25 - Ragtime (Milos Forman, 1981) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
Robert Altman almost directed this screen adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel – a tantalising prospect – but Milos Forman’s ambitious portrait of life in America in the first part of the 20th century is still something to behold on the big screen. Forman’s direction is elegant and full of evocative period details, and he draws excellent work from his ensemble cast, even if some of the supporting players feel underdeveloped as the film works to pack so much into its 2½-hour running time (a director’s cut of this film would be most welcome). Ragtime is at its strongest when focusing on the experiences of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a young jazz pianist whose attempts to maintain his dignity in the face of racial hostility escalates into a siege that can only end in tragedy. The film also provides a terrific swansong for James Cagney as the police chief called in to negotiate with Walker. He was 81 years old and consigned to a wheelchair when Ragtime was filmed, but he had lost none of his fire and charisma.
24 - Edward II (Derek Jarman, 1991) - BFI Southbank, Digital
The highlights of the BFI’s two-month Derek Jarman retrospective were a screening of his singular Blue at the BFI IMAX, his original and timeless Sebastiane, and this fascinating take on British history, with Jarman using the story of the ill-fated monarch to confront bigotry throughout the ages. Shot on just a handful of sparsely decorated sets, there is a sense of theatricality to Edward II but Jarman uses the space available to him so skilfully and creates a powerful sense of intimacy with his fine actors (Steven Waddington is brilliant), with an interlude set to Annie Lennox singing Every Time We Say Goodbye being particularly memorable. This is also a film with a clear political purpose, and Jarman brings the story right up-to-date by including protest sequences that feature gay rights activists in contemporary clothing. Edward II is the most accomplished film from a difficult and daring artist who was gone too soon.
23 - The Cremaster Cycle (Matthew Barney, 1995 - 2002) Whitechapel Gallery, Digital
Over the course of a single day at the Whitechapel Gallery I entered the very odd universe of Matthew Barney, and when I emerged some nine hours later I was simultaneously exhausted, disoriented, exhilarated and trying to comprehend what I had just seen. These five films, made out of order and over the course of seven years, are full of extraordinary images and they are a total feast for the senses, even if the point of what Barney is trying to do is often impenetrable. The highlight of the whole experience was Cremaster 3, a three-hour odyssey which largely takes the form of a bizarrely attired Barney climbing the levels of the Guggenheim Museum to complete various challenges. The rest of the films may lack Cremaster 3’s sense of shape and purpose (and Barney’s filmmaking ability and ambition increases dramatically over the cycle's chronological development), but each episode has something strange, vivid and unforgettable to offer us, and the cycle as a whole is a remarkable realisation of one artist’s unique vision of the world.
On the evidence of True Stories, David Byrne’s filmmaking sensibility is as idiosyncratic and endearing as his music, and it’s a real shame that this is the only feature he has directed to date. Byrne’s approach seems to anticipate the later works of filmmaker such as Hal Hartley, Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne with its depiction of the sometimes quirky nature of life in the smalltown America, but Byrne’s generous vision is very much his own. The director himself, driving a Cadillac and wearing a Stetson, acts as our guide through a series of vignettes following the residents of Virgil, Texas as the town prepares for its sesquicentennial celebrations. In one of his first major roles, John Goodman stands out as a lovelorn singleton hoping to find love through the personal ads (“I'm 6'3", and maintain a very consistent panda bear shape.”), and Byrne shows a sure directorial touch in handling both the film’s deadpan comedy and its more surreal moments, and of course it boasts some great musical numbers.
This is one very strange movie. Ostensibly a film for children - and I watched it with a very appreciate audience of kids - Donkey Skin tells the story of a princess (Catherine Deneuve) who must flee her luxurious life and live in the woods in order to escape an incestuous marriage with her own father (!), and she does so by wearing the skin of a recently killed donkey (!!), that possessed the ability to shit diamonds (!!!). Based on a 17th century story, the film is Demy’s homage to Cocteau (with Jean Marais playing the king), but it is also very much a Jacques Demy picture, distinguished by a gorgeous use of colour, fun musical sequences and a sly sense of humour, with a number of double-entendres being slipped in for the enjoyment of adult viewers. Even if it never quite reaches the glorious heights of his earlier work, Donkey Skin is consistently terrific entertainment with a level of weirdness that makes it compelling viewing. It also has the undeniable bonus of Delphine Seyrig, who is surely the sexiest Fairy Godmother to ever cast a spell.
The most arresting thing about Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames is how current it feels. Made in 1983, this futuristic faux-documentary about a group of radical feminists tackles women’s rights, racism, the class divide and police corruption, and it has sequences that speak immediately to the way we live now. Borden presents us with a world that pays lip service to equality, but she then shows us the often insidious way in which old attitudes still divide and oppress large portions of society. There’s a rough-around-the-edges quality to Borden’s filmmaking and some stiffness in the performances given by her young cast of amateur actors, but what matters is the ideas being explored and the passion with which they are expressed. The film has a variety of viewpoints and messages that ultimately coalesce into a call for solidarity and action that remains as clear and vital now as it was over 30 years ago. I had never heard of Born in Flames before it was programmed as part of the BFI’s excellent Afrofuturism season, but it’s a film that deserves to be sought out and discussed.
In his ambitious film, Humberto Solás uses three women called Lucía as the entry point into depictions of three periods in Cuban history. In 1895 war with Spain, Lucía (Raquel Revuelta) falls in love with an enemy soldier; in the 1930s, well-to-do Lucía (Eslinda Núñez) leaves her comofortable life to join a band of revolutionaries, and in the 1960s we find Lucía (Adela Legrá) experiencing a happy honeymoon period with her new husband, which soon ends when he becomes obsessively jealous and locks her at home. All three stories are struggles of independence and Solás finds a different cinematic approach for each segment of his triptych, with the haunting quality of the first film’s descent into madness giving way to a more composed style in part two, while the climactic section plays out as a dark domestic comedy. Lucía is melodramatic and sometimes hysterical, but it’s a stimulating and involving picture that frequently astounds with its epic scope and filmmaking nous.
The Horse Thief is a film that I had been aware of ever since Martin Scorsese named it as one of his favourite films of the 1990s (the film having taken some years to reach US cinemas), and it certainly lived up to his high praise. An engrossing drama in which dialogue takes second place to breathtaking visuals, the film is essentially the simple tale of a horse thief banished from his clan and forced to take his family out into the wilderness, but what makes the film special is how Tian completely immerses us into the culture and customs of the people it depicts. There are some truly staggering images here, not only in the way the filmmakers use the spectacular landscape but in the way rituals are woven into the film. Tian doesn't offer us any guide or explain the significance of these rituals, instead he just invites us to bear witness, and watching the film with patience and an open, curious mind is an enormously rewarding experience. The Horse Thief is a true spiritual journey, and I felt privileged to take it.
17 - Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929) - BFI Southbank, Digital
This was my introduction to silent star Colleen Moore and it's so good it makes me even more upset that many of her films have been lost forever due to neglect. This is probably the reason why Moore isn't as well-known today as other stars of that era, but hopefully screenings of this film will kick-start a revival of interest in her films. We are certainly lucky to have this picture restored complete with its jazzy Vitaphone soundtrack, which is cleverly utilised in one scene with honking car horns representing the singing of two drunkards. Moore is a radiant presence in this fun romantic comedy about a shopgirl who falls for her new boss, and she is clearly intended to represent the independent, modern women of the Flapper age – as she tells her fusty old father at one point, "This is 1929, not 1899!" Why Be Good? is a solid comedy, directed with some smart touches by William A. Seiter, and it even manages to sneak some progressive commentary on sexual politics, notably when Moore's character Pert chastises her husband-to-be and men in general for the hypocrisy and double-standards she sees in their attitude towards women. All in all she's quite a character, and I hope we get to see more of her.
Having only just discovered the work of Shirley Clarke through her singular Portrait of Jason, I was delighted to have the opportunity to see two more of her thrillingly unconventional and independent features this year. Her documentary profile Ornette: Made in America is bold and imaginative, but the real revelation this year was her earlier film The Connection. An adaptation of a stage play, this single-set study of jazz musicians awaiting their drug supplier initially feels a little too stagebound in its presentation, but Clarke's lively camerawork and the intense performances from the inexperienced ensemble soon allays those fears. The presence of a filmmaker attempting to exploit the needs of these addicts for his own art who finds himself being sucked into their world adds a fascinating extra layer to the drama (the whole film is presented as footage captured and then turned over to the cameraman by this director). This is an anxious, riveting and unique film, and I'm delighted that Milestone Films is dedicated to restoring and sharing Clarke's considerable body of work, but I have one caveat. The texture and function of film itself is such a factor in Clarke's aesthetic (at least in this film and Portrait of Jason), I wish that these remarkable pictures were available to be seen on prints rather than just digital.
The great À Nos Amours Chantal Akerman retrospective rolled on throughout 2014 with a number of great screenings (including Les Rendez-vous d’Anna and a gorgeous 35mm print of Nuit et jour), but the standout for me was her 1986 musical Golden Eighties. The film nods to classic MGM musicals and the work of Jacques Demy, but Akerman makes it her own with her particular sense of composition and movement, and of course with a central role for the inimitable Delphine Seyrig. The film playfully sends up musical conventions but it is also played with utter sincerity by Akerman and her cast, and the brightly coloured hijinks are given a melancholy undertone. I’d also like to take this opportunity to direct fans of Golden Eighties to Les années 80, a 1983 film that Akerman made in part to help secure funding for her planned musical. This document is little more than a collection of rehearsal footage and tests, but in Akerman’s hands it becomes a mini-masterpiece about the act of creating art in its own right.
Jack Garfein’s Something Wild begins with one of the most extraordinary depictions of rape that I’ve ever seen in cinema. In an almost wordless opening twenty minutes, Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) is attacked on her way home from college. When she returns home we watch her quietly walk upstairs and methodically bathe her body before cutting her clothes into tiny pieces and flushing them down the toilet. She is traumatised but she buries her trauma, only for it to emerge at unpredictable moments later on – when she is crowded on a bus, for example. The film takes an unexpected turn when she is saved from a suicide attempt by Mike (Ralph Meeker), who takes her home and essentially imprisons her, hoping she’ll become his wife. Something Wild is engrossing right up to its contentious ending, with complicated characterisations and tight direction, and it’s a real pity that Garfein didn’t direct again (his 1957 debut The Strange One was another impressive 2014 discovery for me). Baker – who I also loved in Baby Doll this year– is magnificent here, and the film’s craft is top-notch: music by Aaron Copland, cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, editing by Carl Lerner, titles by Saul Bass.
In the same year that Jean-Luc Godard opened our eyes to the possibilities of 3D with his latest film Goodbye to Language, I finally got to see the film that many Godard fans rate as his best – indeed, a film cited by some as the best ever made. I can't get on board with those claims – in truth, I don't really know what to make of it – but this is a stimulating, challenging and highly entertaining piece of work, and I'm glad I experienced it. Godard's film has Norman Mailer angrily scribbling in his hotel room, a post-Chernobyl wasteland in which all arts and culture has been lost, Woody Allen toiling in an editing suite, Godard himself appearing as Professor Pluggy, and seagulls. Lots of seagulls. As is often the case with Godard's work, I found the overall experience confounding with moments of startling beauty and clarity breaking through, and I was left with the familiar post-Godard desire to read about the film and revisit it later to see if I can grasp more of what's being said, or not said. At the screening we attended, Woody Allen's climactic scene was interrupted by some members of the cinema staff thinking the film was over and assembling a lectern on the stage before being shouted down. I suspect Jean-Luc would have been amused.
12 - Employees' Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
I don't think I enjoyed any performance this year more than Warren William's deliciously malevolent turn in Employees' Entrance. As the Machiavellian manager of a huge department store, William is in his element, with his snide delivery and lustful glances making Kurt Anderson one of the great screen bastards – just when you think a cute little dog might make his cold heart melt, he grabs the poor pup and throws him in the dustbin. This was one of the gems in the BFI's glorious season of pre-Code films, and it exemplifies not only the attitudes of that era but also the skilful, tight filmmaking that old hands like Roy Del Ruth (credited with 6 films in 1933!) could bring to even minor studio projects that makes them feel special by today's standards. Aside from William, the film has many other virtues. The screenplay is cleverly structured and full of sharp dialogue; Loretta Young and the always-welcome Alice White are terrific as the dames in Anderson's life, and one balloon-popping gag – so simple in its setup and execution – still makes me chuckle to recall it months later.
This was the last film Max Ophüls before leaving Germany for France and then the USA, and while it doesn't quite stand alongside his acknowledged masterpieces, you can definitely see in this film the seeds of the cinematic giant that he would become. The camerawork doesn't yet feel as entirely free as it did later, but Liebelei is a film distinguished by a series of beautiful shots and compositions, and by the director's ability to communicate complex emotions through a single image. His direction finds a light comedy in the romantic entanglements of these young characters in the first half of the film before segueing into darker territory. Few directors in the history of cinema ever captured romance, sadness and loss with such elegance and piercing immpact, and the manner in which Ophüls handles the duel that brings this film to an end is an early sign of his brilliance.
Walerian Borowczyk enjoyed a renaissance in 2014 with a BFI retrospective and a handsome blu-ray release, but I’d argue that his best film is one of his least seen and most atypical. The Margin unites two icons of 1970s sex cinema in Joe Dallesandro and Sylvia Kristel for a moody, nocturnal romance about a young man’s brief encounter with a prostitute. The two leads reveal layers of emotion and complexity that their other roles rarely allowed them to reach (marking this out from Kristel’s body of work, despite it being repackaged as Emmanuelle ’77 upon release), and the film has a rich, potent atmosphere, with Borowczyk brilliantly evoking a sense of longing amid the sleazy Parisian backstreets. The Margin should be regarded as a film on a level with similarly themed works such as Last Tango in Paris and Eyes Wide Shut, and it also boasts a remarkably eclectic and memorable soundtrack, with contributions from Elton John, 10cc and Pink Floyd.
Here’s a sad state of affairs. At the 2014 London Film Festival, only one film (from 248 features) was screened from a 35mm print. That film was Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, one of the pictures made by Robert Altman during his post-Popeye Hollywood exile, and finally getting to experience this picture on the big screen was a real thrill. Set in a single location, there’s something consciously theatrical about the film, but Altman also makes this a truly cinematic work by letting a single mirror act as a conduit between the past and the present, constantly adding extra dimensions to our understanding of these characters and their relationships as Pierre Mignot’s superb camerawork circles skilfully around them. The film has a wonderful all-female cast too, with Cher and Sandy Dennis dominating the picture until Karen Black, as the mysterious Joanne, enters the drama with some bombshells ready to be dropped. Even so, there’s still time for Kathy Bates to almost steal the whole picture with a single, perfect line delivery: “I AM happy!”
8 - Salt of the Earth (Herbert Biberman, 1954) - ICA, 16mm
Salt of the Earth is both an involving human drama about a miners' strike in New Mexico and, by its very existence, a powerful act of defiance. Most of the cast had been involved in the real strike that the film takes its narrative from just a few years earlier, while much of the crew were blacklisted by Hollywood when they worked on this film. The FBI made frequent attempts to shut the production down – including deporting the lead actress – and even after it was made cinemas were pressured to not screen the film. The fact that Salt of the Earth survived at all is remarkable; the fact that such a brilliant film emerged from these conditions feels almost miraculous. Acted with conviction and shot with a dynamic style that still feels fresh, this is an invigorating polemic for workers' rights that also explores issues of discrimination and feminism, with the women in the camp becoming a more vital presence and ultimately swapping traditional roles with their husbands as the strike continues. It's hard to think of many other films in which the themes of the picture and the manner in which it was made are so inextricably linked, and watching it is a reminder of what courageous cinema really is.
The most famous adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not is the 1944 Howard Hawks film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but it’s not the best version of the story. While Hawks’ picture made significant changes to the plot, this later version directed by Michael Curtiz remained largely faithful to Hemingway’s text, and it works as a exceptional thriller with a powerful sucker-punch ending. In his penultimate role, John Garfield brings his customary intensity to the role of the morally conflicted fishing boat captain at the centre of the film, but the supporting players aren’t overshadowed, with Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter excelling as the two women in his life (the scene in which Thaxter gets a haircut is brilliant and heartbreaking). Curtiz’s direction is perfectly judged, giving the story and his actors all the room they need while keeping a tight hand on the film’s tension, and he pulls off a masterstroke right at the end. The final shot of the movie brings a hitherto minor character into the spotlight, and speaks volumes about race and privilege in a single unforgettable image.
This is surely the finest screen version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, and it’s hard to see how any subsequent adaptation could top it. The film gets its claws into us right from the opening moments, with an inspired sequence shot from Dr. Jekyll's perspective, and Rouben Mamoulian’s direction throughout is supremely witty and inventive. The film rests on its lead performance, of course, and Fredric March’s deservedly Oscar-winning work (tied with Wallace Beery) is still staggering. It’s not just the makeup that defines him, but the complete physical transformation that March undergoes, creating two characters so distinct it’s almost hard to believe that they are played by the same man. This being a pre-Code Hollywood film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is absolutely dripping with sex and suggestiveness, with Mr. Hyde being an embodiment of the doctor’s suppressed carnal desires, while Miriam Hopkin’s swinging bare leg has the power to hypnotise us as surely as it does Dr. Jekyll.
After exploring the films of Satyajit Ray in 2013 I am keen to learn more about Indian cinema beyond his brilliant body of work, and the Bollywood musical is an area I am particularly ignorant of. In fact, my viewings this year of Pakeezah and Mughal-E-Azam were my first, and I doubt I'll see many better or bigger than K. Asif's historical epic. An astonishingly lavish affair, the making of the film has become legendary in itself, with the shoot dragging on for more than a decade, individual scenes often costing more than the average budget for a whole Indian film at the time, and the death of a lead actor midway through production. But I wasn't just overwhelmed by the scale of Mughal-E-Azam, I was captivated by the story of the forbidden love between a prince and a dancer in 16th century India. Asif effortlessly holds our attention for the full 200 minutes and proves equally adept whether handling huge action sequences or more intimate romantic scenes between his two leads. It helps, of course, that one of his leads is Madhubala, a bewitching actress whose defiant musical performance in front of the king is the film's high point of emotion and spectacle. I saw Mughal-E-Azam on a black-and-white print, but this sequence exploded from the screen in eye-popping colour, and its impact left me reeling.
A funny thing happened at our screening of The Arch. A few minutes after the film had started, it became apparent that the print provided was missing subtitles, a problem that continued right through the first reel. Subtitles did appear as soon as the second reel started, but even if the whole film had been lacking translation I expect I might have been able to follow it anyway, because Cecile Tang’s direction is a masterclass in visual storytelling. As the lead character Madam Tung (Lisa Lu) struggles to cope with her feelings and the love triangle she has become embroiled in with a visiting soldier and her daughter, Tang utilises Nouvelle Vague-inspired editing (by les Blank) and dazzling cinematography (by Subrata Mitra) to express her turmoil. When the subtitles vanished again for the film’s closing reel I barely noticed, so engrossed was I in this simple but devastating tale. This is one of cinema’s all-time great debuts, and Tang’s second feature China Behind is a similarly impressive piece of work, one that was shot covertly and earned the director a long ban from filmmaking by the authorities.
3 - L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
Having finally now seen the third and final part of Michelangelo Antonioni's alienation trilogy, I think my preference is for La Notte (while acknowledging that I need to re-watch L'Avventura for the first time in many years), but that's just splitting hairs. L'Eclisse is a masterpiece by any measure, with Antonioni on peak form, Alain Delon and Monica Vitti at their most enigmatic and seductive, and the great Gianni Di Venanzo producing images that sear themselves into your memory. There is a plot, of sorts, with Vitti's character Vittoria leaving one relationship and hesitantly drifting towards another, with Delon's Piero, but the film isn't about that. L'Eclisse is about people connected and disconnected, it's about the spaces and buildings we inhabit, it's about moments and gestures, it's about the way the light falls on Monica Vitti's face. It's also a film with one of the great endings; a climactic montage of the places where these lovers have shared times together, but this time they are nowhere to be found. Only in the hands of a master filmmaker can an ordinary images of everyday life achieve transcendent, heart-stopping splendour.
Some films demand to be experienced on the big screen, not only for their epic nature but for their length. I bought a copy of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó on DVD a couple of years ago but I kept putting off watching it, in the hope that I might have an opportunity to see it projected. My chance came this year and the experience was every bit as amazing as I had hoped it would be. There’s barely a moment in this 450-minute saga that I didn’t find entrancing. Tarr’s orchestration of long takes is consistently astounding; whether his camera following, circling or statically observing the characters, he always finds striking ways to capture the action. Sátántangó is a film full of unforgettable sequences – a doctor's drunken late-night wander through the forest, for example, or a lonely child's torturous games with her pet cat – and while Tarr's films have a forbidding reputation, what surprised about this picture is how accessible, human and even funny it is. Watching Sátántangó on a freshly restored 35mm print is something I'll always savour, and now I'm glad I've got that DVD handy to revisit individual parts of the film and appreciate new details whenever I feel the desire.
I can't get Je t'aime, je t'aime out of my head. Alain Resnais' bafflingly neglected 1968 masterpiece has been rattling around inside my brain ever since I saw it, but unlike most films, in which certain shots stay with me, here it's the cuts between shots that keep leaping back into my thoughts. Je t'aime, je t'aime is the story of a suicidal war veteran who is invited to be a guinea pig for a group of scientists embarking on a time travel experiment. The idea is that Claude (Claude Rich) will be sent back to relive one minute of his life, but instead he gets lost within his own memories, bouncing around from one past encounter to another with wild abandon. Claude relives moments both banal and significant, with most of his memories revolving around his doomed relationship with a lost lover, and the manner in which Resnais cuts between these moments is truly stunning. Every edit in this film has a startling impact; disorienting us, enlightening us, reshaping our understanding of what we are watching and drawing us further into Claude's circular experience. The film is fragmented and moves at bewildering pace, but we always get the sense that Resnais is in control and the emotional power that these accumulated memories finally create is incredibly potent. As soon as I walked out of Je t'aime, je t'aime I felt the urgent need to watch it again, but given the paucity of screenings and the scandalous lack of proper blu-ray distribution I wonder when I'll get that chance. Until then, I just have my memories.