Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Cinema Discoveries of 2013

10 – Kalpana

The 1948 film Kalpana was conceived and directed by Uday Shankar, the brother of the legendary musician Ravi Shankar, and it proved to be the only film he would ever make. Uday was already a renowned choreographer in India before he embarked on this project, spending four years in production on a film that expressed itself through all forms of Indian dance.  He cast himself as choreographer determined to establish a theatre that celebrates Indian culture and heritage while getting embroiled in an ongoing love triangle, with this central narrative being the springboard for a series of remarkable fantasy dance sequences. Shankar also finds room in Kalpana's 155 minutes for plenty of comedy, some political commentary on the future of India and even a satire on the movie business, which the director attempted to circumnavigate by financing this passion project himself. Kalpana took Uday Shankar the best part of five years to make, and perhaps the reason he never stepped behind a camera again is simply that he plunged every single filmmaking idea and instinct into this extraordinary feast of a film. Kalpana is a true one-off, and a wonderful rediscovery by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation.

9 – Anand Patwardhan

I had never heard of Anand Patwardhan before the BFI programmed a number of his films across a single weekend in February, but after viewing his work it was clear that I had encountered a vital filmmaker whose work deserves much wider exposure. Patwardhan's documentaries explore social issues in India from a number of different perspectives. War and Peace examined the cost of the nuclear arms race; Father, Son & Holy War explored Indian attitudes towards masculine identity; In the Name of God looked at the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The director's latest film Jai Bhim Comrade – 14 years in the making – is a masterpiece that begins with the twin tragedies of the 1997 massacre of Dalit protestors and the subsequent suicide of the poet Vilas Ghogre, before expanding to explore the issue of caste discrimination in Indian society. Patwardhan's films unfold at a measured pace, with points being clearly argued and discussed, and with Indian music and poetry being a constant presence. I found his work to be hugely intelligent, compelling and illuminating, and I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet him this year to discuss it.

8 – Love Me Tonight

There had been a number of fine musical comedies before Love Me Tonight was made in 1932 – indeed, this film's star Maurice Chevalier made a number with Lubitsch – but there's a sense of freedom, fluidity and invention about Rouben Mamoulian's wonderful film that means it still feels fresh and daring today. It opens with a marvellous sequence in which the ordinary sounds of a Parisian morning are combined into a symphony, and that sense of invention and technical mastery is evident through. Look at the way Mamoulian links his two stars: Chevalier's humble tailor starts singing Isn't it Romantic and sets an infectious tune that is then carried on by various passers-by until it reaches the ear of the princess (Jeanette MacDonald), with whom he will soon meet and fall in love. Later, after his identity is uncovered, the song The Son of  Gun is Nothing but a Tailor hops wittily between characters and locations. These sequences epitomise the way Love Me Tonight flows beautifully, with both Mamoulian and his cast displaying expert comic timing and a gloriously unfettered imagination.

7 – Fellini-Satyricon

Until this year, I had seen none of Federico Fellini's work beyond his great 1963 film . I had heard mixed reports on the quality of his later films, but the rare 35mm screening of Fellini-Satyricon that A Nos Amours hosted this year was a wonderful surprise. This adaptation of the writings of Petronius gave Fellini the scope to be as decadent, undisciplined and visually delirious as he wished. There's a loose plot of sorts but the film is essentially a thinly connected series of episodes set in Nero's Rome, with Fellini clearly being enraptured by the indulgence, hedonism and violence of this society, while the walls of the empire crumble around them. Satyricon is a rich, hallucinatory vision of Ancient Rome, re-imagined by a distinctive artist. It has certainly inflamed by desire to seek out the rest of Fellini's post- work.

6 - The Mother and the Whore

Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore was a film that I had wanted to see for many years, and when I finally caught a rare screening in London this year it didn’t disappoint. The film is a loose, discursive study of three young Parisians (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, Bernadette Lafont and engaged in an unusual ménage à trois, with Léaud’s Alexandre being a pretentious, self-absorbed fop who would rather talk about love, sex and politics than engage in them in any meaningful way.  In fact, the film is all talk, with much of its 3½-hour running time consisting of long takes in which the characters endlessly talk, but in the hands of Eustache and his flawless cast it is riveting, illuminating and frequently hilarious to watch. This was Eustache’s first feature but it is the work of a man in complete command of his material, and one can only admire the brash confidence he must have possessed to make this epic, verbose film his debut. The Mother and the Whore is a wry, intelligent examination of male-female relationships that still feels bracing and insightful today.

5 - The Tarnished Angels

The Tarnished Angels joined the Masters of Cinema collection this year, making it the first Douglas Sirk film to be released on blu-ray (long overdue!), but my first encounter with the film came on the big screen. I was thrilled to see it presented on a gorgeous 35mm printed that showcased the film’s gorgeous black-and-white ‘Scope cinematography. This adaptation of William Faulkner’s Pylon was one of Sirk’s most cherished projects and he later described it as his best film, an assessment I’d be inclined to agree with. The Tarnished Angels reunites Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack, the stars of the previous year’s Written on the Wind, in a dark and complex melodrama set against the backdrop of aviation shows, in which pilots risks their lives to make a living in Depression-era America. The aerial sequences are spectacularly filmed, and the characters’ troubled psychological states are expressed through Irving Glassberg’s stunning use of shadows.    

4 - Berlin Alexanderplatz

I still feel like I have only scratched the surface of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vast body of work, but I experienced a huge chunk of it this year with his 15½-hour television series Berlin Alexanderplatz, which screened over a single weekend at the ICA. Although it was made for TV, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a film that definitely deserves the big screen treatment, with the director’s wonderfully fluid camerawork and imaginative exploitation of confined spaces making this a genuinely cinematic work. At a time when we think of our contemporary television programmes as groundbreaking works of art, it’s sobering to watch Berlin Alexanderplatz and see what a genuine film artist can do with the form. Berlin Alexanderplatz consists of 13 episodes in which Fassbinder’s restrained, classical approach is perfectly suited to Döblin’s narrative, before the director’s own obsessions burst through to the surface in the surreal epilogue, which could almost stand alone as a masterpiece in itself. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a monumental achievement.

3 - Chantal Akerman

Adam Roberts and Joanna Hogg’s A Nos Amours collective has had another wonderful year, hosting screenings of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Fred Kelemen's Frost and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence among others. But their most exciting project is an ongoing retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films, with all of her work being screened over the course of 18 months. Akerman is a brilliant choice for a retrospective like this because while she has one widely seen and acknowledged masterpiece to her name, the rest of her work remains largely unknown, and this is a fantastic way to discover a filmmaker. What has surprised me so far is how playful and experimental her early work was, as if Akerman was trying to work out exactly what type of filmmaker she was, before she suddenly produced Jeanne Dielman at the age of 25 – an astonishingly rigorous and specific masterpiece. I can’t wait to see how her career develops from that point throughout 2014.

2 - Satyajit Ray

One of my goals this year was to increase my knowledge of Indian cinema, and you can’t talk about Indian cinema without talking about Satyajit Ray, whose career was celebrated in a two-month BFI retrospective. I had already seen his Apu trilogy and Mahanagar before this year, but everything else was new to me and it was an incredible experience to discover a true master of cinema in such a way. I fell in love with Madhabi Mukherjee in Mahanagar, Charulata and The Coward, and I was in awe of Ray’s deft tonal shifts and insight in his outstanding ensemble films Days and Nights in the Forest and Kanchenjungha. But the real highlight for me was a very rare screening of his 1961 triptych Three Daughters in its entirety, a film that exhibits all of Ray’s qualities in a collection of stories that are by turn funny, unsettling and moving. It is a film that deserves to restored and re-released in its entirety.

1 - Napoleon

Well, could it really be anything else? Seeing Abel Gance’s Napoleon at the Royal Festival Hall with Carl Davis conducting his own score wasn’t just my filmgoing highlight of the year but one of the great cinematic experiences of my life. The film was made in 1927 but the range of filmmaking techniques that Gance brings to the picture make it feel almost futuristic. The handheld camerawork used in the film’s superb opening snowball fight is an extraordinary thing to see in a silent film, but Gance keeps finding striking new angles on the action; he even straps a camera to the back of a horse to plunge us right into the heart of a battle scene. His story follows Napoleon from childhood, through the French Revolution and The Terror, and up to his conquest of Italy, with every scene being staged with a vivid sense of wit, authenticity and character. The editing is breathless at times – notably in a rapid-fire montage of people singing La Marseillaise – but it reaches its zenith at the film’s legendary climax, when the screen suddenly expands to reveal Gance’s three screens side-by-side; a proto-widescreen effect that is stunningly utilised. Watching the incredible montage that closes the film while the London Philharmonic Orchestra reprised La Marseillaise was one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema, and one I’m unlikely to experience again for a very long time.