Sunday, March 28, 2021

My Feature on Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Back in 2017, I flew to Portugal and spent a day watching Terry Gilliam film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the cursed passion project that had suffered a number of false starts since his first shoot was abandoned in 2000. Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were also on set at the time, and to coincide with the VOD release of their behind-the-scenes documentary He Dreams of Giants, Sight & Sound has republished my set report online:

When a freak hailstorm and flash flood struck the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in September 2000, the actors ran for cover, the crew scrambled to secure the cameras, and the embattled director Terry Gilliam walked out into the storm. He raised his fists to the skies and shouted at the top of his lungs, and then he stood and watched as much of their equipment was washed away on a torrent of mud.

The indelible image of Gilliam staggering against the elements was captured in the tragicomic documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) and – having already endured the disruptive presence of Nato bombers flying over their location – it seemed to mark the point when he knew that his dream project, which he had first conceived in 1989, was falling apart. When they attempted to resume shooting, a double herniated disc incapacitated his septuagenarian lead actor Jean Rochefort and removed all doubt. Five days into production, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was doomed.

Seventeen years later, I arrive in Portugal to observe Gilliam’s latest attempt to resurrect The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and the prevailing mood is calm. There have been no illnesses, no mishaps and no acts of God; in fact, the company has experienced just two days of inclement weather so far, which happened to coincide with days scheduled for shooting interiors. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the directors of Lost in La Mancha, have been documenting the film’s progress again, but so far their sequel is shaping up to be considerably less dramatic.

Everyone is quietly moving forward with a production that has already come through five weeks in Spain unscathed and has now descended on Tomar, a small Portuguese city founded by Knights Templar in the 12th century, with the spectacular Convento de Cristo offering a perfect backdrop for Gilliam’s tale of a knight-errant. One section of the convent has been commandeered for today’s shoot, while tourists continue to roam around the rest of the building, some of them confusedly snapping pictures of a giant wooden pyre that production designer Benjamín Fernández is constructing for a later scene.

When I reach the set I find Gilliam busy preparing for a shot that will involve a long camera movement and 20 actors on horses, and the animal factor is giving him a headache. The horses have to be lined up two-by-two in the same order for each take, and some of them are more compliant than others. “I’ve always avoided horses and now they’re here, it’s a nightmare. You have this idea that you’re going to be like John Ford and everybody else, but no,” Gilliam complains, pining for his Monty Python days. “We were really smart when we were young: we just used coconuts.” Still, if the biggest issue currently facing the director is a few uncooperative horses, then perhaps the cinema gods are smiling on Gilliam at last.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Mike Nichols: A Life

When Mike Nichols stepped onto the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1965, he had no idea how to make a movie. As the cameras rolled for the first time, he crouched in anticipation and waited for his actors to deliver the performances they had shaped in rehearsals, and there was an awkward pause before Elizabeth Taylor said, “I can’t act until you say ‘Action.’” His inexperience was exposed in a variety of unexpected ways. When planning a close-up shot of Taylor and Richard Burton walking through the front door, he worried that the opening door would hit the camera until the focal length of lenses was explained to him; and after he and cinematographer Haskell Wexler had spent four hours setting up the shot, he realised the hinges on the door had been affixed on the wrong side. “I wanted to cry,” Nichols later recalled. “I thought, oh my God, here I am making a film and I can’t even get them through the front door. I turned to [Wexler] and said, ‘Get me out of this hole.’ And he did.”

By the end of the 1960s, Nichols was among the hottest directors in Hollywood, having directed Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, two hit movies that had become cultural phenomena, earning twenty Oscar nominations between them. He was about to embark on an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s seemingly unadaptable Catch-22, and he had been given a sizeable budget and the freedom to do whatever he wanted with it, but just a few years later, his filmmaking career appeared all but over. A string of expensive flops and an abandoned production of Neil Simon’s Bogart Slept Here (later to become The Goodbye Girl) in 1975 severely damaged his reputation, and he wouldn’t direct another feature film until 1983. The theatrical wunderkind appeared to be a cinematic flash in the pan.

I’ve always been intrigued and perplexed by the maddeningly erratic trajectory of Mike Nichols’ filmmaking career. While other directors of his generation displayed a consistency of vision that gave their genre experiments a recognisably personal through line, it’s harder to define exactly what ‘a Mike Nichols film’ is. At his best he made incisive, acerbic, vividly acted portraits of complex relationships (it’s no coincidence that his sole 1970s bright spot, Carnal Knowledge, is a film about four people talking), but he was equally prone to directing bloated and drab flops that left you wondering what on earth prompted him to take on the project in the first place.

The great value of Mark Harris’ engrossing new biography Mike Nichols: A Life is the way he gives a narrative shape to this wayward career, and makes sense of the reasoning behind Nichols’ choices. Sometimes he chose a project because he really wanted to work with a particular star, sometimes he chose it because he really needed the money (Nichols liked to live the high life, and he had expensive habits, among them Arabian horses and cocaine), and often he simply trusted his gut instinct. On more than one occasion Nichols would take on material believing he could locate the theme or whip its half-realised ideas into shape during production, only to realise too late that he was in trouble. When he was struggling with the messy screenplay of Wolf in 1993, he sent out an S.O.S. to his old partner Elaine May. After reading the script, she quickly identified the nub of the issue. “Mike, you have a story about a guy who wants to become a wolf, so he becomes a wolf,” she told him. “I think this is going to be a very short movie.”
Throughout his life, Mike Nichols flourished by aligning himself with key collaborators, and Elaine May was the one he turned to again and again. Harris does an excellent job of explaining how revolutionary their comic partnership was in the context of the 1950s entertainment scene, and how perfectly their individual strengths complemented each other. She was an improvisational genius, whose moments of inspiration frequently left him in awe (Nichols once tried to trip her up by asking her to perform the title song from her forthcoming musical version of The Brothers Karamazov, and she reeled off some impromptu lyrics without missing a beat), while he had a stronger sense of narrative, pacing and structure. The seeds of his subsequent career as a director were planted in this era.

It’s hard to overstate just how enormously successful Nichols and May were. They sold out 311 performances on Broadway, they made a fortune from appearances on television shows and commercials, and Harris tantalisingly reveals how close we got to seeing a Nichols and May sitcom, as they so nearly signed a deal with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu. “The two went over to CBS and, on the precipice of signing a contract, looked at each other. “Maybe we shouldn’t,” May said to him. Nichols giggled. “I don’t think I will,” he said, and put down the pen. They laughed and flew back to New York.” Perhaps that was a bullet dodged, however, as the story of Nichols and May is also presented here as a cautionary tale about the price of success and how expectations can so easily become a prison.

As they became bigger and grew more reliant on the hit sketches that the paying public turned up expecting to see, they stopped changing the dialogue – which was particularly disconcerting for May, who wanted every moment to feel fresh – and the act began to calcify. The dynamic between them began to shift too, and tensions bubbled to the surface with increasing regularity. “We don’t speak, except onstage,” May told a reporter, to which Nichols added, “She resents those two hours,” and it wasn’t clear how funny such remarks were meant to be. Nichols became more controlling as May chafed against constraints and tried to reinvent sketches on the fly. “I had to push the sketch ahead because I couldn’t invent as she could,” Nichols admitted. “She was a real actress, and I was beginning to be a real pain in the ass to her. I was very controlling – ‘You were a little slow tonight.’ Once that happens, you’re in very bad trouble. We could not recover.”
Nichols’ spotty behaviour with his collaborators is a recurring theme throughout the book. After a series of painful encounters with major stars early in his career as a theatre director – an egotistical Walter Matthau kept going rogue during The Odd Couple, while George C. Scott would disappear on days-long benders during the rehearsals for Plaza Suite – Nichols instituted a “no assholes” rule on his sets, but it soon becomes clear that he often was the asshole. There are numerous accounts of Nichols behaving poorly throughout the book, most notably on the disastrous production of What Planet Are You From? in 1999.

“I got to the set and I thought, Oh my God. What do I do? Who do I have to fuck to get off this movie?” Nichols admitted, and his surly mood was exacerbated by an injury picked up early in the shoot that left him relying on crutches. He and the film’s writer/star Garry Shandling were at each other’s throats from the moment a devastated Shandling caught Nichols rolling his eyes behind the monitor after his first take, but the sharp wit and keen understanding of human frailty that made Nichols such a brilliant director could be lacerating when used with venom. “I’m sad to say that Mike just treated Garry terribly, in a way that I had never seen. He was humiliated,” Annette Bening recalls. “And it was more upsetting because Mike was a hero to us – we all knew how much he loved actors.”

It’s true, he loved actors, and most of the actors who worked with Mike Nichols loved him back. If there is such thing as a definable 'Nichols touch' it lies in his work with actors, and the multitude of techniques he used to guide them towards their best performances. This appears to have been particularly true in his stage work – which Harris superbly brings to life – where the rehearsal period gave Nichols and his actors a sense of time and a space to explore that he often missed on film productions. Whether it involved having the cast lie next to each other on cots to read through the play, getting them to swap roles in rehearsal, finding the perfect bit of blocking for that moment in the play, or simply telling a story from his own life that they could relate to, Nichols had an unerring sense for the best way to unlock each specific actor and help them find the character within themselves.

It’s a remarkable thing, to see the full breadth of Nichols’ career collected in a single volume, to appreciate just how much he managed to achieve in his 83 years, and to consider the depth of his legacy. The final chapters of the book movingly capture Nichols confronting his Jewish heritage and his own mortality, as his body began to fail him at last, but even in his weakened state he kept on working. He continued trying to develop projects in the years following his unhappy final film production Charlie Wilson’s War, and he had one last hurrah on stage in 2012, finally tackling Death of a Salesman in a celebrated revival that won him his ninth Tony Award. His curiosity about behaviour and relationships remained insatiable right up to the very end, and when he died, Harris notes, he left behind an appointment book for the coming week that was completely full.


Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris is on sale now.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Best Films of 2020

With the inevitable caveat that I have missed many, many potentially great films this year, here are my favourite movies of 2020

20 – Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu)
This was my return screening following the end of the first lockdown period, and the big screen was definitely best place to appreciate all of the subtle nuances in Alfre Woodard's commanding lead performance. The film is about the way the penal system and the administration of the death penalty chips away at the soul of everyone involved in it, and Chukwu frequently lets the camera rest on the actors' faces as they process their overwhelming, conflicted emotions. Chukwu's direction is austere and clinical, and it's bookended by a pair of extremely powerful scenes. Clemency is obviously most notable as a vehicle for Alfre Woodard – an actress who is too rarely given roles of this substance – but as a man counting down the hours to his death, Aldis Hodge is just as impressive.

19 – Sheep Without a Shepherd (Sam Quah)
I had no idea what I was about to see when I sat down in front of Sheep Without a Shepherd, and I had no idea where it was going in the early stages, as it veered in a few directions before settling down to the main plot. What followed was a nifty, twist-laden thriller about a family trying to cover up a murder, fuelled by the father's encyclopedic film knowledge. Director Sam Quah has a lot of fun layering film references into his picture (The Shawshank Redemption, Psycho, Memories of Murder and Witness for the Prosecution among others) and he uses the ingeniously constructed narrative to explore ideas of subjectivity, memory, class and corruption. It felt like Quah's hand was being forced a little with the soft ending, but up until then it's a sly and engrossing piece of work.

18 – My First Film (Zia Anger)
I had bought a ticket to see Zia Anger present My First Film live at the ICA before the lockdown intervened, but seeing it presented live on my laptop instead seemed oddly fitting. The director is herself sitting at a computer throughout her performance, sharing her thoughts and her story through text that appears on screen as she types it. While this text takes up one side of the screen, the other displays her debut feature Always All Ways, Anne Marie, which was made in 2012 but was rejected by every festival it was submitted to and never released. As well as talking us through her ambitions and disappointments with this project, Anger reveals details of her personal struggles, and the way her thoughts appear on screen – with her often deleting and retyping things as she struggles to find the right words – gives the experience a sense of spontaneity and intimacy that I found very affecting.

17 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
I didn't really care for Eliza Hittman's previous film Beach Rats, which was beautifully crafted but felt shallow and unconvincing to me, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels like a real step up. Hittman has a great ability to evoke the sensation of wandering an unfamiliar city at night, and the way it can simultaneously feel exciting, lonely and threatening, especially from the perspective of two young girls on an illicit journey. The film is so strong on atmosphere and subjective experience and it provides further proof that Hélène Louvart is one of the greatest cinematographers working today. Hittman gets astonishing work from her two young actresses. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder share a dynamic that feels natural and authentic, with so much between them going unsaid or being communicated through glances and gestures. The scene that gives the film its title – a long take held on Flanagan, who had never acted before this film – is shattering.

16 – Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
One of the most touching moments in Kirsten Johnson’s masterful 2016 film Cameraperson involved her mother, who was already suffering from Alzheimer's disease when she was captured by the filmmaker’s camera. Her mother having since passed, Johnson turns her camera onto her father in Dick Johnson is Dead. The title is a lie – Dick Johnson has not yet passed – but both he and his daughter know that the time will come sooner rather than later, and Dick’s dementia is already starting to make its presence felt. Dick Johnson is Dead is an audacious and disarming film about how we confront the inevitable. Johnson involves her father in a series of comical depictions of his own demise, creating a vision of the afterlife and even staging a mock-funeral, with the undercurrent of raw emotion that has been building throughout the film bursting forth at this final event. The film is a reminder to appreciate and celebrate your loved ones while you have the chance, and its message feels more piercing than ever this year.

15 – Blizzard of Souls (Dzintars Dreibergs)
It's easy to see why Dzintars Dreibergs' film was an enormous box office hit in its native Latvia. An adaptation of Aleksandrs Grīns' first-hand experiences of the Great War - a conflict that claimed half the Latvian population at the time - it taps into a sense of national trauma and patriotism. As the teenage Artūrs (Oto Brantevics) experiences the horror of warfare, Dreibergs creates and sustains a sense of tension, fear and claustrophobia, both in the rat-infested trenches and in the fog-shrouded wilderness, where the troops fire at an unseen enemy and are picked off by snipers. Death is everywhere, and Dreibergs spares us nothing in the way he presents this brutality, but it never feels gratuitous, and he finds vital moments of humanity and even humour amid the carnage. There's enough variety in the staging and logistics of each battle to keep it visually interesting. An involving and powerful film that deserves to audience outside of Latvia too.

14 – Jeanne (Bruno Dumont)
I have seen so many versions of Joan of Arc's story over the years, but I've never seen anything like Dumont's two films on the subject. His 2017 film Jeannette was a head-banging musical that covered Joan's childhood and adolescence, with this more straightforward follow-up focusing on the battles and her trial. Although she was replaced by the older Jeanne Voisin in the second half of Jeannette, 10-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme reclaims the title role here, and this choice pays off brilliantly. Her youth emphasises her innocence and underscores the power imbalance in the trial scenes, but her confident and passionate performance makes her more than a match for the pompous men berating her. The rest of the cast consists of Dumont's usual collection of amateurs and oddballs, and some of them have great moments - I particularly enjoyed the torturer lamenting the demise of his trade. Taken together, these two films constitute one of the most surprising and distinctive cinematic depictions of Saint Joan’s story.

13 – The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio, 2019)
Marco Bellocchio packs a lot into The Traitor's two and a half hours, and he rattles through his decades-spanning narrative at a fair clip. His film is the story of Tommaso Buscetta, the Cosa Nostra turncoat whose testimony led to hundreds of Mafia convictions in the 1980s, and while the storytelling can be erratic and abrupt, it's rarely dull. Bellocchio has a lot of fun with the lengthy trial sequences, with a host of colourful characters hurling insults across the room, and he stages some brilliant set-pieces, including a stunning recreation of the murder of Giovanni Falcone. In a way that’s reminiscent of The Irishman, Bellocchio accentuates the essential emptiness of these lives: from haunting nightmares to endless circular marches around a tiny prison cell and a paranoia that lasts until your final day. It's riveting, impressive filmmaking, and Pierfrancesco Favino's commanding lead performance is quietly mesmerising.

12 – The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)
Diao Yinan delivers on the promise of his 2014 film Black Coal, Thin Ice with this dazzling thriller. Set in rainy nocturnal Wuhan, lit primarily by streetlamps and neon signs, The Wild Goose Lake is a sleek neo-noir with a sly sense of humour. The plot – which is kickstarted by a spectacular brawl and an even more spectacular decapitation – is perhaps overly convoluted, but this is more of an exercise in style and an attempt to toy with genre conventions, and on those fronts it exceeds thrillingly. Almost every scene in this film is an aesthetic wonder; Yinan stages elaborate long takes, high-speed chase sequences and artful static compositions with equal confidence and flair. He also makes brilliant uses of unexpected props – an umbrella, a prosthetic leg, a pair of light-up trainers. I’m keen to check out the films Diao Yinan made before breaking through with Black Coal, Thin Ice, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

11 – Marshawn Lynch: A History (David Shields)
A breathlessly edited and densely packed collage film that pulls from an astonishing array of sources. We get NFL highlights, news clips, mobile phone footage, TV commercials, talk shows, The Cat in the Hat and even Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - and all of this serves to tell the story of Marshawn Lynch's silent protest. But beyond Lynch's own story, which is compelling enough, the film is fascinating as a study of American sport, celebrity, media, injustice and race. Shields uses repetition and witty juxtapositions incisively, and even if the film can sometimes seem scattershot, it's a provocative and completely riveting examination of an unconventional and uncompromising black star in contemporary America.

10 – Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020)
Fox Rich is an incredible subject for a documentary, and Garrett Bradley's Time does her justice. Fox spent two decades raising her children, succeeding in her career, and fighting for her incarcerated husband Rob's freedom, and Bradley has condensed her story into a rich and moving 80-minute film. Cutting between recent footage shot by Bradley and home videos compiled over the course of twenty years, Time is a model of intelligent, disciplined and empathetic editing, and it captures a number of poetic moments as it builds to a superbly crafted and cathartic climax. Time is a tribute to this family's enduring love - as Rob puts it, "Life's Only Valid Emotion" - and a portrait of lives ruptured by America's cruel and unjust prison system. Their story is remarkable, but it's just one story among millions.

9 – Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
The two-decade collaboration between Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe reached its apotheosis in Tommaso. There’s no mistaking the deeply personal nature of the film; starring as a recovering addict living in Rome, Dafoe acts alongside Ferrara’s wife and daughter, in scenes that take place in the director’s own apartment. The film consists of mundane incidents that feel snatched from real life – we see Tommaso doing everyday things like buying groceries and coffee, or attending his Italian class, or playing with his daughter – but moments like this are blended with the introspection and self-doubt of the recovering addict. This is a film about survival, forgiveness and love. It’s a film about a man who has changed his life and wants to understand the mistakes he made in the past in order to avoid repeating them. The film is loose, improvisatory and completely disarming. It’s Ferrara’s most open-hearted picture, and Dafoe – as ever – is magnificent.

8 – Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Although it was enormously satisfying to watch the great Spike Lee enjoy critical and commercial success and receive an Oscar for BlacKkKlansman, that film didn’t trouble my Best of 2018 list and it wouldn’t crack a list of my favourite Spike Lee joints. I prefer Lee when he’s being a bit messier and more provocative, when his passion and anger bleeds through every frame of the film, and Da 5 Bloods is the kind of movie that grabs you by the throat immediately and doesn’t let go. It feels caught between the worlds of classical Hollywood filmmaking – explicitly referencing directors like Huston, Fuller and Coppola – and the essay film, with Lee incorporating photographs and archive footage to explore America’s history of war and racial division. It’s propulsive, overstuffed, thrillingly idiosyncratic filmmaking. Delroy Lindo’s towering presence in the lead role put me in mind of monstrously great performances like Nick Nolte in Q&A or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood, while the use of music from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On alongside Terence Blanchard’s score is inspired.

7 – Amanda (Mikhaël Hers)
Amanda is a beautiful film, not only thanks to Sébastien Buchmann's warm and intimate 16mm cinematography, but due to the incredible sensitivity displayed by both the filmmaker and his cast as they navigate this tricky material. Mikhaël Hers understands the private and unpredictable nature of grief, with emotions abruptly sneaking up on these characters at numerous points in the film, and each individual has to try and process their devastation in their own way even as they try to support each other. The pace is unhurried and little in the film feels forced; we are just invited to spend time with these characters as they try to put their lives back together. There are some exquisitely judged and emotionally complex moments here that feel so specific and authentic. The film broke my heart many times over, and the way the ending called back to one of the earliest scenes really wrecked me.

6 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)
After three films, it’s clear to me that Marielle Heller is something special. The pictures she has made so far are all films that I could easily imagine being mediocre and overfamiliar in the hands of another director, but she directs with such intelligence and empathy, and she makes so many bold and subtly subversive choices. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is her most impressive accomplishment so far, transforming a potentially staid biopic about a national treasure into a perceptive film about kindness and forgiveness, and the hard work that goes into both. The film is full of smart touches that elevate it, like the framing device of Mr Rogers introducing us to Lloyd's story through his television show or the use of miniature models in establishing shots, and she is patient enough to let us sit quietly for a moment to consider our own emotions as the characters work through theirs. It's a film made with a compassion and wisdom that's so rare in today's studio filmmaking.

5 – Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
There’s no question that Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology is one of the year’s most significant artistic achievements. The five films he made for the BBC all felt personal, lived-in and culturally specific in a way that freshened up familiar narratives (just compare his courtroom drama Mangrove to Aaron Sorkin’s anodyne The Trial of the Chicago 7), but the one that stood out for breaking all narrative conventions was Lovers Rock. For 68 minutes, we are invited to a house party in 1980s London. There are characters to follow, but the storytelling mechanics are invisible here; McQueen wants us to feel the rhythm and go with the flow as his camera drifts through the bodies squeezed into these cramped, sweaty rooms. The confluence of Shabier Kirchner’s intuitive camerawork with the music and gyrating bodies invests Lovers Rock with an electric, transcendent force, and the cut to two lovers on a bicycle in the morning sunshine after spending an hour inside was so perfect it took my breath away and moved me to tears. This is McQueen’s best film since Hunger.
 
4 – First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
There’s an real sense of tenderness at the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s films, even if she is making a film about harsh times and unforgiving environments. In First Cow, Reichardt (reunited with her great collaborator John Raymond) is telling a story of pioneers in 19th-century Oregon, but as in her masterpiece Meek’s Cutoff, she subverts our expectations and avoids any clichés. This is a film about a friendship between two gentle men (wonderfully played by Orion Lee and John Magaro) and the business they create together, which gradually takes them into dangerous territory. A prologue gives us a vague sense of where this story will lead us, but even then Reichardt manages to surprise with the way she reveals her perfect final shot. She has an impeccable command of tone, aided by Christopher Blauvelt’s painterly use of light, and the measured pace she establishes through her nimble editing lulls the viewer deeply into this story. 

3 – City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
Following his recent studies of disparate communities In Jackson Heights and Monrovia, Indiana, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall shows us how such a community might and perhaps should be governed. Returning to his native Boston for his 45th feature, Wiseman splits his time between meetings at the Mayor’s office, public events, community outreach meetings and street-level encounters, cutting fluidly between them and, over the course of four-and-a-half hours, creating a multi-dimensional view of a city. Wiseman’s films are big-picture portraits carefully constructed through a series of individual vignettes, and there are some fascinating and poignant standalone scenes here: an emotionally charged Veterans Day meeting; Mayor Marty Walsh addressing his elderly residents' healthcare concerns; a pest control visit to a lonely man’s rat-infested apartment; and perhaps most unexpected of all, a riveting scene of garbage collection. The business of city governance can be slow and difficult, but Wiseman’s clear-eyed depiction of it is completely engrossing, and in the end quite hopeful.

2 – The World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Don Hertzfeldt)
Don Hertzfeldt’s stick figures remain as minimal in their design as ever, but the world he builds around them continue to grow in complexity. Not only does World of Tomorrow Part 3 add new layers of colour and richness to Hertzfeldt’s visual palette, but the story he tells folds in on itself, intertwining with the first two episodes in surprising and ingenious ways. There are some fantastic gags here, such as the pop-up advertising or the constant ‘memory full’ warnings, but as the shape of the narrative begins to reveal itself it becomes a profound and moving meditation on time, memory, love and regret. Hertzfeldt’s latest extraordinary short has more ideas and imagination packed into its 34 minutes than any feature-length film released this year, and his World of Tomorrow series stands as a singular achievement.

1 – Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2020)
Before Days begins a title card appears on screen saying "This film is intentionally unsubtitled," but there's hardly any dialogue spoken during the course of its two hours anyway. We just watch as two men silently drift through their daily routine: one preparing food, the other getting treatment for a back injury. Both men appear to live very isolated lives, until they gravitate towards a single sexual encounter together, and the way Tsai's camera emphasises their loneliness during the long, slow build-up heightens the intensity and intimacy of their meeting. Days certainly isn't for everyone, but I found Tsai's rhythm calming and entrancing, and after the months of lockdown, the experience of seeing this kind film on the big screen was a particular treat. It was exactly the kind of meditative and immersive experience that I had been craving all year, and a valuable reminder of how uniquely transporting the darkness of the cinema space can be.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My Cinema Discoveries of 2020

My year in rep cinema couldn’t have had a brighter start. I began 2020 with a double-bill of Carole Lombard films on January 1st, beginning the BFI’s month-long celebration of the screwball queen, and I quickly followed that with an Elia Kazan retrospective that allowed me to fill in the few gaps I had in his filmography. Looking ahead at the year to come, I was excited for the BFI’s summer celebration of Japanese cinema – timed to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics – as well as a season of Bette Davis films and the long-promised Robert Altman retrospective. Beyond the BFI, I was looking forward to the PCC’s seasonally-themed 35m presentations of Éric Rohmer films, the ICA’s monthly screenings of prints from their archives, the Cinema Museum’s revelatory programming of obscure silent work, and the Ciné Lumière’s Sunday classics – add to that my annual trips to Bologna and Paris, and it seemed like I was all set for another feast of archive cinema.

Aside from my visit to Bologna for Il Cinema Ritrovato (which took place in a reduced format and two months later than usual) none of the above came to pass. The Coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of all cinemas in March, and although there have been brief windows of respite between lockdowns since then, we’re back under Tier 4 restrictions as I write this and the situation still looks very bleak. I had hoped that we could make something of a fresh start in 2021, but under the current restrictive conditions it seems likely that the cinemas will be closed well into January and beyond. This is despite the fact that the cinemas I’ve attended in the latter half of this year have frequently impressed me with their attempts to make their venues Covid-safe, and I’ve never felt concerned for my health while watching a film. It’s an environment where everyone is wearing a mask, maintaining distance, facing in the same direction and not talking – I’ve certainly felt safer inside a cinema than I have in a supermarket or on public transport this year. 

There were calls this year for the government to keep gyms open as an essential service in the support of people’s mental health, but this year has underlined for me just how important the act of cinemagoing is for my emotional and mental wellbeing. Going to the cinema has been an almost daily ritual for me since I was a teenager, and having it suddenly taken away from me for months at a time has contributed to periods of depression and anxiety like I’ve never experienced before. I can and do watch films at home - often turning off my phone and watching in darkness - but they just don’t hit me and resonate like they do on the big screen. I too often feel antsy and distracted, I can't lose myself in a film in the same way. I need that all-encompassing darkness, I need the feeling of being along in a room full of strangers, I need the aesthetic bliss of film projection. I need cinema, and I know I’m far from alone in feeling a deep sense of loss right now. I hope all of the independent cinemas that play such an central role in my life can survive this pandemic and thrive on the other side of it, but the events of 2020 have proven that it is impossible to predict the future and futile to make plans.

Finally, the stats for this year. I saw 95 older films in cinemas in 2020. 71 of these were on 35mm, seven on 16mm and two on 70mm. By this time next year, hopefully those numbers will be significantly improved.

61 of the 95 rep screenings I attended were first time viewings, and these are the 40 standout discoveries I made this year.

40 – Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933) – Jolly Cinema, Bologna, 35mm
This bizarre pre-Code musical comedy is a vehicle for Eddie Cantor, who finds himself transported to Ancient Rome for some reason and spends the next eighty minutes delivering one-liners and singing the occasional song. It's basic stuff, but it's pretty funny and the lavish production certainly helps keep it watchable. The extravagant art direction and costume designs (although the women are barely clothed) are beautifully shown off by Gregg Toland's camera, and there's an impressive chariot race at the end that appears to owe a debt to Buster Keaton. There are also some Busby Berkeley-directed musical numbers to enjoy, although they’re not all enjoyable – one of them ends with a woman being kicked to her death, and another features Eddie in blackface. It's a weird movie.

39 – Metropolis (Rintaro, 2001) – Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
This is not an animated version of the 1927 film but an adaptation of a 1949 manga by Osamu Tezuka, who had apparently never seen Lang’s Metropolis and was inspired by nothing more than a poster for it. Rintaro's animated extravaganza is certainly a remarkable visual spectacle, and it was a quite a treat to experience it for the first time on a very nice 35mm print. There's a lot to appreciate in the imaginative and witty design of both the characters and their environment, and the use of colour is frequently sensational. I wish I could get more involved in the story, but I mostly found the plotting tiresome and it only gripped me in fits and starts. However, when the film is good it can be extremely arresting, and the use of "I Can't Stop Loving You" at the end is inspired.

38 – Champagne Charlie (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1944) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
This Tommy Trinder vehicle is a tribute to 19th century music hall traditions, and the narrative is basically an excuse to string a number of songs together. These can get a bit wearying, but the film is elevated by Alberto Cavalcanti's smart direction and the impressive attention to period detail. The composition and blocking is frequently imaginative and elegant, and the portrait of the music hall life feels very authentic, with details like the seats facing away from the stage and looking into mirrors, or the depiction of behind-the-scenes stagecraft. The rivalry between Champagne Charlie and fellow music hall star The Great Vance (well played by Stanley Holloway) was inspired by real events, and it produces some funny sequences, like the tit-for-tat drinking songs or the duel. A number of good British character actors provide excellent support, notably Betty Warren, Jean Kent and Austin Trevor.

37 – Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
As a great admirer of Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako and Timbuktu, I was excited to have the opportunity to finally see this earlier work from him. It feels a bit slight in comparison to those later films, and it took me a while to connect with its rhythm, as it drifted casually from one vignette to another without developing much of an overall shape. Gradually it drew me in, however, and I found much of it captivating. Sissako habitually creates great images and his use of colour and landscape here is incredibly vivid and imaginative. I think the film also became a lot more engaging whenever it shifted away from the rather dull protagonist Abdallah to focus on other characters, especially the electrician and his young apprentice. This relationship culminates in a sequence that I found breathtakingly beautiful and deeply moving. Sissako really is a marvellous director and I hope we see a new feature from him soon. It has been six years since Timbuktu.

36 – No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
This pre-Code comedy about a small-town librarian marrying a New York conman on the flip of a coin is notable for being the only film Carole Lombard and Clark Gable ever made together. Funnily enough, they apparently didn't get along during the shoot – he thought she was too bawdy and a primadonna, while she thought he was conceited – and their romance didn't bloom until some years later. Whatever their personal feelings about each other, they have undeniable onscreen chemistry. There's a real erotic spark in some of their encounters, such as the brilliant library scene or their later cabin meeting. The cabin scene also features Lombard running around in her underwear, which prompted the permanently outraged Father Daniel Lord to complain to the Hays Office that he believed Hollywood producers must have stock in lingerie companies.

35 – Ossos (Pedro Costa, 1997) – ICA, 35mm
This was the last film that Pedro Costa made on 35mm and in the Q&A that followed this screening he talked about it as a transitional point in his career. You can sense that as you watch the film. It feels like he's finding his way into this community, and learning how to collaborate them to create a new form of cinema. Ossos feels a bit uncertain in places – and it took me a full two reels to grasp the characters and relationships – but as I settled into it I found the experience increasingly compelling and affecting. It was shot by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel, who creates some particularly evocative images in these cramped, underlit locations, and the influence of Bresson feels prominent in Costa's approach. Costa would go on to make richer, more accomplished films than this, but as a stepping-stone it's an impressive piece of work.

34 – Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) – ICA, 35mm
I've had a blu-ray of Akira sitting unopened on my shelf for many years but I had never sat down and watched it before this screening. I'm glad I waited to see it this way, as it's an extraordinarily vivid and exciting spectacle. It's full of bizarre and nightmarish images, and its portrait of post-apocalyptic Tokyo is compelling, especially emerging from a country that had experienced the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just forty years earlier. The film is more a collection of impressive bits than a coherent narrative, and as with my viewing of Metropolis this year, I had no real idea what was going on during the rather overextended finale, but it sure was an amazing thing to look at. Here's the craziest thing about this movie: it's set in 2019, and the ending takes place at Tokyo's Olympic stadium, which is being prepared for the following year's games.

33 – The Whipping Boss (J.P. McGowan, 1924) – Cinema Museum, 16mm
The print of The Whipping Boss that we saw at the Cinema Museum – a 16mm copy taken from a decomposing nitrate print – is probably the only one in existence. It's a compelling piece of social realism, inspired by the true story of Martin Tarbert, a prisoner whipped to death in 1922, and it was a film aimed at raising awareness of the brutal treatment of prisoners used as slave labour. The film is largely uncompromising in its portrait of the harsh conditions and cruelty that these men suffered under (at one point, the boss pauses to coat his leather strap in sand before flogging an elderly convict), but the happy ending grafted onto the story rings particularly false as a result. A few bits of the film seem to be missing, and it does have some confusing storytelling, but I loved the way the nitrate decay went crazy when the two leads kissed at the end. It was Bill Morrison-esque!

32 – F.T.A. (Francine Parker, 1972) – Cinema Lumière, Bologna, Digital
Having met Howard Levy – the Army doctor court-martialled for resisting the Vietnam war – on the set of Klute, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland recruited a number of musicians and comedians and spent much of 1971 touring U.S. military bases in the Pacific, putting on entertainment for the troops. In contrast to the kind of shows Bob Hope was performing, however, theirs was a political, satirical vaudeville show that reflected the rising anti-war sentiment among the military at the time – the title stands for Fuck The Army. The footage of their skits and songs that we see here is a bit hit-and-miss, but the film is far more interesting when Parker cuts in interviews that express the emotions of the young men and women engaged in the fight against their will. F.T.A. is particularly compelling when exploring the question of race; I saw it one day after watching the World War II propaganda piece The Negro Soldier, to which it acted as a striking counterpoint.

31 – Suture (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 1993) – ICA, 35mm
This film has a brilliant, instantly engrossing opening, and I loved its audacious premise, casting Dennis Haysbert and Michael Harris as brothers whom the world sees as identical, despite their completely different builds and the small fact that one actor is black and the other is white. The whole film is about identity and perception and it feels heavily indebted to a number of earlier films, such as Seconds, The Face of Another and The Wrong Man. After that cracking first 15-20 minutes I felt it started to lose a sense of momentum and energy, and it never really resolves its narrative or its ideas in a satisfying way. However, it is an intelligent and stylish piece of work that features a number of great moments. I was completely hooked by Haysbert's commanding and ambiguous presence in the lead role, and by Greg Gardiner's gleaming and imaginative black-and-white cinematography. I'm very glad I had the chance to discover it on a print.

30 – Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (Stuart Heisler, 1947) – Jolly Cinema, Bologna, 35mm
Susan Hayward gives a remarkable performance in this melodrama about a nightclub singer who puts her career on hold to support her husband, and soon begins hitting the bottle hard. Hayward is so good at detailing the various states of her character's drunkenness while trying to hold it together, and I liked the way her alcoholism developed; from a quick drink to soothe her social anxiety, to drinking to fill her suddenly empty days and dealing with her paranoia about her husband's fidelity. One shot of the looming shadow of a bottle recalls the expressionistic style of Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room. This is an impressively tough and unsentimental portrait of alcoholism, and when Hayward does hit rock bottom, the manner in which she does so packs a punch.

29 – The Apaches of Athens (Dimitris Gaziadis, 1930) – Cinema Lumière, Bologna, Digital
Thought lost for decades, this was the only Greek film that attempted to bridge the silent and sound eras by recording a synchronised soundtrack onto disc. It has been beautifully restored with the music and songs being re-recorded as per the original score. The film is a sweet romantic comedy that satirises the nouveau riche. The protagonist has a picture of Chaplin on his wall, and the spirit of Chaplin infuses the whole film, as this Little Tramp-like character falls for an heiress while being oblivious to the flower girl who adores him. The romantic narrative doesn't quite work, as the flower girl is forgotten about for a large chunk of the film, but the performances are charming and the film has some very amusing sequences. The Apaches of Athens is most essential as a document of its time, presenting us with some illuminating views of rural and city life in late-1920s Greece.

28 – The Good Bad-Man (Allan Dwan, 1916) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Douglas Fairbanks is the outlaw known only as Passin' Through, who steals from casinos and stores to give to disadvantaged and fatherless kids, in this excellent early western. The film runs for a shade over fifty minutes and the storytelling is tight and sophisticated, skilfully weaving in flashbacks to introduce Passin' Through's character and to reveal the details of his tragic past. His unresolved issues surrounding his absent father give this protagonist a strong psychological dimension, with his feeling of being rootless and illegitimate coming between him and Amy (the adorable Bessie Love). The film is beautifully directed by Dwan, who composes a number of memorable images  I loved the shot of Amy in the foreground watching Passin' Through disappear into the distance on his horse, or her stricken father stumbling on the porch as she is abducted by the villain of the piece.

27 – LSFF: Excerpts from Anne Charlotte Robinson's Five-Year Diary  Reel 22: A Short Affair (and) Going Crazy (1982, 27 min), Reel 23: A Breakdown and After the Mental Hospital (1983, 26 min), Reel 80: Emily Died (1994, 27 min), Reel 81: Mourning Emily (1995, 25 min) – ICA, Digital
Anne Charlotte Robinson filmed her diary over the course of sixteen years. She ended up with more than 36 hours of footage across 83 reels, and the four reels we saw at this screening gave us a glimpse of her life towards both the beginning and end of that process. It's diary of her daily activities, but it's also a chronicle of her fragile mental health, her obsession with her fluctuating weight, her lack of money, and her fear of ending up childless and alone. These films are often painfully intimate to watch, notably when dealing with the devastating death of her three-year-old niece and her subsequent breakdown, but there are also lot of witty asides and self-deprecating gags in Robinson's commentary. In Reels 22 and 23, this slightly removed commentary competes with another narration, which is more raw, immediate and emotional, and all of these short films felt densely packed, with their sped-up, rapidly edited images and cluttered soundtracks. I found the experience fascinating, stimulating and quite exhausting, and I'm certainly keen to see more from this collection. It's clearly a singular artistic achievement.

26 – In Name Only (John Cromwell, 1939) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Looking at the cast list for In Name Only, I was expecting a comedy rather than the romantic melodrama it turned out to be, but fortunately it's a pretty good romantic melodrama. Cary Grant is the man attempting to escape his loveless marriage to build a new life with Carole Lombard, but his conniving and ruthless wife Kay Francis keeps getting in the way. The writing and direction is solid but the acting is first-rate across the board, with the three leads (and supporting players like Charles Coburn and Helen Vinson) all doing fine work. It's such a shame Grant and Lombard never had the chance to make a screwball together. They share some lovely moments in this film.

25 – The Narrow Trail (Lambert Hillyer and William S. Hart, 1917) – Cinema Museum, 16mm
In his introduction to this screening, Kevin Brownlow noted William S. Hart's dedication to authenticity, and the film does feel impressively atmospheric, with particularly exciting location work and sharp editing. It kicks off with a terrific horse chase an boasts some dynamic action sequences, including a hell of a bar brawl. The performances from Hart and Sylvia Breamer - as two characters with shady pasts, finding redemption and each other - are strong. My favourite intertitle from the movie: "I don't mind your shootin', but be keerful of me hat!"

24 – Andy Warhol's Screen Tests - Reel #10 (Andy Warhol, 1964-1966) Barbican, 16mm / Eat (Andy Warhol, 1963) + Restaurant (Andy Warhol, 1965) – Regent Street Cinema, 16mm
This was a big year for Warhol fans, with Tate Modern’s exhibition opening in March (I fortunately managed to see it before it had to close a few days later) and these two screenings. The selection of his Screen Tests that we saw at the Barbican included well-known names like Edie Sedgwick, Lou Reed, Jonas Mekas and Paul Morrissey, alongside some less familiar subjects. I was particularly struck by Ethel Scull and Ann Buchanan, and it was a pleasure to see them all projected from 16mm. The Screen Tests screening was presented with a live score, which I found quite effective, but as the whirr and rattle of film running through a projector is one of my favourite sounds, having a 16mm projector positioned a few rows behind me as I watched Eat and Restaurant was an extremely pleasurable experience. That was the only noise I heard during Eat, in which a man slowly munches on mushrooms, occasionally pausing to look out the window or play with his cat. Restaurant does have a soundtrack, but I could only make out snatches of dialogue as Edie Sedgwick and her pals chatted around a table. To be honest, both films are a bit boring, but the experience of watching them was quietly entrancing.

23 – The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (John Badham, 1976) – Cinema Museum, 35mm
John Badham's debut feature is a very enjoyable period comedy about a group of baseball players attempting to seize the means of production and liberate themselves from the 'slavery' of the Negro League, striking out on their own as a barnstorming new team. The film touches on some interesting ideas about Marxist ideals and racial identity, but the filmmakers don't let anything get in the way of the generally amusing knockabout tone. That tone can veer pretty wildly over the course of the movie, but the strong and charismatic performances from Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones as the two leaders of the troupe keep the film grounded. Seen on a print that was in good condition but had faded quite badly, this is a film that could use some restoration and rediscovery.

22 – A Pig Across Paris (Claude Autant-Lara, 1956) – Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Digital
Although it was released in the US as Four Bags Full, A Pig Across Paris is a much better title for this pork-smuggling caper. Jean Gabin and Bourvil are a wonderful double-act trying to avoid cops, Nazis and dogs as they carry four cases of contraband meat across the city, and Gabin is on particularly grand form. His character is a canny opportunist, capable of talking (or yelling) his way out of any predicament and turning the situation to his advantage. It's a very funny picture that increasingly takes on a darker, more complicated shade, and it's superbly crafted, with beautiful noir-ish lighting and some inspired blocking.

21 – Swing High, Swing Low (Mitchell Leisen, 1937) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
One of the common threads in the Carole Lombard season was her chemistry with her male co-stars, and how she often elevated their performances. She was a particularly good partner for Fred MacMurray, and I loved their first scene together here: she's on a ship going through the Panama Canal and he's standing on the wharf, and this is how they have their first bickering conversation, keeping their eyes locked as her boat lowers beneath him. Swing High, Swing Low a very witty and elegantly directed picture, but I wasn't expecting it to develop into a full-blown tragic melodrama in the second half, as MacMurray gets led astray in New York, destroying both his marriage and his career through his heavy drinking. It threatens to get a bit maudlin at times (and his behaviour doesn't seem to deserve her devotional support), but the two stars really sell it. MacMurray is particularly impressive with his performance growing as the film progresses, and his tremulous final performance is quite moving.

20 – Death Is a Caress (Edith Carlmar, 1949) – Barbican, 35mm
Edith Carlmar directed ten features between 1949 and 1959, beginning with this fine noirish drama about a tempestuous love affair, and after watching her debut I'm very keen to see more. Her filmmaking is so impressive, particularly in a first feature. She directs with great imagination and style throughout, and the film is full of smart blocking, slick camerawork, unexpected transitions and imaginative montages. There are so many small details that really resonate, like the moment when Erik rips up his fiancée's note, and we see a scrap of paper bearing her name landing on the table. Claus Wiese and Bjørg Riiser-Larsen are both fine in the lead roles, but I was more taken by the characters who surround them, like Erik's wisecracking pal at the garage, or the gossiping ladies maintaining a running commentary on the state of Erik and Sonja's marriage – I loved the way we saw the shadows of the two neighbours watching as the police were called to a domestic dispute.

19 – Den Muso (Souleymane Cissé, 1975) – Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Digital
Cissé's debut feature almost didn't exist after the lab screwed up the negative, and when he did release it the film was banned for years and the director ended up jail. Thankfully, we still have both him and the film, and now it has been restored it will hopefully be rediscovered as another vital work from this great director. Den Muso is the story of a young woman left pregnant after being raped, and Cissé indicts her family and the whole society around them for the callous manner in which she is abandoned. As in Baara, the director has a keen sense of class tensions and privilege, and this unflinching film steadily builds to a wrenching finale. Having witnessed Cissé's dismay at last year's festival when Baara screened in a sub-optimal print (which was still the best available) it was especially satisfying to see Den Muso looking so sharp in this restoration.

18 – Cinderella (Nadezhda Kosheverova and Mikhail Shapiro, 1947) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
This Russian take on the fairy tale is certainly one of my most delightful discoveries of the year. The film is presented with irresistible wit and imagination from the off. Kosheverova and Shapiro direct with the lightest of touches, and they utilise special effects that feel genuinely magical – the transformation scenes are particularly charming. They just about get away with casting 37-year-old Yanina Zhejmo as the 16-year-old protagonist, but the film is comfortably stolen by Erast Garin as the capricious King who keeps threatening to resign. This film was also released in colour, and I'd love to see one of those prints some day, but this black-and-white version was just lovely.

17 – Lovely Rita (Jessica Hausner, 2001) – BFI Southbank, 35mm.
The clinical, elliptical style building to a shocking act of violence recalls early Haneke, but Hausner mixes up her approach with welcome flashes of warmth and humour, and some dynamic camerawork. I particularly loved the crash zooms that frequently disrupt her striking compositions. Barbara Osika has a compelling sullen quality as the complicated young protagonist, remaining intriguing yet unreadable as her behaviour grows more disturbing and extreme (what a shame she never acted again). The performances are largely deadpan and unaffected, although Hausner gets plenty of comic mileage out of an awkward school production of An Inspector Calls. I think this debut feature is still Hausner's best film; in fact, having now seen all of her work I've liked each film a little less than the one that preceded it.

16 – Western Deep (Steve McQueen, 2002) – Tate Modern, Digital
What a year it has been for Steve McQueen, who ended 2020 with Small Axe and began it with a superb retrospective of his video work at Tate Modern. I admired so many of the pieces in this exhibition, particularly 7th Nov, in which a man narrates the tragic event that has defined his life over a single still image; Ashes, a beautiful piece in which a young man's life and death are placed side-by-side; and I loved the vibrant energy and intimacy of Girls, Tricky. But the one film that really stunned me was McQueen's staggering 2002 short Western Deep. This descent into the darkness and din of a South African gold mine is incredibly intense, and the grainy Super 8mm footage accentuates the hellish atmosphere. It’s an incredible sensory experience; claustrophobic and riveting.

15 – Kohlhiesel’s Daughters (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) – Teatro Comunale, Bologna, 35mm
I'm usually an easy mark for any movie in which an actor plays twins or doppelgängers, and I loved Henny Porten's dual performance in this highly entertaining comedy as two very different sisters. Gretel is sweet and refined, while Liesel is aggressive and uncouth, and Porten creates two distinctive individuals through her physicality and expressiveness. Emil Jannings gives a typically boisterous performance as the man who plots to marry the less desirable sister in order to get to his favoured one. Lubitsch sets up lots of great physical and visual gags, and he keeps the energy bouncing until the plot is wrapped up rather abruptly at the end. Great fun.

14 – Gavroš (Tat’jana Lukaševič, 1937) – Jolly Cinema, Bologna, 35mm
This very loose adaptation of Hugo's Les Misérables focuses on the street urchin Gavroche, played with endearing energy and charisma by Kolja Smorčkov. Although it is set in Paris in 1832, the film has been crafted with a distinctly Soviet style and spirit, with the workers taking on the bourgeoisie and being shot from heroic angles. Lukaševič has a punchy and dynamic filmmaking style. She gets excellent performances from her cast (particularly the kids), and she really exploits some beautiful production design. If anything, I could have done with Gavroš being significantly longer than 70 minutes, as it occasionally barrels through events and characters without giving you much chance to grasp them, but that's minor complaint considering how involved I was in it by the end.

13 – Hostages (Frank Tuttle, 1943)  Jolly Cinema, Bologna, 35mm
André De Toth's outstanding None Shall Escape was one of my favourite discoveries in 2018, and a couple of years before writing that film, Lester Cole wrote the screenplay for this similarly compelling WWII thriller. It's a film about resistance and collaboration, following a group of underground resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Prague, and the film contrasts the characters driven by their own self-interest with those willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Hostages is the best-directed Frank Tuttle film I’ve seen so far, with a number of fine set-pieces building to a and a superb climactic sequence. The cast is strong, particularly William Bendix as the underground leader pretending to be a slow-witted washroom attendant, but it’s probably most notable as being Luise Rainer's last film role for decades.

12 – Variety Lights (Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada, 1950) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Before his solo debut The White Sheik, Fellini co-directed this backstage comedy about an impresario losing his heart, head and wallet to an ambitious showgirl. It's a wonderfully high-spirited film, full of great gags and hilarious ensemble work, with a particularly fine work from Giulietta Masina and the breathtakingly gorgeous Carla Del Poggio. The film doesn't feel particularly Fellini-esque in comparison to the work that would follow  and apparently it was so poorly received in 1950 it bankrupted Fellini and Lattuada's company  but I found it to be a delightful discovery, and one of the director's most straightforwardly entertaining films.

11 – The Arrangement (Elia Kazan, 1969) – BFI Southbank, 35mm / The Visitors (Elia Kazan, 1972) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
The Arrangement is the indulgent folly that almost killed Elia Kazan's career. Adapting his own novel, Kazan goes for stylistic overload, employing a lot of New Hollywood trickery in his camerawork and editing, and the result is an occasionally striking but more often bloated and confounding picture. Kazan's script is all over the place – it's part midlife crisis movie, part immigrant tale, part advertising satire – and the film is constantly see-sawing between tedium and hysteria. Douglas chews the scenery, Dunaway looks coolly beautiful, and Deborah Kerr looks desperately out of place. Filmed in his own house with a tiny cast and crew, The Visitors was Kazan's response to the critical and box office failure of the prior film– he claimed that it was made for the same amount that Dunaway's agent had made from The Arrangement. With its themes of home invasion, emasculation and rape, it's strongly reminiscent of Straw Dogs, which came out one year earlier. Kazan's film develops a nice slow-burning tension, but at a certain point it just fizzles out. I think both The Arrangement and The Visitors are failures, but watching them back-to-back was a fascinating experience; the work of a once-great director now flailing in a new age.

10 – Love Letter (Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953) – Barbican, 35mm
One of my greatest discoveries in recent years was Kinuyo Tanaka's masterpiece The Eternal Breasts. Two years earlier, she began her directorial career with Love Letter, and while it doesn't quite hit the heights of the later film, it's an incredibly accomplished debut. Her keen eye for composition and her expressive use of light and locations is immediately apparent, as is her skill at drawing great work from all of her actors. Written by Keisuke Kinoshita, the film is a fine melodrama, but it is perhaps even more compelling as a portrait of postwar Japan and how the pervasive influence of American occupation affected its inhabitants. The characters in Love Letter are damaged and disillusioned, having been forced to make choices and compromises that now haunt them, and although the film appears to be edging towards a happy ending, Tanaka and Kinoshita leave things unresolved in a way that's much more poignant.

9 – Buba + Užmuri (Nutsa Gogoberidze, 1930/1934) – Jolly Cinema, Bologna, Digital
It was a privilege to see these films, especially as we are the only audience outside Georgia that has ever seen them. Buba is a remarkable documentary with dramatic elements that looks at villagers living in a remote mountain region, where they have preserved "a middle ages way of life." Gogoberidze captures their toil and hardship, but also the rituals and sense of community that binds them together. The footage is absolutely breathtaking. Her fiction film Užmuri may well be a masterpiece too, but the English subtitles malfunctioned at this screening and we had to watch without any sense of what the intertitles should say, which made it tricky to get a firm grasp of the narrative. The fact that I sat there and was riveted anyway is a testament to the film's aesthetic achievement. Gogoberidze uses close-ups and bold compositions to stunning effect, and she pulls off some amazing sequences. As a purely visual experience, it's as good as anything I've seen this year.

8 – Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler, 1951) – Jolly Cinema, Bologna, 35mm
The most bizarre thing about Storm Warning is the fact that it's a film about the Ku Klux Klan that never once touches on their racist beliefs. According to this film, the KKK is nothing more than a money-making racket, which reacts violently to any 'outsiders' sticking their nose in. A few black faces are briefly glimpsed in crowd scenes, but otherwise the topic is carefully avoided. That weird omission aside, it's an intense thriller with a tight screenplay and atmospheric direction. I loved the way the unnerving opening sequence was shot, and throughout the film Heisler and cinematographer Carl Guthrie evoke a potent sense of small-town intimidation. Even if it avoids the race question, the film goes to some dark and powerful places in its second half, with all of the actors doing sterling work. Ginger Rogers getting whipped in front of a burning cross is something I never imagined I'd see.

7 – Ten Dark Women (Kon Ichikawa, 1961) – ICA, 35mm
A wonderfully cynical satire about ten women who unite to plot the death of the TV producer having affairs with all of them simultaneously. Natto Wada's screenplay is sharp and funny, and she throws in a couple of neat twists - including a particularly clever use of a ghost – but there isn't quite enough here to carry it over the finish line, and the final act is a little flat. So much of the film is tremendous, though. I loved the use of stark and expressive shadows in the arresting opening sequence, and in fact the entire movie looks sensational, with brilliant widescreen framing and frequently ingenious blocking. Ten Dark Women might be one of Kon Ichikawa's lesser-known films, but it's a fascinating and very entertaining oddity from this great director.

6 – Burden of Love (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) – Jolly Cinema, Bologna, 35mm
While watching a number of Yuzo Kawashima films for the first time in Bologna this summer, I was fascinated by the way he approaches social issues in his work. My favorite of these, Burden of Love, is a brisk, eccentric mainstream comedy, but it's impressively frank in the way it deals with questions of pre-marital sex, abortion and prostitution. The film is focused on Japan's postwar birth rates, with Health Minister Araki being tasked to find ways to control the booming population, only to find several unexpected pregnancies occurring within his own family. This premise perfectly complements Kawashima's gift for character and his ability to switch viewpoints on the fly. The film is very funny from the first scene to the last, but it's also tender and poignant, with the interactions between the various family members feeling very authentic.

5 – Tam na horách (Sidney M. Goldin, 1920) – Teatro Comunale, Bologna, 35mm
This was among the first major Czech feature films and it's an extremely impressive piece of work. A young woman is exiled from her mountain village after giving birth to a bastard son. She finds peace in the forest and unexpected fame in the city, before her past comes back to haunt her. Goldin's storytelling is sophisticated, with flashbacks and fantasy sequences being brilliantly integrated into the film, and it's visually superb, using light and framing in dramatically potent ways; I loved the shot of Maruska's face at the window illuminated by lightning flashes. This screening, in the marvellous Teatro Comunale, was particularly special with Eduardo Raon providing wonderful accompaniment on the harp, and the film was preceded by Peter Hutton's entrancing Study of a River on 16mm.

4 – Les Choses de la vie (Claude Sautet, 1970) – Ciné Lumière, 35mm
In the aftermath of a terrible car crash, moments from a man's life flash before his eyes. We see his loves, his choices and his regrets as his life ends at a literal and figurative crossroads. Sautet pulls off some sublime transitions as he moves between past and present, and his use of the camera is beautiful; I loved the quick zoom in on Romy Schneider when she first locks eyes with Michel Piccoli, or the way he creates a sense of foreboding by pulling back as he builds up to the crash, which is brilliantly and terrifyingly staged. The film captures the fleeting nature of time and the fragility of life in a way I found profoundly moving, and it approaches the subjective experience of death in an imaginative and haunting manner. A few weeks after watching Les Choses de la vie I saw the disastrous American remake Intersection, which gave me an even greater respect for the delicate and incisive way Sautet handled this material

3 – Torn Boots (Margarita Barskaja, 1933) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm / Father and Son (Margarita Barskaja, 1936) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
Margarita Barskaja built her films around children, using low angles to make us share their perspective, and through improvisatory methods that were controversial at the time, she drew incredibly natural performances from them. Torn Boots depicts the workers' struggle as seen through the eyes of the young, following children of various ages as they move from charming playground games to being radicalised in support of their fathers’ strike action. I had no idea where this film was heading, and when it reached its destination I was deeply moved. The images recall Vigo, the editing Eisenstein. Father and Son’s exploration of strained familial relationships is extremely nuanced and affecting, even if its sense of authenticity riled the Soviet authorities for providing a grim view of Russian life. Barskaja was clearly a brilliant filmmaker and should have had a great career, but Father and Son was quickly withdrawn from circulation and she died a few years later in the gulag. A tragedy.

2 – Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976) – Cinema Arlecchino, Digital
After a disastrous premiere screening, which was apparently sabotaged following a conflict between Aslani and the festival curator, Chess of the Wind was subsequently banned following the Islamic Revolution and remained out of sight for decades. Now it has been brilliantly restored (after the negatives were found in an antique shop), this screening in Bologna was essentially its world premiere, and it proved to be one of the year's greatest revelations. A mysterious chamber piece about greed, betrayal and superstition, it's directed with a mesmerising precision, as the camera creeps around the this ghostly house like an intruder. The lighting is exquisite and Aslani pulls off some remarkable sequences, notably a murder halfway through the film and the final shocking reveal. I loved the occasional cutaways to the washer women who act as a Greek chorus too. Chess of the Wind is clearly an essential film in the history of Iranian cinema, and one that fully deserves its second chance at finding an audience.

1 – As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (Jonas Mekas, 2000) – Close-Up, 16mm
Having been blown away by the experience of seeing Walden and Lost, Lost, Lost projected from 16mm at Close-Up in 2016, there was no way I was going to miss a screening of this epic diary film by Jonas Mekas. It exceeded my sky-high expectations. Mekas continually tells us that nothing happens in his film (he calls it "a sort of masterpiece of nothing") but it's so full of life and incident; a fragmented collection of the banal, insignificant moments that form lasting memories. Mekas seems to be enraptured by everything that he captures with his camera, finding ecstasy in everyday occurrences like watching his children play or a lazy Sunday in the park. It's astonishingly beautiful, playful, funny and moving, and although the screening ran for five hours – with just a brief interval for changing reels - I was completely enraptured by it. Mekas's films are made in such a rough, casual and unpretentious manner, but the priceless moments they capture and the feelings they evoke makes them overwhelming. This was a cinema experience that I'll always cherish.