell apart, but Holofcener's voice can still be heard in the sharp, intelligent script, and the title role is now brilliantly inhabited by Melissa McCarthy. The film could have worked as nothing more than a cracking true-life forgery yarn, but it is richer and more complicated than that. It's a film about loneliness, failure, social anxiety, art, insecurity and desperation. McCarthy's performance is driven by a potent sense of anger and fear, and what makes the movie really sing is the way the two relationships she strikes up during the film bring different sides out of her and complement each other so well. Her scenes with her gay drinking buddy Jack (Richard E. Grant) have a rude, raucous energy, while her encounters with Dolly Wells's lonely bookseller are so poignant, and acted with an unbearable hesitancy. Marielle Heller made an attention-grabbing debut with The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but this is a more impressive achievement. Her work here is so acute and incisive, and the whole film feels so atmospheric, lived-in and authentic.

22 - Mission: Impossible - Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
How much longer can Tom Cruise keep trying to outdo himself? At the age of 56 he's still running, still jumping, still climbing, still injuring himself and defying death for our entertainment. Fallout's narrative – a mess of confounding twists and double-crosses – is simply there to shuttle us from one action sequence to the next, and if you're making a film like that then the action really has to deliver. The climactic helicopter chase (including a fabulous insert of Cruise muttering “Prick!”) is jaw-dropping, but all of Fallout's set-pieces – from the crunching bathroom punch-up to the spectacular skydiving sequence – are breathtaking in their own way. There's a real sense of physicality about them, and Cruise's go-to director Christopher McQuarrie – doing by far his most accomplished work here – has the ability to shoot and edit them for maximum impact without losing clarity. Look at the way the motorbike chase through Paris juggles multiple events happening concurrently and maintains a sense of geographical space. This series keeps raising the bar. God know how Cruise is going to try and top it.

21 - Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)

A feature debut for director Carlos López Estrada and screenwriters Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting feels like a thrilling emergence of new talent. It's a film with a lot on its mind – gentrification, Black Lives Matter, cultural appropriation, gun culture, poetry – but it can be chiefly enjoyed as an electric buddy comedy, with Diggs and Casal sharing an unmistakable natural kinship and chemistry on screen. Blindspotting doesn't seem to have enjoyed the kind of spotlight that films like Sorry to Bother You or BlacKkKlansman have had this year, but for my money it's a more invigorating picture than either of them, and it sustains itself more successfully. It may be a film that occasionally betrays signs of its makers' inexperience, particularly with the contrived nature of the climatic confrontation, but the way that confrontation is staged and executed is incredibly powerful. The film deserves a place on this list for its brilliant 'fire technicality' flashback sequence alone, complete with its Topher Grace and Jason Biggs references, and the priceless line, “How were we supposed to know that hipsters were so flammable?”

20 - Too Late to Die Young (Dominga Sotomayor)

If I have one reservation about Dominga Sotomayor's Too Late to Die Young, it might be that it covers well-worn territory with its look at a teenage girl's coming of age, and it doesn't bring anything particularly new to that scenario, but it's hard to complain when a film is this good. Delivering on the considerable promise shown by her debut feature Thursday Till Sunday, Sotomayor's film is one of the most beautifully crafted pictures of the year. Every shot is framed and edited in such an evocative way, but while her filmmaking is very exacting, she gets a great sense of freedom and spontaneity from her performers, particularly the younger members of the cast. Particularly Demian Hernández, who is such a compelling presence as 16 year-old Sofia, one of the children in this liberal environment who wants be treated as an adult. “You're too young,” one child is told. “Only on the outside,” she responds. In its own quiet, confident way I found this to be one of the year's most immersive pieces of filmmaking.

19 - Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross)

This film seems to exist somewhere between the worlds of Terrence Malick and Frederick Wiseman. It's a compendium of moments big and small captured during the course of the five years director RaMell Ross spent filming the residents of Hale County, Alabama. One of the key goals he has talked about with this project was to find a perspective inside this community, to shoot in a way that was aligned with their reality rather than shooting at them from a vantage point outside, and his film does achieve a remarkable sense of intimacy and normalcy. He doesn't give weight to one scene over another and he doesn't attempt to assemble these moments into any kind of narrative shape, but his film flows beautifully from one gorgeous, touching, serendipitous image to another. There are so many lovely moments, although for me nothing can beat the little kid running back and forth at full pelt across his living room. It's the kind of moment that another filmmaker might have used a fragment of, but Ross lets his camera linger and lets the moment play out, and such astute judgement and instinctive filmmaking is evident throughout this lyrical, magical film. Hale County This Morning, This Evening only runs for 76 minutes, but few films this year have felt so full.

18 - In Fabric (Peter Strickland)
The Dentley & Soper department store is a perfect setting for Peter Strickland. It’s full of rich textures and anachronistic details, a loving recreation of an environment that the director feels a particular sense of nostalgia for. Oh, and it also happens to be staffed by vampires. Whereas Strickland’s previous films Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy were largely confined to a single location, this one creates a whole world around Dentley & Soper, taking us into the lives of single mother Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill), with the connective tissue being provided by a haunted ‘artery red’ dress that murders its wearer. As well as being Strickland’s most expansive work to date, it’s also his funniest. He embraces the goofiness of his central premise and has his characters spout hilarious, often nonsensical dialogue, from Julian Barratt and Steve Oram’s obsession with timekeeping and roleplay, to Reg’s oneiric washing machine monologues. As ever, the film is scrupulously crafted, from Ari Wegner’s mesmerising cinematography to the fetishistically detailed soundscape. Another constant in Strickland’s films is the marvellous actress Fatma Mohamed, whose performance as the mysterious sales assistant is her most astonishing work yet.

17 - Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi)
I fell for Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's film instantly, at the same moment that timid Asako (Erika Karata) and the mysterious Baku (Masahiro Higashide) found love at first sight amid exploding firecrackers. Asako I & II may be half the length of Hamaguchi's 2015 epic Happy Hour, but I think it's twice as good. This is a rapturous romance exploring questions of fate and second chances, and I loved the way it always found ways to surprise me, repeatedly spinning off in wild directions and finding unexpected notes in these characters. Although I adored much of Happy Hour, I felt that Hamaguchi's focus on performance and character dynamics sometimes came at the expense of his direction, resulting in some poorly constructed and flatly lit scenes, and Asako I & II is a real advance in this respect. His blocking and composition is masterful, his touch with actors is as sure as ever (Higashide is particularly impressive in two amusingly contrasting roles), and he handles the film's numerous tonal shifts with grace. In fact, my only complaint is that he didn't try to match Happy Hour's running time, as I'd have been very happy to spend three more hours in the company of these characters.

16 - The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier)

The House That Jack Built saw Lars von Trier return to Cannes for the first time since his infamous Nazi comments in 2011, so obviously it makes sense that his latest film contains lengthy sequences praising the vision of Albert Speer or the noise that German Stuka bombers made. As he did in Nymphomaniac, von Trier spends much of this film digressing into long discussions of esoteric and unrelated subjects (Glenn Gould, cathedrals and dessert wines are under the microscope here); in fact, it feels like a companion piece to Nymphomaniac, with male violence replacing female sexual as the central subject. Of course, the real subject is von Trier himself, here exploring his own neuroses and artistic impulses through the “randomly chosen incidents” that his serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon) recounts to Verge (Bruno Ganz) as they journey through the netherworld. It’s an absorbing, maddening, hilarious and repulsive experience all at once. The House That Jack Built is hardly likely to win over anyone who already thinks of Lars von Trier as nothing more than a cheap showman and provocateur, but I think it’s another audacious and vital work from one of our most fascinating artists.

15 - Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Nobody creates families like Hirokazu Kore-eda, and this masterpiece about the families we create is one of his finest achievements. Kore-eda’s films have a way of sneaking up on the viewer, and that’s what this one does, introducing us to this family unit and gradually revealing more about their circumstances, developing our relationship with them scene by scene. We don’t realise how involved we’ve become with them until the heart-stopping final moments. There’s no blatant tearjerking here, just a keen sense of character and family dynamics, and the ability to use his camera to place us in this intimate, dilapidated space they call home. There are so many beautiful scenes here: a sex scene between Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) that is both funny and tender; a rare moment of connection between Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and her client; a moment of happiness of the beach, observed by the ailing Hatsue (Kirin Kiki); the last, wrenching shot of little Shota (Jyo Kairi). After making a strange and unsatisfying step into the procedural genre with The Third Murder, Shoplifters shows why Kore-eda is one of our greatest filmmakers.

14 - Dead Souls (Wang Bing)
Clocking in at over eight hours and consisting of interviews with survivors of Mao’s labour camps, Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls will inevitably be compared to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and such comparisons are justified. Bing spent more than a decade tracking down and talking to people who had been persecuted as Rightists and sent to labour camps in the Gobi Desert in the 1950s and ‘60s, but given the conditions that they describe, it’s astonishing that anyone lived to tell the tale. Worked until they dropped, forced to take shelter in makeshift caves, surviving on scraps of food and sinking into depravity. One man recalls seeing another covered by a blanket that seemed a strange colour, and when he looked closer he saw that it was covered entirely with lice. When asked if it bothered him, the man under the blanket replied that he didn’t feel anything anymore. Bing lets his interviews play out at length, trying to capture every detail of his subjects’ testimonies, and his film stands as a vital historical document. Dead Souls is undeniably a tough cinemagoing experience to endure, but it’s also a very rewarding one.

13 - Upgrade (Leigh Wannell)
While everyone was watching a film in which Tom Hardy lost control of his body to a mysterious force, this cracking thriller – in which a Tom Hardy lookalike loses control of his body to a mysterious force – slipped under the radar. Logan Marshall-Green is Grey Trace, a quadriplegic and a widower after he and his wife are attacked by a gang of crooks. Given the opportunity to try an experimental new technology called Stem – a computer chip that taps directly into his nervous system – Grey becomes mobile again, and then he becomes seriously mobile. The first time Grey gives control of his body over to Stem was one of the year’s great movie moments; he instantly becomes a ruthlessly efficient killing machine, and the look of horror on Marshall-Green’s at his own actions is priceless. Leigh Whannell’s handling of Upgrade’s spectacular and violent action sequences is slick and dynamic, and the film has a welcome vein of wry humour running through it, with Grey and Stem sharing some amusing back-and-forth (“While I am state of the art, I am not a ninja.”). It’s the ending that really elevates the film, though. I feared briefly that Whannell might wobble and lose control of the film right at the end, but after a little misdirection, he gives us a powerfully nihilistic climax.

12 - The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery)
If you’re going to make a whole movie about an old guy being charming, then Robert Redford is obviously the man to call. He’s turning the charm up to 11 in this true-life tale of an elderly bank robber, but it’s not just Redford’s show. Danny Glover and Tom Waits play his fellow burglars, Sissy Spacek is the woman he finds unexpected romance with, and Casey Affleck is the cop determined to take him down. Every actor fits snugly into their role and everything about the movie just feels right. David Lowery has crafted the film as a throwback, from the grainy cinematography to the camera zooms – even down to the title font – but he’s too smart and precise a filmmaker to allow it to feel like an empty pastiche. He’s never winking at the audience or playing games, and everything feels rooted in the characters and their world. The Old Man and the Gun has a laid-back, conversational quality that drew me in, but the film never feels dawdling or static, with Lisa Zeno Churgin’s impeccable editing allowing Lowery to zip through whole time periods when required without disrupting the film's rhythm. I think this picture has been admired but slightly dismissed by many, but I found it to be a moving and resonant portrait of people growing old and trying to figure out what to do with the time they have left. If this is to be the last we see of Robert Redford on screen, he couldn’t have chosen a more elegant way to say goodbye.

11 - Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman’s latest examination of the municipal workings in a small town has taken him to the American Midwest for the first time. In contrast to his 2014 film In Jackson Heights, which explored one of the most diverse places in America, here we have community that is white, conservative and built around particular traditions. We see some of these traditions being practiced, from a Masonic lodge to a wedding ceremony to a funeral, and while some of the idiosyncratic details are amusing (such as wonderfully theatrical eulogy), they are also conducted with a sincerity that is very moving. Wiseman’s work is a study in empathy, he captures people’s foibles and quirks and reveals our common humanity. Wiseman’s editing is as fluid and pointed as ever, and while this film might initially appear to lacks the epic scope of some of his similar community-based ventures – such as In Jackson Heights or Belfast, Maine – it builds into a typically engrossing and affecting experience, ending with one of the director’s most resonant closing shots.

10 - The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
As the rodeo rider recovering from a near-fatal head injury, Brady Jandreau is essentially playing himself in The Rider, having suffered through this same experience in 2016. Chloé Zhao took a risk by casting non-actors in her film, and asking them to play roles that closely resembled their lived experiences, but it paid off. When we watch Brady spend time with his father and sister, his close friend Lane Scott (a former champion paralysed after an accident), or his beloved horses, we see interactions that possess a purity and authenticity that can’t be faked. The Rider is a film about coping with loss and finding a sense of purpose; Brady knows that another rodeo mishap might kill him, but if you're somebody who absolutely lives for those eight seconds on the back of a bucking bronco, what else can you do? Zhao's quite, sensitive direction invites us into this world and allows us to observe and understand these characters. A beautiful, intimate and perceptive piece of filmmaking.

9 - Apostasy (Dan Kokotajlo)
Dan Kokotajlo drew on his own experiences of life as a Jehovah’s Witness for this powerful portrait of a family divided by faith. It’s a remarkably confident debut feature, with Kokotajlo shifting perspectives between the three central characters and including ellipses in scenes that many directors would have exploited for maximum drama. Newcomer Molly Wright is the devout teenager Alex, who has a rare blood condition but who refuses to accept a blood transfusion under the tenets of her faith, while her older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) has found new friends outside the church and a wider perspective on the world at college. But this is really their mother’s story, with Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) being forced to deal with the ramifications of her younger daughter’s illness, and then having to shun her eldest daughter when she falls pregnant. The coldness of the elders who order Luisa’s “disfellowship” is contrasted with the conflict of a mother desperate to help her child, but unable to step outside the belief system that has shaped her entire life. Kokotajlo’s direction is tightly focused on his actors, who each give shatteringly natural and emotive performances, and his refusal to over-dramatise events or paint characters in broad strokes makes this complex, wrenching film even more powerful.

8 - Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher)
Happy as Lazzaro was released on Netflix in the United States but it will arrive in UK cinemas early in 2019. See it with a crowd to share what I experienced when I saw it at the London Film Festival: a stunned collective gasp as the film we thought we were watching suddenly turned into a completely different one. You should also see it on the big screen to appreciate the the Hélène Louvart's entrancing 16mm cinematography, which helps Alice Rohrwacher create a film that has a timeless, otherworldly quality. Happy as Lazzaro feels like a film rooted in a grand tradition of Italian cinema – I saw hints of De Sica, Olmi, Rossellini and the Taviani brothers – but Rohrwacher's gentle touch and imaginative flights of fancy takes it in a whole new direction. A study of inequality and exploitation, the film largely rests on the shoulders of first-time actor Adriano Tardiolo, who plays Lazzaro as a true innocent, too good and too pure for this world of wolves. The best fables have a simplicity that disguises their thematic richness and depth, and that's the delicate balancing act that Rohrwacher has achieved here. It is a transcendent experience.

7 - The Wild Boys (Bertrand Mandico)
The trailer for The Wild Boys give away its central casting gambit, which is a shame, as it’s the kind of film that benefits from no foreknowledge. I watched it with no idea of what I was about to see and had a truly revelatory experience. The wild boys of the title are five teenage tearaways guilty of a violent crime, who are sent as punishment to a strange, exotic island under the command of an intimidating sea captain (Sam Louwyck). Things then turn very queer – in all senses of the word – as these adolescents fall under the spell of the island and the imperious Dr. Séverin (Elina Löwensohn), with both the characters and the film evolving in surprising ways. Bertrand Mandico’s film is a hallucinogenic, metamorphosing fantasia that feels like a completely unique vision even as it often brings bring names like Haynes, Fassbinder, Maddin and Borowczyk to mind. A film constructed from a series of lush, surreal and dreamlike images, The Wild Boys is a head-spinning and intoxicating trip.

6 - Madeline's Madeline (Josephine Decker)

Madeline’s Madeline plugs us straight into the mind of its protagonist, and it’s a challenging place to be. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a teenager fresh out of a spell in a psychiatric ward, who has a fractious relationship with her mother (Miranda July) and is trying to channel her complicated emotions into a theatre piece orchestrated by Molly Parker’s over-zealous acting coach. I’d admired Josephine Decker’s two features before this without flipping over into loving them, but this is something else. It’s a film that feels like it’s going for broke and operating without a safety net in every single scene, from forcing us to share the perspective of a turtle to building her climax around a remarkable dance sequence. Some viewers will undoubtedly find this vexing and alienating, but I was enraptured by it, and aside from its exhilarating surface pleasures (I loved its hazy, fragmented imagery), the film is a fascinating and ambiguous contemplation of the line between inspiration and exploitation in the creation of art. But at the centre of everything is Helena Howard; a stupendously gorgeous, inventive and charismatic performer, who explodes onto the screen and commands the viewer’s attention. I can’t wait to revisit this film, and I can’t wait to see what this special actress does next.

5 - If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
It’s impossible to imagine anyone better suited to adapting James Baldwin than Barry Jenkins. In If Beale Street Could Talk, he captures the tone of Baldwin’s writing, the combination of love and anger, while also making something that feels entirely fresh and cinematic. It feels less like an adaptation than a fusing of two artistic visions, and it feels like an even greater achievement than Moonlight. There are so many challenging scenes here, so many perspectives that Jenkins has to illuminate, but he always finds the perfect camera movement or the exact use of colour required to make the moment connect. The whole film has an undercurrent of rising emotion that bursts through at key points. The film captures what it feels to be in love, and it also makes us feel the agony of having that love torn away through injustice. I can identify the exact moment I knew I was watching masterpiece; it’s the scene in which Fonny (Stephan James) runs into his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). He’s a buoyant presence when he enters the film, but as he talks about his recent incarceration he reveals his pain, his fear, and by extension the pain and fear of being a black man living in a country where the odds are stacked against you. It’s a breathtaking feat of writing, directing and acting, as is the whole film.

4 - An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)
Hu Bo took his own life shortly after completing An Elephant Sitting Still and fighting bitterly with producers over the film’s length, making this both an extraordinary debut feature and a devastating final statement. It’s hard to view this ghostly epic independently of this knowledge; it is a movie mired in despair, ruminating on the cruelty of life and the meaninglessness of existence. “Wherever you go,” one character suggests, “you will find nothing different.” Four hours of this might sound unbearable, but An Elephant Sitting Still is a completely absorbing film. Hu Bo shoots it in long takes, often using shallow focus to isolate his leading characters from the world around them, and across the film’s four hours he creates a haunting and deeply felt portrait of isolation and struggle in contemporary China. At the end of it all, he finds an unexpected point of hope and beauty to end the film on. It’s a terrible shame that we’ll never see what else this gifted and confident young filmmaker might have given us, but An Elephant Sitting Still alone is still a remarkable legacy.

3 - Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
I was caught off-guard by Leave No Trace. I went into the film expecting something darker, something that hewed closer to the thriller template of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, and I was completely disarmed by the film it turned out to be. This is a film about empathy, kindness and understanding; a film about people trying to forge their own lives and create their own communities in a country that offers them little support. Haunted by PTSD, Ben Foster’s veteran only feels at home when he is with his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie, just perfect) with whom he has made a makeshift home in the woods, but does she need more than the love, protection and education he provides? Is his attempt to give her an independent life holding her back? Granik’s patient observation of these characters captures their deep bond and the gradually shifting dynamic between them, and her empathy as a filmmaker is extended to all of the characters they meet on their journey. I kept expecting Leave No Trace to slide into darkness or tragedy, but Granik follows her own path. It’s a film that makes your heart swell before it breaks it.

2 - First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

Almost fifty years after publishing his critical study of transcendental filmmakers, Paul Schrader has finally joined their company. First Reformed is a film made in the lineage of Bresson, Dreyer and Bergman, but it’s also a film plugged directly into our current moment of environmental crisis. How can a man keep his faith in a world that increasingly gives us no reason to hope? That's the position Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, magnificent) finds himself in; a continuation of a character type that Schrader has been following since Taxi Driver, Toller feels like the ultimate manifestation of God's Lonely Man in Schrader's work. After the 'anything goes' craziness of the undervalued Dog Eat Dog, Schrader's filmmaking here is precise and focused, with sharp static compositions and crisp editing. It is the work of a man who knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. He builds to a climactic sequence that has me holding my breath, and when he finally does move the camera right at the end of the film, the effect is rapturous. First Reformed is a great work from one of the most vital artists from the past five decades of American film. A work that encapsulates so many of the themes and the ideas that he has been developing throughout his career, it feels like the one film he was always meant to make.

1 - The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)

The greatest film of the year was directed by a man who died 33 years ago. The Other Side of the Wind – shot between 1970 and 1976, and left unfinished when the money inevitably ran out – is a film from the past that eclipsed everything else released this year. A caustic look at the Hollywood that rejected him, the film is a pure demonstration of Orson Welles’ genius, his spirit, his boundless sense of adventure. The party scenes that make up most of the film – in which a once-legendary director, struggling to finish his film, is celebrating his 70th birthday – are intense, cacophonous and claustrophobic, while the film-within-the-film (co-directed by Oja Kodar) is an expansive and composed exercise in style, packed with vivid, strange and sensual images that haven’t left my mind since I saw the film. Two extraordinary sequences in particular – an erotically-charged encounter in a nightclub bathroom, and an exhilarating sex scene inside a car – are masterclasses in editing and framing, and one regrets that cinematographer Gary Graver, who dreamed of this project’s completion for years, is not still with us to receive the plaudits his magnificent work deserves here. Other gifts from beyond the grave include Huston (at his imperious, Hemingway-esque best), Norman Foster and Susan Strasberg, whose performances here are surely among the year’s best. But it is the re-emergence of Welles that is so moving; a reminder of what made him so vital, such a unique force of nature. Even after suffering so many body blows, and having so many passion projects fall apart, he never stopped creating, pushing and exploring, and The Other Side of the Wind stands as a stunning final statement from one of the great artists of the 20th century. It is unquestionably the film event of 2018. “Shoot all the boys and girls. Shoot them dead.”

Sunday, December 30, 2018

My Cinema Discoveries of 2018

It is an extraordinary time to be a cinephile in London. We are blessed with a number of exceptional repertory cinemas and arthouses, and the explosion of independent programming collectives in recent years has only made the film landscape more exciting, more diverse, more personal. When The Badlands Collective presented our long-in-gestation Elaine May retrospective at the ICA in September, it took place on the same weekend as the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival, a programme of new German cinema, Dial M for Murder in 3D, an all-day screening of Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy on 35mm and Peter Watkins presenting a screening of La Commune. It is an embarrassment of riches wherever you look.

The films seen below constitute just a fraction of the 138 first-time viewings I enjoyed this year. As is always the case, there are a number of great films on this list that I had never even heard of before they were programmed, and I want to thank all of the cinemas and curators who continue seek out forgotten, overlooked and marginalised films and bring them back to our screens. Please continue to support their efforts throughout 2019.

50 - Women of all Nations (Raoul Walsh, 1931) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm

As I left the screening of Women of all Nations I overheard a number of complaints from the cinemagoers around me about the film we had just seen. It was dismissed as being sexist, racist, cheap and stupid and...well, those people may have had some justification for their claims. A sequel to Raoul Walsh's 1926 comedy What Price Glory?, the film follows Captain Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Sergeant Quirt (Edmund Lowe) as they travel around the world fighting with each other and attempting to get laid. It's a crude, bawdy and fairly slapdash pre-Code, and it will trouble nobody's list of the greatest Raoul Walsh films. But here's the thing: halfway through the film El Brendel attempts to hide a monkey in his pants at a party, and nothing else I saw in 2018 made me laugh harder than this, especially when the monkey stole a man's cigar and set Brendel's trousers on fire. For this reason, I feel I would be lying to myself if I didn't include Women of all Nations on my list. What can I say? Sometimes I want great art, sometimes I just want a guy with a monkey in his pants. Everything is cinema.

49 - The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971) Queen's Hotel, Eastbourne, Digital

This is not your average vampire movie. For one thing, much of it takes place during the day rather than at night, with Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) happily bouncing around in the hot desert sun in her yellow jeep. Stephanie Rothman plays fast and loose with the conventions of this genre, drawing on the elements she finds useful and ditching anything else, and the result is a film that is distinctively odd and highly entertaining. Vacant blondes Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles play the couple invited to an isolated desert mansion by LeFanu, where she invades their dreams and gradually seduces them both, with the ultimate goal of feasting on their youthful blood. The acting is often amusingly wooden (particularly the dead-eyed Blodgett), but Celeste Yarnall is a classy, beguiling, gorgeous presence, and Rothman brings a sly sense of humour to the film as she plays with ideas of voyeurism and desire. She also belies her film’s meagre budget with some elegant and vibrant production design; you can tell that she was a graduate of the Roger Corman school.

48 - Shark (Samuel Fuller, 1969) Cinémathèque Française, Paris, 16mm

This is inevitably one of those movies where the story behind the film is more compelling than what’s on screen. Sam Fuller began shooting this misbegotten venture as Caine in 1967, but the production was halted when stuntman Jose Marco was killed by an improperly sedated shark. Appallingly, the producers decided to exploit this tragedy as part of their publicity campaign, renaming the film Shark, splicing in some stock shark footage, and selling it with taglines like “A REALISTIC FILM BECAME TOO REAL!” Fuller quit in protest and demanded that his name be removed from the mangled final product, but Shark's opening credits still says “Directed by Sam Fuller,” and fortunately a few trademark Fuller touches are still evident. The bond between Burt Reynolds’ self-proclaimed sonofabitch protagonist and a young boy recalls The Steel Helmet, and Fuller gets excellent work from both Reynolds (then still a TV actor) and Arthur Kennedy as an alcoholic doctor. The scene in which a drunk Kennedy has to perform a lifesaving operation on the boy feels like an homage to My Darling Clementine, directed by Fuller’s great friend John Ford. Shark is quite entertaining and there’s enough Sam Fuller in there to make it worth 90 minutes of your time, but it’s obviously a compromised picture. The character motivations have been lost, the plot is messy, the editing is horrendous and the shark scenes are desperately unexciting. It would be three years until Fuller made Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street for German television and another eight until The Big Red One.

47 - The Brat (John Ford, 1931) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Digital

John Ford was dismissive of this light-hearted comedy, which he filmed for Fox in 1931, but his brilliance can occasionally be glimpsed throughout. The film opens with a wonderfully atmospheric scene at a night court, where various drunkards and itinerants are hauled before the judge, including one ageing Shakespearean actress whose (dramatically lit) soliloquy moves the entire room to applaud. This is where we meet ‘The Brat’ (Sally O'Neil), who was caught skipping out on the bill at a restaurant, but is saved from jail by a pretentious novelist (Alan Dinehart) who intends to use her for research. The Brat expectedly causes havoc in the novelist’s wealthy household, fighting with two sisters who have their eyes on the novelist’s wealth, and forming an alliance with his drunken brother, and it’s a lively, funny romp. Ford gives this potentially stagebound material a cinematic look through his typically impressive compositions and dynamic lighting, but your appreciation of the film may rest on how you take to Sally O'Neil’s wide-eyed and squawking lead performance. I loved her, and it’s a shame her career never seemed to take off after this role.

46 - The Czar Wants to Sleep (Aleksandr Faintsimmer, 1934) Cinema Lumière, Bologna, 35mm

This is a comedy all about a single spelling mistake. In his introduction to the screening I attended, Peter Bagrov laboriously attempted to explain the nature of the error – which can’t easily be replicated into English – but the basic idea is that a single erroneous stroke of the pen on an official document creates a military man who doesn’t exist. As nobody has the courage to admit culpability for this error, the fictional man’s name remains on a roll-call, and soon he’s rising through the ranks, winning praise from the Czar for his conduct and even getting married. He even spends a period in Siberia as punishment, which requires two soldiers to march the non-existent prisoner all the way there and back; just one of the surreal episodes in which characters have to behave as if he is in their presence. There’s something weirdly sluggish and soporific about Aleksandr Faintsimmer’s film (with the early sound-era tech not helping matters), but this bizarre satire is also compulsively watchable, if only because you can’t wait to see what levels of absurdity the story reaches for next.

45 - Sparkle (Sam O'Steen, 1976) Cinema Museum, 16mm

Ignore the baffling 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – this is a fine and entertaining showbiz melodrama. A breakthrough for screenwriter Joel Schumacher, Sparkle charts the rise and fall of a trio of singing sisters from Harlem, who success is plagued by drug addition and the external influence of organised crime. Some of the film's plotting feels rushed and underdeveloped (particularly one character's climactic encounter with gangsters, which is confusingly fudged), but the performances are charismatic, particularly the beautiful Lonette McKee, and the film comes to life during its musical sequences. Sparkle deserved better than to be dumped by Warner Brothers, and it's worth rediscovering for both its satisfying old-school storytelling, the music by Curtis Mayfield, and its talented young cast, including Miami Vice's Philip Michael Thomas.

44 - Smooth Talk (Joyce Chopra, 1985) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Following her intimate and revealing self-portrait Joyce at 34, this was one of two films by Joyce Chopra that I discovered this year. Smooth Talk stars Laura Dern as the rebellious 15 year-old Connie, hungry for independence and adult experiences, who catches the eye of a mysterious older man (Treat Williams). The introduction of this strutting, sunglasses-wearing stranger is initially hilarious  “I'm Arnold Friend,” he tells Connie, “That's my real name and that's what I want to be to you.”  but then the film rapidly shifts into more unsettling territory. The second half of Smooth Talk is essentially a two-hander, with Arnold lurking outside Connie's home attempting to persuade her to come outside, or to let him in. She's flattered, confused, curious, excited and scared all at once; a girl who sees herself as an adult but at heart is still a child, and Dern walks the tightrope of this challenging role with remarkable deftness and confidence. It's a mysterious, unnerving, engrossing film.

43 - Smashing Time (Desmond Davis, 1967) BFI Southbank 35mm

did have a smashing time with this camp and colourful musical comedy, which was shown on a gorgeous 35mm print that had been shipped from the US for this one-off screening. Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave are Brenda and Yvonne, a pair of naïve northern girls who arrive in London with dreams of glamour and stardom, but within the first five minutes they’ve had all their money stolen by a tramp and Tushingham has repeatedly landed in a muddy puddle. Those pratfalls set the tone for a film that’s essentially a live-action cartoon. Yvonne sparks a paint fight in a café while Brenda is involved in a good old-fashioned custard pie fight, and there’s a hilarious sequence in which Yvonne tries to rescue a drunk Brenda from an amorous toff by spiking his drink with laxatives and overflowing his bath. It’s all extremely silly, but George Melly’s script also possesses a satirical edge, skewering the more absurd pretensions of Swinging London and taking some sly digs at television and advertising. (The advert for ‘Direct Action’ that incorporates footage of protesters being attacked by the police is a particularly neat touch). Tushingham and Redgrave (who previously starred together in Desmond Davis’ Girl with Green Eyes) both give energetic, distinctive performances and share a tangible chemistry, and there are terrific supporting turns all the way through the film, such as Jeremy Lloyd’s ridiculously hip musical agent and Michael York’s Austin Powers-ish photographer.

42 - The Gay Desperado (Rouben Mamoulian, 1936) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Opera singer Nino Martini takes the lead in this very enjoyable musical comedy as a Mexican entertainer who is kidnapped by a music-loving bandit, and then falls in love with Ida Lupino. The film is a frivolous entertainment but it is elevated by Mamoulian's typically elegant and playful direction, and the wonderful way the actors bounce off each other. This one of Lupino’s first major Hollywood roles and she brings a wonderful feistiness and ingenuity to her character; it’s little wonder that she ditches her cowardly American fiancé and falls for the charming bandido. The cast is filled out by a roster of fine characters actors, and I particularly loved Leo Carrillo and Harold Huber as a pair of bickering crooks. It’s great fun.

41 - The Qatsi Trilogy: KoyaanisqatsiPowaqqatsiNaqoyqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982-2002) The Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm

Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy suffers from a steep decline in quality after the first installment, and the fact that cinematographer Ron Fricke left the series after Koyaanisqatsi (and he went on to make the superior Baraka and Samsara) suggests that Reggio was never the real visionary behind these movies. Koyaanisqatsi is a wonderful experience and Powaqqatsi succeeds through some beautiful images and interesting editing rhythms, even though it has a tendency to feel familiar and doesn’t really add much to the themes of its predecessor. It’s a lot better than Naqoyqatsi, though, which trades in the qualities that distinguished the first two films – the spectacular natural photography, the vision of humanity – for endless CGI graphics and effects, and lots of stock footage. Not much has dated faster than early 21st century computer graphics, and this film is unbelievably ugly and garish. It's also very dumb and repetitive, and full of sequences where Reggio indicts the modern world by having dollar bills and corporate logos float across the screen for five minutes. Still, watching these three movies on impeccable 35mm prints was a special experience, particularly as Philip Glass is on top form throughout much of it. I also enjoyed spotting the themes and riffs that he would recycle in his film scores later; I had no idea that much of his music for The Truman Show was lifted from Powaqqatsi.

40 - Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (Ulrike Ottinger, Tabea Blumenschein, 1978) ICA, 16mm

A total one-off, Madame X: An Absolute Ruler is the kind of film I might have grown tired of and given up on at home, but watching it on a beautiful print with an enthusiastic audience, I had a grand time. The titular Madame X (played by co-director Tabea Blumenschein) is a pirate who recruits women through newspaper adverts, inviting them to abandon their tedious lives and join her in a quest for riches. That’s about it in terms of plot, with the bulk of the film’s 140-minute running time consisting of long, sometimes inexplicable sequences in which the women dance around on the deck of their ship. I confess, I often had little grasp of what they were doing or why, but that didn’t really seem to matter so much. The tone is resolutely tongue-in-cheek and some of the mannered and extravagant performances provided by the cast are hilarious, while the film is always pleasing on the eye, thanks to Blumenschein’s imaginative and colourful costumes, which looked sensational on this 16mm archive print. Madame X can be a bit much at 140 minutes, and it’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s a unique and ultimately rather charming vision.

39 - Love and Death on Long Island (Richard Kwietniowski, 1997) BFI Southbank, 35mm

"A puerile romp without a single redeeming feature" says the Sight & Sound review of a film called Hotpants College II, which we catch a glimpse of in Love and Death on Long Island. The esteemed novelist Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) obviously wouldn't agree. When he accidentally stumbles into the wrong screening (“This isn't E.M. Forster!”), the tacky teen comedy introduces him to a beautiful young actor named Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), with whom he becomes utterly obsessed. Director Richard Kwietniowski has a lot of fun pastiching the pop culture that the hitherto oblivious De'Ath begins frantically exploring as he attempts to learn every detail of Bostock's life, and the film is often very amusing. However, it is at heart the story of an old man's delusions and his impossible romantic fantasy, developing an unsettling edge as he insinuates himself into Bostock's life through a 'chance' encounter with his girlfriend, and I was hugely impressed with the way Kwietniowski navigated these tricky tonal shifts. Jason Priestley plays with his screen persona while Fiona Loewi does smart, perceptive work as the girlfriend who begins to smell a rat, but this is John Hurt's movie. His performance here as a man breaking out of his humdrum life to pursue one last grand passion surely ranks among the finest he ever gave.

38 - Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940) BFI Southbank, 35mm

The main reason to watch Dance, Girl, Dance is Lucille Ball. The film comes to life whenever she appears on screen as Bubbles, the raunchy cabaret dancer who’s determined to snag a rich man for herself. Ball inevitably overshadows the nominal lead Maureen O’Hara, as the aspiring ballerina who becomes a stooge in Ball’s burlesque show, although O’Hara does have one great scene when she stands at the front of the stage and chastises the boorish male audience: “What's it for? So you can go home when the show's over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I'm sure they see through you. I'm sure they see through you just like we do!” Arzner is good at capturing and critiquing the male gaze – an early scene has the girls audition for a leering, cigar-chomping producer – but Dance, Girl, Dance is an odd movie marked by abrupt tonal shifts and bizarre plot developments. Louis Hayward is enjoyable as a drunken playboy reeling from his divorce while Ralph Bellamy is reliably Ralph Bellamy-ish as the impresario trying to sign O’Hara up for his new show. It all gets very convoluted. “When I think about how simple things could have been,” O’Hara sighs at the end, “I can't help but laugh.”

37 - Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches (Dinara Asanova, 1974) Regent Street Cinema, 35mm

One of the few female directors to emerge in the Soviet cinema of the 1970s (and, like her contemporary Larisa Shepitko, a filmmaker who died too young), Dinara Asanova's stood out for making films about children and teenagers, and for developing her stories through a process of improvisation. This jazzy tale of teen angst and first love was her first feature, and it's a very accomplished debut. Muhin (Sasha Zhezlyaev) is the young drummer who dreams of making it as a musician and finally stepping out of the long shadow cast by his older brother, a star basketball player. Over the course of the summer he falls for Ira (Elena Tsyplakova), and the film follows his attempts to win her heart while also getting involved in a series of unrelated scrapes. Asanova clearly had a magic touch when it came to working with kids, and she gets warm, funny, natural performances from her entire cast. It's a little wayward and episodic, but the film's spirit is infectious and Asanova crafts a genuinely lovely romantic ending.

36 - One Way Pendulum (Peter Yates, 1964) BFI Southbank, 35mm

N.F. Simpson’s surreal play One Way Pendulum has been acknowledged as an influence by a whole generation of British comedians, including Monty Python, The Goons and Peter Cook, and it’s easy to see why. This screen adaptation is completely insane, with Eric Sykes attempting to rebuild the Old Bailey (and stage his own trial) in his living room, Jonathan Miller collecting weighing machines and teaching them to sing, and Peggy Mount eating the entire contents of the household larder. The relentless wackiness can get a little exhausting, but it made me laugh so much and the actors all strike the perfect note of deadpan absurdity. In particular, Alison Leggatt (who also starred in the stage version) is a joy, reacting to every bizarre occurrence with the same unperturbed demeanour and rolled eyes, and her line deliveries frequently had me in stitches. "Anyway, it's too late to do anything about it now,” she tells her daughter, who wishes for longer arms. “You should have thought about that before you were born."

35 - Mister Freedom + Maydays (William Klein, 1969 / 1978) BFI Southbank, 35mm / Digital

"I'm pleased to announce that we've destroyed half the country. I hope you now understand that aggression doesn't pay." William Klein's insane satire Mister Freedom is very much a film of its time, but it also feels like a film for ours. Sent to Paris to stop the spread of Communism by any means necessary, this arrogant, jingoistic American superhero proceeds to wreak a path of destruction and never once displays an ounce of doubt or self-awareness. As a satire, the film is broad, blunt, noisy and often bewildering, but it's also extremely funny and Klein's vivid Godardian colour scheme really popped on 35mm. Maydays was released almost a decade on from Mister Freedom, but it was actually shot before, being a record of the events of May '68, which Klein appeared to be right in the midst of. A compelling portrait of a revolution and a fascinating time capsule.

34 - Same Old Song (Alain Resnais, 1997) Ciné Lumière, 35mm

Dennis Potter gets a very prominent credit right at the start of Same Old Song. This is a loving homage to the man behind Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, with Alain Resnais having his characters lip sync to a series of classic French songs (the exception to this rule is Jane Birkin, who gets to sing one of her own songs) to express the emotions that they can't give voice to. The timing of these outbursts is marvellous and even as frequently as the songs are used throughout the picture, Resnais never allows it to feel repetitive or tired. It's a fluid, lively and wonderfully acted ensemble piece, with multiple characters criss-crossing Paris and getting entangled with each other, falling in love and finding real estate problems getting in their way. Occasionally, images of jellyfish will fill the screen, although I'm not entirely sure why. This is a bit of a trifle from a great director, but it's an entirely lovely way to spend two hours.

33 - A Child in the Crowd (Gérard Blain, 1976) Barbican, 35mm

This one was a real discovery, in the sense that I’d never even heard of it before it appeared in the Barbican’s programme and in fact this was the first time it had ever been screened in the UK. Gérard Blain’s largely autobiographical film observes a child growing up in occupied France, with Jean François Cimino playing Paul as a child before the teenage César Chauveau takes on the role for the majority of the film. Blain’s style is sober and detached, with the kind of affectless performances that recall Bresson, and the film is stark and unsentimental in the way it portrays a child largely left to his own device (adults are often shown facing away from Paul) and vulnerable to exploitation. Blain’s coolly unadorned approach can keep us at a distance from the central character – I never got a sense of his inner life – and it leaves some of the relationships in the film feeling frustratingly undeveloped or unclear in their specifics. It’s an absorbing picture nonetheless, and it occasionally possesses a powerful immediacy; notably when a woman accused of Nazi collaboration is forced to walk through the streets naked, with her head shaved and a swastika daubed on her chest. Only Paul offers her an empathetic hand when the crowd has dispersed.

32 - Be My Star + Longing (Valeska Grisebach, 2001/2006) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Valeska Grisebach made one of the best films I saw last year in Western. Neither of these two early efforts can quite match up to that outstanding film, but both are intelligent, intriguing and skilfully made. Be My Star focuses on the awkward interactions between a group of teenagers, with the director’s keen sense of relationships and unspoken emotions again being clearly evident. The film runs for just 65 minutes but both the situations that Grisebach creates and the teens' performances are natural and engaging. It's a small gem of a film. Longing is more ambitious and elusive, and its more clinical approach it reminded me a little of early Haneke. Beginning with an off-screen car crash, the film is about a small-town firefighter who leaves his loving wife for a young waitress, with Grisebach again working with non-actors (all doing fine work) and taking a more oblique approach to her characters’ motivations and behaviour. These are both fine films but Western - coming over a decade after Longing - was a quantum leap for Grisebach and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

31 - Mike's Murder (James Bridges, 1984) BFI Southbank, 35mm

This is not Mike’s Murder as director James Bridges intended it. His first cut of the film played out in reverse chronological order, but after some terrible test screenings Warner Brothers insisted that he re-edit it into a more conventional version for general release. Perhaps that torturous history explains why Mike's Murder has such a strange and distinctive atmosphere. The pacing is unusual and so many scenes have an off-kilter, haunted feel; at times the film feels almost Lynchian. Debra Winger is the quiet woman who is forced to develop a hitherto unsuspected steeliness and resourcefulness as she searches for information about her murdered lover in a Los Angeles netherworld. She meets a number of oddball characters en route (including an aspiring Chippendale), and Paul Winfield is magnificent in his brief appearance as a gay music producer. It’s a fascinating film, and I hope one day we get the opportunity to experience Bridges’ original vision. 

30 - Mi querida señorita (Jaime de Armiñán, 1972) BFI Southbank 35mm

Homosexuality was illegal under Franco’s regime, so the existence of this 1972 drama – which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – is surprising. It’s the story of a middle-aged spinster who suddenly undergoes a sex-change operation and begins a new life as a man in Madrid, with José Luis López Vázquez’s measured and understated performance in both halves of the movie giving the film a solid emotional base. He brings a real poignancy to the scenes with Julieta Serrano, who worked for Adela as a maid and later begins a tentative romance with Juan, unaware that he is her former employer. Jaime de Armiñán’s film is admirably sensitive in a number of ways, but the film’s 80 minute running time leaves it feeling frustratingly shallow and underdeveloped. It rushes past key plot points and emotional markers – we cut straight from Adela discussing her operation to the appearance of Juan in Madrid – and a number of important relationships feel flimsy. Still, this is valuable as an intriguing portrait of a transgender individual living in a time of suspicion and oppression, and it boasts a number of excellent performances. Aside from Vázquez and Serrano, I loved Mónica Randall as the woman who helps Juan at his lowest ebb, and Lola Gaos and Chus Lampreave as the two mean old landladies keeping a beady eye on their new tenant.

29 - Be Pretty and Shut Up (Delphine Seyrig, 1981) Barbican, Digital

Delphine Seyrig shot these interviews with actresses working in the French and American film industries in 1976 and the film was released five years later. Four decades on, what’s striking about the documentary is how relevant it feels, with many of the issues raised by these women still being topics of discussion today. Jane Fonda, Anne Wiazemsky, Ellen Burstyn, Shirley MacLaine, Juliet Berto, Jenny Agutter, Maria Schneider and Louise Fletcher are among the interviewees who discuss their aspirations, the expectations and limitations placed on them by others because of their gender, and the sexism they have faced at every turn. The film suffers from very rough images and sound but Seyrig achieves a great sense of intimacy with her subjects, and their testimonies are witty, eloquent and revealing. It’s a remarkable film. I was particularly touched by Ellen Burstyn talking about how she first discovered that women can be directors too, and her evident excitement at the prospect. She is currently working on her directorial debut at the age of 85.

28 - Mati Manas (Mani Kaul, 1985) ICA, 35mm

Commissioned by the Festival of India to make a film about the art of clay pottery, Mani Kaul created this poetic essay film in which he goes beyond the basic craftsmanship to explore the traditions, myths and legends that have fed into the work for potters for centuries. It’s a poetic film with a constantly shifting perspective, as Kaul positions himself as a curious outsider and seeks new vantage points on his subject. His tactile images of potters at work are cut together with shots of the director and a colleague walking around museums, contemplating the ancient objects now housed behind glass. Throughout the film the camera is moved with great elegance and his images are always beautifully composed. Mati Manas is an entrancing piece of filmmaking and it made me very keen to see the rest of this director’s work, hopefully on 35mm prints as good as this one.

27 - Pixote (Héctor Babenco, 1980) Cinema Lumière, Bologna, Digital

Within the opening ten minutes of Héctor Babenco’s Pixote a young boy has been raped, and from there the film gets steadily bleaker. The director cast real-life homeless children in his film and drew on their stories to construct his narrative, and his whole film has a horrible sense of authenticity. Pixote (11 year-old Fernando Ramos da Silva) begins the film in a borstal – corrupt at the top and brutal at the bottom – and when he and his gang escape they attempt to survive on the streets of Rio through mugging, dealing drugs and ambushing the clients of a weary, sick prostitute (the outstanding Marília Pêra). Babenco spares us nothing. His film is so vividly crafted and made with such artistry and empathy, I felt I couldn’t look away even if I often wanted to. I remain haunted by Pixote’s affectless demeanour and dead-eyed gaze, and while a viewer of this film might hope that he can one day claw his way out of this cycle of violence, the knowledge that da Silva was killed by police seven years after Pixote was released makes the film feel even more desolate.

26 - La Main du diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Also known as Carnival of Sinners, this is essentially the age-old tale of Faust/The Monkey's Paw but Maurice Tourneur's artful direction makes it feel fresh. Pierre Fresnay is the struggling artist who becomes an overnight sensation after purchasing a mysterious talisman on the cheap, but he has to pay a high price when The Devil (in the form of Pierre Palau) comes calling. Tourneur's atmospheric use of shadows suggests he passed on a few tips to his son Jacques, and one scene in particular is brilliantly crafted. When Fresnay meets all of the previous owners of the hand and hears their tales of woe, the film presents them in little diorama-like episodes, creating a chain of greed and folly that spans centuries. It's a tight, mesmerising film. Tourneur ratchets up the tension as his protagonist is sinks inexorably into a rapidly increasing debt, while the ever-cheery Palau makes for a very unexpected and memorable Satanic figure.

25 - Dancing Lady (Robert Z. Leonard, 1933) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Crawford! Gable! Astaire! The Three Stooges! This pre-Code musical comedy has quite a pedigree, capturing many of these iconic stars at the beginning of their careers. Crawford plays the burlesque dancer who dreams of getting a role in a Broadway show, but to do that she’ll need to win over tough cookie Clark Gable, with whom she has a crackling love-hate relationship. The tangible chemistry between these two actors gives the film a real spark; Crawford has rarely been as relaxed and funny as she is in their scenes together, and their flirting in the gym and swimming pool scenes is a pleasure to watch. Dancing Lady follows a straightforward narrative template, with the show being threatened with closure at the last minute before everyone regroups for a grand Busby Berkeley-ish finale, and director Robert Z. Leonard keeps it moving with his zippy direction and plenty of sly one-liners. 

24 - Lights of Old Broadway (Monta Bell, 1925) Cinema Lumière, Bologna, 35mm

Marion Davies is on fine form in a double role as a pair of twins separated at birth, with one going on to live with the upper classes while the other is raised in an Irish slum and becomes a stage comedienne. It’s a raucous and highly entertaining comedy, with lots of hoary old gags about the Irish propensity for drinking and fighting (“Dad, I didn’t recognise you without a brick in your hand!”) and a subplot about the changing face of New York at the turn of the century. It’s this aspect that really distinguishes Lights of Old Broadway. The film’s climax coincides with the coming of electric streetlights to the city and Monta Bell suddenly flips to two-strip Technicolor to express this new form of illumination. The effect is dazzling.

23 - Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Two of the most intense actors of the 1940s go head-to-head in Humoresque, a full-blooded melodrama adapted by Clifford Odets from a Fannie Hurst story. John Garfield is the hard-headed violinist (his hands being provided by two violinists ducking just out of shot) who falls into a toxic relationship with drunken patroness Joan Crawford. Both stars are close to their best here, and Crawford in particular gives one of her most unforgettable performances, with her final scene on the beach being justly iconic, while Negulesco gives them both plenty of dramatic close-ups. But what makes the film really work is the attention paid to each performance in the ensemble; none of the supporting roles are overshadowed by the two commanding leads. I was particularly taken by Ruth Nelson as Garfield’s mother, who communicates so much with the smallest glance or gesture, and I loved Oscar Levant loitering in the back of scenes to toss out one-liners like a proto-Rodney Dangerfield: “Hey, you just spoiled the beginning of an odious relationship.”

22 - The Winter of Three Hairs (Yan Gong, Zhao Ming, 1949) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm

The Winter of Three Hairs is the story of street urchin who is entirely bald except for the three long strands of hair in the centre of his head. This character, Sanmao, is apparently an iconic cartoon figure in China – as distinctive as Charlie Brown – and co-directors Yan Gong and Zhao Ming give their film a comic-book sensibility, with exaggerated performances, lively visuals and frenetic, episodic action. Sanmao is played by the pugnaciously charming Longji Wang, and despite being destitute he remains a figure of dignity and honour. When pressed into stealing by a street gang, he feels guilty and immediately returns the victim's stolen goods, and he won’t take handouts from a rich family if it means changing his identity. Fortunately for Sanmao, Communism – in the shape of an abrupt ending, hastily added after Mao’s 1949 revolution – is here to save the day.

21 - Slap the Monster on Page One (Marco Bellocchio, 1972) BFI Southbank, 35mm

In Slap the Monster on Page One corruption flows through Italy like a river of sewage. This cynical look behind the scenes of a right-wing newspaper is constructed like a thriller and remains incredibly potent in our current climate. The plot hinges on the murder of a teenage girl, with the editor (Gian Maria Volontè) of the tabloid Il Gionarle attempting to use his influence to disrupt and derail the investigation, and to shift the balance of power in the forthcoming elections, falsely identifying a left-wing student as the suspect in the process. Bellocchio's gaze is utterly unforgiving, implicating everyone in this bleak examination of unholy alliances between politicians, businessmen and the media. It's an urgent, riveting and incisive piece of filmmaking, reminiscent of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, and it boasts a magnificent central performance from Volontè as the puppet master following his twisted ideology even as feels occasional pangs of conscience.

20 - Fiaker Nr. 13 + The Golden Butterfly (Michael Curtiz, 1926) Cinema Museum, 35mm

These were the last two films directed by Michael Curtiz (or as he was then know, Michael Kertész) before he made the move to America, and both star the exceptionally charming Lili Damita. In Fiaker Nr. 13 she plays the daughter of a humble cab driver who has no idea that she is actually the long-lost daughter of a millionaire, while in The Golden Butterfly (loosely adapted from a PG Wodehouse story) she's a waitress who dreams of being a dancer. The Golden Butterfly was my favourite of the two films thanks to the more exciting visuals, some lavish costume designs and a scene-stealing performance from Curt Bois (who later reunited with Curtiz as the pickpocket in Casablanca), but both are expertly crafted and polished pieces of filmmaking. On this evidence, it's easy to see why Curtiz was so admired in Hollywood, where he would go on to make a string of great films, including his brilliant 1941 thriller The Sea Wolf, which was another of my major discoveries this year.

19 - Lights Out in Europe (Herbert Kline, 1940) Cinema Lumière, Bologna, Digital

Here's a film that manages to provide a genuinely fresh and illuminating look at World War II in Europe. In the early days of the conflict, Herbert Kline's documentary looked at the preparations being made for war in England and Europe, focusing on the civilians who would shortly have their lives torn apart by war, the severity of which nobody could yet imagine. In Britain we see people trying to get on with their lives while peering into an uncertain future; the gathering storm is still more of a topic for conversation and debate at this point, but in Poland the war is very real, and in one of the film's most shocking images we see a young woman dying after a German bombardment. These images were captured by Alexander Hackensmid and a young Douglas Slocombe, whose mention of this long-forgotten film in an interview towards the end of his life was the impetus for this restoration. Sadly, Slocombe died before the restoration was complete, but Lights Out in Europe is an incredible historical record, that deserves to find a new life now.

18 - Ladies in Retirement (Charles Vidor, 1941) BFI Southbank, 35mm

“You are out of your mind choosing a child to play that role!” Harry Cohn reportedly exclaimed when Ida Lupino was cast as the lead in Charles Vidor’s excellent comic thriller. The protagonist in original play was an older woman (and played on stage by Flora Robson), but 23 year-old beauty Lupino is entirely convincing as the middle-aged spinster who will go to any lengths to protect her two mentally unbalanced sisters (Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett). The film is set entirely within a house on Dartmoor and Vidor accentuates the sense of isolation and the atmosphere of dread by shrouding the house in a permanent fog. His use of the camera within these cramped confines is always intelligent and purposeful, and he gets great mileage from Lupino’s face, frequently pushing in to tight close-ups as she underplays her character’s murderous thoughts. Louis Hayward contrasts nicely with Lupino as the roguish charmer who turns up and meddles with her plans, and the film strikes a nice balance between tension and humour as it shifts between the perspectives of these two characters. At a shade over 90 minutes, it’s a pleasingly tight and accomplished piece of work, and far more exciting than the rather staid title makes it sound.

17 - Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembène, Thierno Faty Sow, 1988) BFI Southbank, 35mm

The Thiaroye massacre took place in December 1944, when dozens of Africans who had fought for France in the war were murdered by the French army. They had been promised pensions equivalent to French soldiers for their service, and instead they were confined to a prison camp upon their return to Senegal, which ultimately led to their mutiny and their deaths. Camp de Thiaroye is a powerful depiction of these events. The anger behind the film is evident, but Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow never let this anger cloud their judgement or the clarity of their storytelling. The filmmakers introduces a handful of key characters and find room for humour and humanity in the first half of the picture, before allowing us to see the multiple forms of racism and injustice that these soldiers faced. The massacre itself is starkly presented; a shocking and horrific spectacle of flashing lights, flying bullets and falling bodies. The film reminded me of Med Hondo’s Sarraounia, another masterpiece of African cinema made two years prior to this, and both of these films are essential examples of anti-colonialist filmmaking.

16 - The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Who else but Lon Chaney could play a guy with no arms and three thumbs? After convincing the world that he had no legs in The Penalty, Chaney takes on the role of an armless knife thrower, although he is in fact an escaped criminal who straps down both of his arms (including his deformed double thumb) to disguise himself as a circus freak. This forces Chaney to do everything with his feet, something that the actor pulls off with typical dexterity and flair, from having a cup of tea, to lighting a cigarette to chucking daggers at the woman he loves (an early role for Joan Crawford). His physical transformation is a stunning spectacle in itself, but the film around him is terrific too. Browning strikes a fine balance between campy melodrama and tragic horror, and the finale – involving some terrifying hysterical laughter and a couple of rampaging horses – is jaw-dropping.

15 - Two Timid Souls (René Clair, 1928) Cinema Lumière, Bologna, Digital

A glorious sense of invention is the hallmark of René Clair's cinema, and Two Timid Souls, the director's final silent feature, shows him at his most imaginative and mischievous. The first timid soul we're introduced to is the young lawyer Fremissin (Pierre Batcheff) who nervously attempts to defend the wife beater Thibaudier (Maurice de Féraudy), but whose muddled performance in court ends up putting the brute behind bars. Clair plays with the form wonderfully here, with the flashbacks to the alleged crime being shown twice, once from Thibaudier's perspective, in which he is presented as a doting husband in a picture-perfect household. Flashbacks, freeze-frames and split-screens are all freely utilised throughout as Clair layers multiple jokes and surprises into the film, and when the plot later reunites these two characters as they pursue the same girl  (the girl's father is the second timid soul in this scenario), the director sets up a number of hilarious running gags, with his punchlines always being ingeniously conceived and executed. It's a masterful piece of comic filmmaking; visually dazzling, flawlessly constructed and consistently hilarious.

14 - None Shall Escape (André DeToth, 1944) BFI Southbank, Digital

André DeToth‘s film was the talk of Bologna among friends of mine who caught it at Il Cinema Ritrovato this summer. I caught up with it a few months later, and I was happy to discover that they certainly hadn’t oversold it. The film’s big talking point is the fact that it was shot in 1943 and released in 1944, and it seems to predict the war crime trials that would take place after World War II had ended. Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox) is the Nazi standing trial, with each witness revealing – through flashbacks – more about how this former schoolteacher rose through the ranks in the Third Reich. None Shall Escape is absolutely uncompromising in its portrayal of Nazi violence and inhumanity; young women are forced into prostitution, and in one truly shocking scene a train full of Jews is massacred by machine gun fire, while Grimm shoots a Rabbi standing in front of him. Such is the strength of Grimm's unshakable belief in the Nazi cause, he ends up shooting his own nephew in the back for disobeying him. This is an astonishing film in so many ways.

13 - Ecstasy (Gustav Machatý, 1933) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Ecstasy’s reputation precedes it. It is widely known as the film in which Hedy Lamarr (then Hedy Kiesler) appears nude, an act that drew condemnation from the Vatican, but the glimpses of her body are fleeting and hardly worth the chatter that has built up around it. What should be discussed more is how gorgeous and affecting the rest of Gustav Machatý’s film is. Ecstasy was made in 1933, but given the paucity of dialogue in the film it’s practically a silent feature, and Machatý’s visuals are wonderfully expressive. Just look at how he creates a portrait of a doomed marriage in the opening scenes between newlyweds Eva (Lamarr) and Emile (Zvonimir Rog), her youthful optimism quickly draining away in the face of his coldness and impotence. She then sees him callously crush a bee while the handsome stranger she later encounters (Aribert Mog) shepherds the insect to safety. Their burning passion does give the film a tangible erotic undercurrent – Lamarr’s orgasmic close-up is deservedly celebrated – and the luminous cinematography recalls the likes of Murnau and Borzage, while the closing scenes are reminiscent of Dovzhenko’s Earth. The print we saw of Ecstasy had seen better days so this is a film that could use a restoration to fully bring out its sensual, lyrical beauty.

12 - Never Fear + Outrage  (Ida Lupino, 1949/1950) BFI Southbank, 35mm

The BFI celebrated Ida Lupino's career on both sides of the camera this summer, and this superb pair of features showed off her considerable qualities as a director. Both films were attempts to tackle serious contemporary issues in authentic manner, and both succeed in different ways. In Outrage she portrays the psychological and emotional trauma of rape in as direct terms as the norms of the era would allow. The first half of the film, in which Anna Walton (the impressive Mala Powers) is attacked is remarkable, with Lupino using sound and a subjective camera to express her insecurity and torment; it brought to mind Jack Garfein's 1961 film Something Wild. The second half of the film can't quite live up to it, but in contrast, Never Fear is a film that gets stronger as it goes on. This story of a dancer stricken with polio (a disease Lupino herself had suffered from) attempts to balance the melodramatic demands of the narrative with an unsentimental portrayal of the recovery process. Lupino used real rehabilitation facilities and patients to accentuate the sense of realism, and her tight, dynamic direction builds to an ending that I found incredibly moving.

11 - Play It as It Lays (Frank Perry, 1972) Barbican, 35mm

Joan Didion adapted her own novel for the screen and it’s a quietly spellbinding achievement. A brilliantly cast Tuesday Weld plays Maria, a model-turned-actress in Los Angeles who is slowly falling apart. Her marriage is collapsing, her daughter has been sent to a centre for children with special needs, and she is pregnant by another man. As he did so brilliantly in The Swimmer, Frank Perry carefully peels back the layers of his characters' privileged lives to reveal the pain and emptiness underneath. Maria’s anxiety is expressed through Sidney Katz’s dazzling impressionistic editing – reflecting the fragmented nature of Didion’s book – with the cuts during the film’s abortion sequence feeling shockingly violent and invasive. Weld and Anthony Perkins unerringly find the perfect pitch in their performances as these sad, haunted, lost characters. Play It as It Lays is one of the great Los Angeles films, with Perry superbly using the city’s architecture to accentuate his characters’ malaise, and it was a privilege to experience Jordan Cronenweth’s autumnal cinematography on a perfect 35mm print.

10 - Betty Tells Her Story (Liane Brandon, 1972) Barbican, Digital

The Barbican's Artists & Activists: Second Wave Feminist Filmmakers programme contained a number of films and directors that were new to me, but the one that really stuck with me was the most deceptively simple. Betty Tells Her Story consists of a woman on camera recounting a painful memory in a single take. It's the story of a dress that made her feel special, and the series of events that led to her losing it before she'd even had a chance to wear it properly. It's something that happened long ago, but the mark it left on Betty is evident. When Betty has finished telling her story once, Liane Brandon asks her to do it again, and having already laid out the facts of the story, Betty now goes deeper into her own memories and emotions of the incident. In this utterly mesmerising twenty minutes, Betty contemplates her own happiness, pride, embarrassment and sadness, and the film asks us to consider what it means to be beautiful in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. 

9 - The Pumpkin Eater (Jack Clayton, 1964) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Anne Bancroft won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for The Pumpkin Eater, and her performance as Jo Armitage, a mother of six barely holding it all together, truly is a marvel. Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s novel unfolds her story in flashbacks, with Bancroft’s beautifully controlled work giving the film a consistent and compelling emotional spine. Directed by Jack Clayton, The Pumpkin Eater is shot and edited with real audacity and verve, with the bold formal choices helping to express the lead character’s psychological state. Clayton gets great work from the entire cast, including Peter Finch and a slimy James Mason as two of the awful men in Jo’s life. Ultimately, this is Anne Bancroft’s show, although Yootha Joyce comes close to stealing the movie with one of the all-time great single-scene performances, in the film’s most classically Pinteresque encounter.

8 - Khrustalyov, My Car! (Aleksei German, 1998) ICA, Digital

Taking place in the final days of Stalin's Russia, Aleksei German's Khrustalyov, My Car! is a portrait of a nation consumed by paranoia, madness and depravity, and the director hurls us right into the middle of this maelstrom. Prior to this viewing, I'd only seen German's Hard to Be a God, which perhaps better prepared me for this experience, as both films create a 360° world in which horror and slapstick co-exist. While German is a master of creating confusion and chaos, the film always commands the viewer's attention. There is so much going on in both the foreground and background of this director's shots, as the camera lurches like a drunkard through each cacophonous environment. It's a hilarious, harrowing, often jaw-dropping film, and I don't thin I've ever before seen so much spitting in a single feature. The new restoration by Arrow Films does a great job of showing off Vladimir Ilyin's stunning black-and-white images and ingenious compositions. Having only seen German's two most recent films so far, I can't wait to dig further into his career, as he's clearly a one-of-a-kind artist. The next title on my must-see list is his 1985 film My Friend Ivan Lapshin.

7 - The Girls (Mai Zetterling, 1968) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Coming two years after Věra Chytilová’s DaisiesThe Girls is propelled by a similar rebellious, anarchic, provocative spirit. Mai Zetterling’s film has its roots in Lysistrata, with the three actresses touring a production of Aristophanes’ play being affected by the material in unexpected ways. Liz (Bibi Andersson) is living with an unfaithful husband, Marianne (Harriet Andersson) is an anxious single mother who has just broken up with her boyfriend, and Gunilla (Gunnel Lindblom) is taken for granted as a housewife by her family. As they perform this text about women standing up to men they begin to re-evaluate their own relationships, and the film starts spinning off into multiple unexpected directions. I can’t recall the last time I saw a film that so confounded my expectations from moment to moment; Zetterling frequently begins scenes rooted in reality before they suddenly escalate into fantasy and absurdity, and it’s exhilarating to watch. Zetterling handles these fantastic interludes brilliantly, ensuring every part of the film feels organic and connected, and offering us a vivid sense of each woman’s subjective experience. Huge credit should also go to cinematographer Rune Ericson, whose work here is incredibly striking and imaginative, and to the actors – both male and female – who deliver impeccable performances.

6 - Winter Soldier (The Winterfilm Collective, 1972) ICA, Digital

The Winter Soldier Investigation took place across three days in Detroit in 1971, in an attempt to expose and publicise war crimes and atrocities committed in Vietnam. This documentary is a record of that event, and it’s a very hard film to watch and listen to, as former soldiers bluntly recall the barbaric acts that they witnessed and perpetrated. We hear of enemy combatants being thrown from helicopters, women being raped and murdered, children being shot and run over. “If they’re running, they’re VC. If they’re standing still, they’re well-disciplined VC—shoot ’em anyhow,” one man says, and a common theme of dehumanisation emerges through their testimonies; these are soldiers trained to see an entire nation of people as worthless, and in that context their acts of barbarity are almost inevitable. Although it consists of little more than static shots of people talking, Winter Soldier is essentially a horror film, and it's also one of the most vital films ever made about the nature of war.

5 - Seed (John M. Stahl, 1931) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm

I’m about a dozen or so films into the career of John M. Stahl and I haven’t seen a stinker yet. His career was celebrated in Bologna this year and the programme contained a number of enjoyable films in different genres – such as the solid WWII propaganda film Immortal Sergeant and the amusing farce Holy Matrimony – but of course Stahl was a master when it came to melodrama. Made in 1931, Seed stars Stahl’s favourite cad John Boles as a man who gave up his dreams of being an author and instead dedicated himself to a humdrum life as a clerk in support of his wife (Lois Wilson) and their five children. When he meets a glamorous old flame (Genevieve Tobin) who rekindles his writing urge, Wilson begins to suspect that she is losing her husband, both to his ambitions and to the other woman in his life. Stahl’s films are stylistically restrained, constructed through simple two-shots and close-ups that are charged with emotion. In Seed he frequently lets the camera rest on Lois Wilson’s face, which betrays all of her character’s desires and fears as she watches her family fall apart in front of her, and the enormous emotional punch of the climactic ten minutes had me weeping uncontrollably. Seed is one of the great films about maternal love and sacrifice, and it ends on a wonderful, unexpected note of female solidarity.

4 - Mademoiselle + Laughter in the Dark (Tony Richardson, 1966/1969) BFI Southbank, 35mm

Like many people, I primarily associated Woodfall Films with the era of kitchen sink realism in 1960s British cinema, so I wasn’t expecting the highlights of the BFI’s Woodfall season to be a pair of deeply weird films starring French actresses. Both films were directed by Tony Richardson (who also directed one of my worst rep discoveries of the year, 1984’s unbearable The Hotel New Hampshire), and both are dark tales of sexual desire having disastrous consequences. Mademoiselle stars Jeanne Moreau as a schoolteacher whose repressed desires manifested in acts of destruction around the village, including fires and floods, sparking xenophobic outraged aimed at the Italian labourer (Ettore Manni) with whom she has become obsessed. It’s a dreamlike, erotic, twisted film, vividly shot in black-and-white by David Watkin, and Moreau’s performance is one of her greatest. Three years later, Richardson teamed with Anna Karina for an adaptation of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. The first half is lightly farcical, the second uncomfortably cruel. Nicol Williamson (replacing the Richard Burton, fired after turning up on set drunk) is perfect as the man besotted with Karina’s cinema usher, with the film beginning as a lightly satirical farce before developing a vicious and cruel edge. Both films are hard to find in decent copies these days, so discovering them on pristine prints was a real treat.

3 - Victims of Sin (Emilio Fernández, 1951) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Digital

The Rumberas film or cabaretera was a fascinating subgenre that flourished in Mexican cinema in the ‘40s and ‘50s; a spectacular combination of sex, violence, noir, melodrama and music. Emilio Fernández’s 1951 stunner Victims of Sin is a perfect example of it. Set in Mexico’s red light district, the film stars Ninón Sevilla as a cabaret dancer forced to raise another woman’s child, and protecting him from gangsters with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cub. The intensity that Sevilla brings to her performance is something to behold; in a way, it reminded me of Elizabeth Berkeley’s full-throttle turn in Showgirls. The film also reminded me of Sam Fuller in its dynamic staging and blistering momentum. Working again with master cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, Fernández delivers one powerful scene after another, punctuating the narrative with exhilarating dance numbers. It’s a sensational, unforgettable picture. I’ve only scratched the surface of this era of Mexican cinema, and I can’t wait to go deeper in the BFI’s season next summer.

2 - Choose Me (Alan Rudolph, 1984) BFI Southbank, 35mm

I fell in love with this film instantly – right from the opening credits, in fact, which show couples dancing outside a neon-lit bar at night, as Teddy Pendergrass croons the title song. The camera glides across the dancers and comes to rest on Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), one of the central figures in Alan Rudolph’s romantic roundelay. Other characters include Eve’s housemate (Genevieve Bujold) – who leads a secret double-life as radio agony aunt Dr Love – a young poet (Rae Dawn Chong), her philandering gangster husband (Patrick Bauchau), and Mickey (Keith Carradine), an enigmatic stranger who spins tall tales about his storied past. Over the course of Choose Me’s two hours, all of the characters will meet at Eve’s bar and become involved in each other’s lives, romantically and antagonistically, with Rudolph’s twisty, surprising film playing out like a madcap screwball slowed down to a languid pace. Infused with a tangible sense of loneliness and yearning, it recalls films like Coppola’s One From the Heart and Akerman’s Toute une nuit, and Rudolph’s handling of the film’s delicately poised tone is masterful, right up to the final shot. Seeing this projected on a lustrous 35mm print was a dream, and I’m glad I caught both of the film’s screenings before the print was sent back to the US. I don’t think any other film this year gave me such pure cinematic pleasure.

1 - The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977) ICA, 35mm
When I walked out of Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent, still shaken by what I had just seen, I knew I had discovered a film that will stay with me forever. A harrowing odyssey of physical and spiritual torment, this is one of the most intense war films I've ever seen, comparable in its stark power to Come and See, which was made a decade later by her husband Elem Klimov. The story of two Russian partisans, separated from the rest of their outfit and lost in occupied territory, this is a study of courage, cowardice, brotherhood, betrayal and sacrifice. Each encounter in the film is a rich study of humanity, and Shepitko packs so much into every one of her frames, which are stunningly expressive, and simultaneously bleak and beautiful. Her control of this material never falters; every scene builds on the previous one, deepening our understanding of these characters and raising the tension to unbearable levels. Seeing The Ascent projected on 35mm with a completely engrossed audience was a incredible experience for me. It is a masterpiece that touches the soul in a way that only the greatest works of art can do, and it has one of the best endings I've ever seen.