Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Cinema Discoveries of 2015

I still try to keep up with the current cinema but more than ever my time and money is being spent at the repertory houses these day. I probably saw twice as many old films as new releases on the big screen this year, with films actually being projected on film being the biggest draw – I attended 142 35mm screenings in 2015, and I also caught eleven on 16mm and three on 70mm.
Many of these were revisits, and I was delighted to catch fantastic projections of films such as Night Moves, The Thin Red Line, Showgirls, All That Heaven Allows, Klute, Le mépris, Frenzy The Awful Truth, In the Mood for Love, Seventh Heaven, Yojimbo and many other old favourites. I haven't included them on this list, though, and I haven't included the repertory cinema events that I had a hand in making happen as part of The Badlands Collective, though I'm incredibly proud of of what we have achieved this year, particularly our recent 35mm Barry Lyndon event and our exclusive UK screening of Rivette's amazing Out 1.

Instead, this list (which I have already started counting down here) is all about discoveries; films I had never seen – and in some cases had never heard of – before this year. I'd like to extend a special thank you to the BFI, the Prince Charles Cinema, The Barbican, the ICA, Tate, Close-Up and all of the other London venues keeping film projection alive and continuing to be adventurous in their programming. It has been a wonderful year and I can't wait to make more great discoveries in 2016.

25 - The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
The second of the two films Lupino directed in 1953, after the more widely acclaimed The Hitch-Hiker, this tight drama is fascinating for its compassionate and non-judgemental approach to the characters. Edmund Gwenn is the man simultaneously married to two women on different coasts (Joan Fontaine and Lupino herself), but the film invites us to sympathise with him as it takes us through the incidents that led to this inextricable situation and suggests that everything he did was out of a misguided attempt to do the right thing. It’s an intelligent and mature piece of filmmaking that avoids sensationalism at every turn, and Lupino excels on both sides of the camera (even though she was reluctant to act in the film). Sadly, the film was a flop and Lupino didn’t direct another feature for over a decade.

24 - Images of the World and the Inscription of War (Harun Farocki, 1989) - Tate Modern, 16mm
One year after he passed away, I saw my first film by Harun Farocki and instantly realised that I was discovering filmmaker worthy of further study. This particular film is an engrossing look at images and how we perceive them, with Farocki frequently returning to the same photographs and allowing us to view them differently in a fresh context or with additional information. How easy it is to overlook details that later take on a powerful resonance, as in the case of Allied aerial photographs shown here, which inadvertently captured images of Auschwitz while seeking other points of interest in the area. Farocki’s editing creates some striking associations and his commentary poses questions and ideas that continue to develop in the mind long after the film has finished.

23 - Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964) - Cinémathèque française, Paris, 70mm
This late film from John Ford is regarded as an attempt by the director to atone for his depiction of Native American tribes in many of his earlier films and it focuses on the Cheyenne exodus on 1878, although there is some awkwardness in the film’s attempt to tell this story through the eyes of Carroll Baker and Richard Widmark (not to mention the odd comic interlude with James Stewart’s Wyatt Earp). Still, in the autumn of his career, Ford hasn’t lost his ability to take the audience’s breath away with his commanding use of Monument Valley and the brilliant orchestration of his action sequences. This is an extraordinarily beautiful film and it contains some of the most vivid imagery in Ford’s work, notably the shot of a beleaguered Karl Malden walking through fallen bodies in the wake of a massacre.

22 - Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1983) - Tate Modern, 35mm
One of the many gems uncovered in Tate Modern’s LA Rebellion season, this powerful film by Billy Woodberry looks at the emotional and spiritual toll that unemployment can take on a man, and the subsequent impact it has on his family. The film is full of beautifully observed details and is anchored by two outstanding performances: Nate Hardman as Charlie, trying to hold onto his dignity and fulfil his role as the family patriarch, and Kaycee Moore as his wife Andais who is employed but who looks increasingly likely to succumb to the exhaustion of trying to earn enough for two and maintain peace in her home. The film climaxes in an astonishing argument between them, in which the improvised intensity from both actors is spellbinding. Bless their Little Hearts deserves to be viewed as an equal to iconic films like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (Burnett is credited as writer and cinematographer here) and Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man.

21 - Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
Famously derided on release by Roger Ebert, who gave it a zero-star review and claimed he felt soiled by the film, Mandingo is undoubtedly a difficult film to sit through. Richard Fleischer’s film takes a melodramatic and salacious approach this tale of Deep South slavery, with florid performances from James Mason and Susan George and an excess of sex, violence and general depravity, but the film’s impact is impossible to dismiss. Fleischer forces us to witness the ugliness of the slave trade and presents us with a complicated portrait of complicity in the relationships between its black and white characters. It’s an incredibly bold and uncompromising film to be released by a major studio, and forty years on it has lost none of its discomfiting, penetrating power.

20 - Street of Crocodiles (Brothers Quay, 1986) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
One of three Quay brothers films presented by superfan Christopher Nolan on new 35mm prints during the London Film Festival, Street of Crocodiles may be their most fully realised and most impressive work. Is there anything creepier than stop-motion dolls? The eyeless dolls in this one are particularly unnerving but the Quays manage to create an atmosphere that is at once disorienting, haunting and beguiling. The stop-motion work on display here is something wondrous to behold, and even if it’s hard to know why these creatures are doing whatever it is that they’re doing, the film has a captivating sense of dream (or nightmare) logic that kept me hooked, and the skill involved in the stop-motion work is wondrous to behold throughout.

19 - Variety (EA Dupont, 1925) - BFI Southbank, Digital
Variety is a film about a tragic love triangle set in the world of circus performers, but really it’s an excuse for director EA Dupont and the great cinematographer Karl Freund to indulge in a series of spectacular shots and sequences. This is one of those silent films that represents the high levels of adventure and sophistication in visual storytelling that filmmakers were reaching in the years before the transition to sound changed everything. It’s a feast of expressionistic filmmaking that reaches its peak in the climactic scene on a flying trapeze, when Emil Jannings (giving a typically large performance) faces a moral dilemma as he has to catch the younger love rival who has stolen his wife. Having loved both Variety and Dupont’s later Piccadilly, I’m now desperate to see his 1928 film Moulin Rouge too.

18 - The Cool World (Shirley Clarke, 1963) - Fabrica, Brighton,. 16mm
One of my major discoveries of recent years had been Shirley Clarke. Her 1961 film The Connection appeared on this list last year and everything I’ve seen by her so far has been daring, singular and memorable. The Cool World is a more naturalistic film from Clarke, away from the staginess of The Connection and the faux-documentary styling of Portrait of Jason, as she takes her camera out onto the streets of Harlem to tell the story of a black teenager trying to make his way in a world of guns and drugs. The rambling story didn’t always hold my attention, but Clarke’s depiction of everyday life in ‘60s Harlem certainly did, and the whole film has a restless rhythm, with Baird Bryant’s energetic camerawork and Mal Waldron’s jazz score contributing to the film’s vivid atmosphere.

17 - D'Est (Chantal Akerman, 1993) - ICA, 35mm
I knew I would have to say goodbye to A Nos Amours’ long-running Chantal Akerman retrospective this year, having found it such an illuminating and exciting series to follow, but I didn’t expect to have to say goodbye to Chantal Akerman too. This year I discovered a number of Akerman films, including her comedies A Couch in New York and Tomorrow We Move, and her powerful Conrad adaptation Almayer’s Folly (shown just after her death in a very emotional screening), but it’s the first film I saw in 2015, 1993’s D’Est, that sticks in my mind. A series of tracking shots through post-Soviet Union Eastern Europe, the film has an entrancing rhythm that recalled the hypnotic power of her earlier Hôtel Monterey for me, and some of its shots still linger in my thoughts. It’s the kind of film that only the endlessly curious and creative Akerman would have made, I will miss discovering her amazing body of work.

16 - Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937) - BFI Southbank, 16mm
It’s hard to keep up with the wisecracks and insults that are constantly being hurled back-and-forth in this brilliant ensemble comedy. Stage Door is set in a boarding house for actresses and the characters in this film are always in competition with each other, as they fight for the handful of roles available to young actresses in New York, but they also possess a touching sense of solidarity as they have to resist the lecherous and exploitative intentions of male producers. Everyone gets their share of the memorable dialogue, but it’s the sniping between Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, both in perfect harmony with each other, that forms the brilliant heart of the picture, while Andrea Leeds – playing a one-time upcoming star, now forgotten – gets a stunning sequence on a staircase late on as the film shifts from comedy into tragedy.

15 - Sherman's March (Ross McElwee, 1985) - BFI Southbank, 16mm
Sherman’s March is not really a film about General Sherman. It started off that way and Ross McElwee occasionally meanders back to the subject, but as he keeps running into old flames and meets potential new partners, the film’s inability to focus on the task in hand begins to mirror the distracted nature of a broken heart. "It seems I'm filming my life in order to have a life to film," he says, and while this may all sound unbearably self-indulgent, McElwee gets away with it thanks to his witty, humble demeanour and his genuine curiosity about both himself and others. Sherman’s March is also terrifically funny at times, notably when the brassy and no-nonsense Charleen Swansea repeatedly implores him to put down his camera and take a more old-fashioned approach to romance. "This is not art, it’s life!" she yells at him, but McElwee clearly can’t separate the two.

14 - Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
"Look out Haskell, it's real!" a voice shouts as a teargas lands in front of the camera. It’s a moment when fact breaks through the film’s fiction, and the knowledge that the line was actually dubbed in later muddies that fact/fiction divide still further. Medium Cool might be seen as very much a film of its time, as it documents the turbulent end of the 1960s in America, but the bracing immediacy of Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 picture still resonates today, as does the central exploration of how cameras capture and process social unrest. Wexler’s fluid storytelling, his vivid use of colour and his formal boldness ensures the film is a consistently stimulating exercise and it feels like one of the major American films that really tried to push the boundaries of what cinema can achieve.

13 - Bush Mama (Haile Gerima, 1979) - Tate Modern, 16mm
Another of the key works from the LA Rebellion group of filmmakers, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama looks at a poor community in 1970s Los Angeles and challenges the systematic and societal constraints that prevent people from breaking out of poverty. The film is shot with a documentary-like urgency but is also full of grace notes, and elevated by dreamlike interludes and scenes that break the fourth wall, with letters from a prisoner being read directly to the camera. At the film’s centre is Barbara O. Jones, an incredible screen presence who was also magnificent this year in two films by Julie Dash: the 1977 short Diary of an African Nun and her beautiful 1991 feature film Daughters of the Dust, which was also shown at Tate Modern on a gorgeous 35mm print.

12 - Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
The BFI’s Robert Siodmak season offered us a great chance to indulge in some classic film noir, with the highlight for me being this atmospheric and vividly realised tale of a man fighting to clear his name following his wife’s murder. The plot has plenty to offer in terms of surprises and suspense, but it’s the style here that intoxicates the viewer; shadow-filled bars, dingy backstage nooks and crannies, intimate clubs where jazz drummers beat out an infectious rhythm. Phantom Lady is full of instantly memorable sequences with Elwood Bredell’s expressive black-and-white camerawork making almost every scene visually striking. While this was my pick from the Siodmak retrospective, I also enjoyed discovering The Dark Mirror and The Spiral Staircase this year.

11 - Él (Luis Buñuel, 1953) - ICA, 35mm
One of the major events in London’s repertory calendar this year was a fantastic retrospective of Luis Buñuel films at the ICA, including this bitterly funny film from his Mexican period. Arturo de Córdova is Francisco, a wealthy bachelor who becomes obsessed with the beautiful Delia Garcés and pursues her relentlessly, eventually winning her from the man she was engaged to. However, now that he has his prize, Francisco becomes consumed with paranoia and jealousy, believing every man who so much as glances at his wife to be a threat. Él is an incisive examination of male ego which is played a lot straighter than many Buñuel films, but as a result the more surreal and comic touches – such as a hilarious late scene in the church – have a startling impact. This is one of his greatest and most under-seen films.

10 - Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977) - Barbican, 35mm
Did any director explore notions of memory and the passage of time with as much wit, creativity and acuity as Alain Resnais? His 1977 film Providence comprises of the recollections and imaginings of an ailing author (John Gielgud), whose stop-start attempts to tell a story are personified by Ellen Burstyn, David Warner and a hilariously bitchy Dirk Bogarde. As the author struggles to keep his story together the film’s scenes have a habit of falling apart or being repeated in odd ways, and characters from one part of the narrative keep popping up unexpectedly from another, or else they are interrupted by a 1970s English footballer. Providence is a strange, beguiling film that is both one of the funniest Resnais made and ultimately very moving; and Gielgud – in a film that he often described as his favourite – is just marvellous to watch.

9 - The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
In the same year that they collaborated on Dirty Harry, Don Siegel and Client Eastwood made this extraordinary Civil War drama in which Yankee soldier Eastwood, injured behind enemy lines, finds himself recuperating in a house full of Southern women. As Eastwood attempts to engineer the situation to his advantage by seducing and manipulating each of the women (including a 12 year-old girl), he refuses to soften his portrayal of this dark character or make any appeal for audience sympathy. Siegel keeps this gothic melodrama on the boil with his tight and provocative direction and the film boasts some truly remarkable scenes towards the end as Eastwood’s character finally gets his comeuppance. It’s a bizarre entry in both director and star’s bodies of work, but it stands as one of the most interesting and impressive films that either have made.

8 - A Poem is a Naked Person (Les Blank, 1974) - BFI Southbank, Digital
Getting its first theatrical release in 2015 after being hidden from public view for decades, Les Blank's A Poem is a Naked Person is ostensibly a profile of Leon Russell, following him as he performed at a series of gigs and recorded in his studio in the early '70s. Blank, however, finds much more to interest him away from Russell's music, and his film becomes a portrait of Oklahoma and the people that lived in this particular place at this particular time. There's a wedding and a pie-eating contest, we watch a swimming pool being painted and a building being demolished, a snake eats a chicken and a man eats glass (eventually), and Blank's uncanny ability to capture idiosyncratic characters and spontaneous moments makes every scene in the picture a surprise and a joy. Russell didn't like the film, but I can pretty much guarantee that everyone else will.

7 - It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. (Crispin Glover, 2007) - ICA, 35mm
One of the undoubted highlights of 2015 was getting to spend an evening with Crispin Glover at the ICA. It began with an onstage performance piece and slideshow in which he recited extracts from a series of books, and it ended with a Q&A session that threatened to go on all night, with Glover giving each question an exhaustive and rambling answer. In between, we were treated to the singular film he co-wrote with Steven C. Stewart, a man suffering from cerebral palsy who portrays a sexual deviant and serial killer here. Despite the provocative subject matter and hardcore sex scenes, the film actually ends up being a very tender, funny and beautiful experience, with the knowledge that Stewart died just a month after shooting the film adding a sense of sadness to this realisation of his dreams. It's heartening to know that something valuable came out of McG's Charlie's Angels film, with Glover using that paycheck to fund this utterly unique and bizarre personal odyssey.

6 - Multiple Maniacs (John Waters, 1970) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
How wonderful it was to see the BFI devoting a retrospective to the 'Pope of Trash' John Waters. The biggest treat for me was the chance to see a film I had wanted to see for many years, his ultra-low budget 1970 film Multiple Maniacs, and it certainly didn't disappoint. Led by the incredible Divine, Multiple Maniacs features some of Waters' most inspired and gleefully blasphemous sequences, including the notorious 'rosary job' that Divine experiences in a church and a brilliant depiction of Jesus performing the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (here using sliced loaves from a supermarket and cans of tuna). Every time you keep thinking the film has reached its peak, it aims higher, with Divine being raped by a giant lobster and then rampaging through the streets as a Godzilla-type monster. It's outrageous, hilarious and one of Waters' best films.

5 - The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1993) - BFI Southbank, 35mm
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's extraordinary film examines the history of Taiwan through the memories and anecdotes of the great puppeteer Li Tian-Lu and forms a great companion piece to his previous work A City of Sadness. Unfolding through Hou's static but beautifully composed images and measured pacing, the film combines interview segments with dramatic recreations to probe the lines between memory and reality, between fact and fiction. While the more intricate political aspects of the material might be hard to follow for those not well-versed in the period of history being explored, the personal journey being undertaken here is both fascinating and deeply moving, and the film is simply a gorgeous cinema experience, particularly as projected on 35mm, with the splendid cinematography and entrancing rhythm being hard to resist.

4 - Hyenas (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1992) - Barbican, 35mm
"She's got more money than the World Bank!" is the cry when an African village hears that a former inhabitant is returning after prosperous decades abroad. They see her as the answer to all of their prayers, and she may well be, but she will only give them the money they yearn for on one condition – that they kill the popular local shopkeeper whom she blames for her exile. Djibril Diop Mambéty's incisive adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play The Visit exposes the greed, hypocrisy and deceit that money inspires in men. The gradual shifts in loyalty among the townspeople is depicted with a lot of humour but also with a bleak cynicism and irony, with the film succeeding as both a touching human story and a wider parable about African society. I still feel largely ignorant of African cinema but all my ventures into that territory keep serving up gems, with Souleymane Cissé's Finye being another great discovery this year.
3 - Soft Fiction (Chick Strand, 1979) - Tate Modern, 16mm
I had never heard of Chick Strand before Tate devoted a weekend to her work and that of her contemporaries, so Soft Fiction, on a brand-new 16mm print, hit me like a bolt from the blue. In this film, Strand asks five women to relate stories from their sexual histories directly to the camera. These stories are presented in a way that is sometimes unsettling and sometimes comical, but they are connected by the way they gave these women a greater understanding of their own sensuality and became key memories in their lives. These confessionals are intercut with a variety of poetic images as strand creates a stimulating and provocative portrait of complex emotions and subjective memory. It is a unique film from a director whose work clearly should be more widely celebrated than it is.

2 - The Memory of Justice (Marcel Ophüls, 1976) - BFI Southbank, Digital
This magnificent documentary by Marcel Ophüls begins with the Nuremberg trials and ends with America's involvement in Vietnam, and in the intervening five hours he interrogates notions of guilt, complicity and judgement by looking at a variety of atrocities committed in times of war. The film is an exploration of moral grey areas, with Ophüls asking questions about both individual and collective responsibility and drawing some incredible contributions from his interviewees, not least Albert Speer, who smiles with the calm authority of a man who knows what he managed to get away with at Nuremberg. Almost every scene in The Memory of Justice is riveting, challenging and devoid of easy answers. It is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking and its new restoration allows us to view it as a truly essential work that feels as relevant today as it ever has.

1 - Scattered Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1967) - ICA, 35mm
Also known as Two in the Shadow, this was the last film made by the great Mikio Naruse two years before he passed away. It’s a beautifully measured portrait of two characters brought together by tragedy and finding an unlikely but deep romantic bond, with Naruse detailing the shifts in their relationship in beautifully subtle ways and drawing magnificent performances from his two leads, Yûzô Kayama and Yôko Tsukasa. Scattered Clouds is a film about love, guilt, responsibility and the external pressures that define whether or not a relationship can survive. One of the film films that Naruse made in colour, the film’s images are filled with melancholy beauty and Naruse’s compositions are always so potent. Scattered Clouds is a deceptively straightforward and simple film that reveals its enormous emotional power only at the end, with the succession of the three final scenes constituting a devastating climax. This is a final masterpiece from a director who – judging by my still too-limited knowledge of his work – made a habit of them.