Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Cinema Discoveries of 2017

Every year I am reminded how little I really know about cinema. There are many films here that I had never heard of before attending the screening; in fact, there are a number of directors on this list whose entire bodies of work were unknown to me until this year. I enjoy keeping up with new releases but nothing matches the thrill of discovering a film made decades ago that still feels as exciting and relevant today, particularly when I have the opportunity to see it projected from a beautiful original print. This year I saw over 200 older films in cinemas with 106 of those being films I saw for the first time. To keep this list to a manageable number I decided to restrict it to one film per director, and even then I found myself leaving a number of great discoveries off the list. It’s a reminder that I am very fortunate to live in a city with such a rich repertory cinema scene, and I’d like to begin this post by thanking all of the cinemas named below – and many others besides – who are continuing to make diverse, adventurous, unexpected programming choices that illuminate cinema history. Let’s continue to support these cinemas in 2018.

50 - Such Good Friends (Otto Preminger, 1971) Forum des Images, Paris, Digital
A film every bit as odd as you’d expect a meeting between Elaine May and Otto Preminger to be – particularly Preminger in the wayward late years of his career. Working under a pseudonym, May adapted a novel by Lois Gould that had already defeated Joan Micklin Silver, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and the film’s difficult production history is perhaps evident in how confused the finished product feels. Such Good Friends is awkwardly pitched between drama, social satire and sex farce, and it spins off on some bizarre tangents (I’m still not sure how Burgess Meredith ended up naked, or what purpose it served, or how I can stop having these nightmares). Dyan Cannon is excellent as the sexually frustrated wife whose husband undergoes an operation to remove a mole and subsequently goes into a coma (his worsening state is a running gag), and James Como delivers one absolutely hilarious bit of physical comedy involving a girdle. This film is a fascinating oddity, most interesting as a clash of personalities and a snapshot of a particular era, and I can’t help wondering how it might have turned out with May behind the camera too.

49 - Freebie and the Bean (Richard Rush, 1974) BFI Southbank, 35mm
The kind of movie that could only have been made in the 1970s, Freebie and the Bean is racist, sexist, homophobic and tasteless, but I couldn’t resist its anarchic, go-for-broke spirit. Starring James Caan and Alan Arkin as a pair of renegade cops who can’t stop yelling at each other, the film does have a thin storyline involving their attempts to take down a crime boss, but it’s really just an excuse for director Richard Rush to stage a series of increasingly loud and manic comic set-pieces. The film’s centrepiece is a madly destructive car chase that culminates in Arkin and Caan hurtling into an elderly couple’s apartment in their car, and then asking to use their phone so they can call a tow truck. This is the kind of film that many people will hate, and on another day I can imagine reacting differently to it, but watching it on a peach of a 35mm print this summer, I had a blast.

48 - Staircase (Stanley Donen, 1969) BFI Southbank, 35mm
A Stanley Donen film starring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as ageing gay hairdressers in East London? I didn't know it existed before this year, and this is the kind of film you have to see to believe. Burton actually does some decent work here, portraying his alopecia-afflicted character's insecurity and self-loathing with more tact than the material demands, but Harrison's eye-rolling and swishing is an embarrassment, particularly when he spends much of the film repeating lines like, "Ooh, get you! Rub-a-dub-dub!" Donen tries to play up the camp gags (and I admit, I laughed a fair bit) while wringing pathos out of these two outcasts contemplating their bleak futures (he keeps lingering on grotesque details), but the result is just an oddball, talky, tonal mish-mash that never feels convincing as one thing or another. The film has not aged well, but I found it rather fascinating, amusing and compelling nonetheless, and I love the fact that both this film's London and the Las Vegas of George Stevens' The Only Game in Town were constructed in Paris, so Burton and Elizabeth Taylor could be together, and the stars could avoid British tax laws.

47 - Caligula (Ugo Falena, 1917) Sala Mastroianni, Bologna, Digital
There was standing room only for this rediscovery at Il Cinema Ritrovato. In truth, the film didn't quite live up to the fevered anticipation, and it's debatable whether it was worth standing for an hour in the furnace-like screening room to see it. Of course, the film takes a much softer approach to depicting Caligula's madness and depravity than the notorious 1979 film, and Raffaello Mariani's performance is as hammy as it gets, with his death scene in particular being hilariously overplayed, but it's still a notable silent for one key reason. The obvious highlight is the moment when Caligula demands that a slave girl dance for him, threatening to throw her fellow captives off the balcony if she doesn't acquiesce, and Stacia Napierkowska delivers an extraordinary, passionate dance performance that is exhilarating to watch. Credit must also go to pianist Gabriel Thibaudeau, whose dexterous playing was an object lesson in how skilful musical accompaniment can help create a transcendent film moment.

46 - Creepshow (George A Romero, 1982) BFI Southbank. 35mm
A couple of months after George Romero passed away I discovered the tremendously inventive and entertaining Creepshow, his 1982 collaboration with Stephen King. Impressively for an anthology film it doesn’t really have a weak link, and even though The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill – in which King himself plays a dim-witted farmer – is little more than a single-joke sketch, it’s funny enough to make the grade. The highlight of the film is probably Something to Tide You Over, which features Leslie Nielsen cast against type as a cackling villain who buries Ted Danson up to his neck in sand, while They're Creeping Up on You is a genuinely skin-crawling episode about a man plagued by cockroaches that makes me itch just thinking about it. Romero finds memorable images all the way through and I loved the way he incorporated the comic book aesthetic into the film’s visual scheme. The film’s vivid colours looked sensational on 35mm. 

45 - The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1948) BFI Southbank, 35mm
King Vidor was a great director but I'm not sure if anyone could have made a great film out of The Fountainhead, certainly not when they had Ayn Rand hovering on set to ensure her script was treated as gospel. Rand even went over Vidor's head and complained to Jack Warner when he dared to trim Gary Cooper's big climactic speech (and by God, it needed trimming). All the director could do in this situation was to shoot the hell out of it, and The Fountainhead frequently looks sensational, full of bold compositions and spectacular architecture. The film is often captivating in its sheer weirdness  a glossy Hollywood melodrama weighted down by characters endlessly spouting ideology at each other  and it does contain a remarkable performance from Patricia Neal. She is hamstrung by a character whose motivations seems to change from one scene to the next, but she nevertheless invests the film with a sense of life and feeling that it badly needs. She also has one amazing moment when we see her biting her lip desirously while she watches Cooper's pulsating jackhammer. The Fountainhead ain't subtle, but against all odds it kind of works.

44 - Journey Into Light (Stuart Heisler, 1951) BFI Southbank, 35mm
On paper this is a pretty standard tale of a man losing his faith and then finding redemption (through the love of a blind girl, no less!), but the uniformly strong cast and a few unusual wrinkles elevate it into something much more interesting and memorable. The first ten minutes is extraordinary. Sterling Hayden is excellent as the priest struggling to deal with his alcoholic wife, who interrupts his sermon in the opening scene. When she commits suicide, he is driven to drink and he eventually ends up on Skid Row, before finding his way to a mission where a preacher and his blind daughter (Viveca Lindfors) aid his recovery. Stuart Heisler’s directorial style is undemonstrative, but his depiction of life among the bums is very evocative (and aided by great character actors like Thomas Mitchell), and as the film charts Reverend Burrows’ fall and rise with understatement and patience, it gradually builds into something very moving.

43 - Secrets (Frank Borzage, 1924) Sala Mastroianni, Bologna, Digital
One of two Frank Borzage films I saw for the first time in Bologna (along with his fine 1934 film Little Man, What Now?), Secrets is a remarkable silent feature that feels like three distinct films at once. Structured as the memories of an old woman reading her diary, the film unfolds in three acts. The first is a screwball comedy, with Mary Carlton (Norma Talmadge) trying to hide her lover in her bedroom from her suspicious father, the second is a western with Mary and her family menaced by a gang of outlaws, and the third is a drama in which she confronts her husband about his infidelity. Each section of the film works in its own way and each allows Talmadge to display a different aspect of her craft, playing comedy and drama, and ageing across the span of decades. Borzage handles the demands of the clashing styles and tones impeccably, with the western section being particularly impressive; the scene in which Mary attempts to protect her baby from the marauding gang is incredibly powerful. I'm curious about Borzage's 1933 remake, in which Mary Pickford took the lead role.

42 - Sunday in August (Luciano Emmer, 1950) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
Everyone is flocking to the beach in Sunday in August, Luciano Emmer's charming 1950 ensemble piece, with people from all walks of life coming together to enjoy the beautiful weather. Luciano Emmer’s background was in documentary filmmaking and he utilises his experience in this film with his intimate and atmospheric location work, and his blend of professional and amateur actors. A few narrative strands stand out, notably the blossoming love story between two teenagers, and the tale of a traffic cop who is trying to help his pregnant girlfriend find a new home. The traffic cop is played by Marcello Mastroianni; a new face in Italian cinema, but not yet a big enough star to have his own voice. Emmer paces his film beautifully across the course of a single day and everything about the film feels effortless and true. 

41 - The Way to the Stars (Anthony Asquith, 1945) BFI Southbank, 35mm
Directed by Anthony Asquith and written by Terence Rattigan (credited here as F/Lt Terence Rattigan), The Way to the Stars follows the wartime experience of those living on and around a single RAF bomber base. It suffered at the box office as it was released after the war had ended, but the postwar prologue that was hastily added actually gives the film a haunting quality right from the start. This is a story about characters finding love and friendship but knowing that their connection could be severed by the conflict at any moment, and a number of deaths here (including one of the film’s most recognisable faces early on) are abrupt and shocking. Rattigan creates a number of emotionally complex and beautifully written scenes, which the actors deliver perfectly, and John Mills and Rosamund John share a knockout scene halfway through the picture that I found extremely moving. The Way to the Stars is frank about the emotional toll of living in this kind of environment, but it also possesses moments of poetry that allow the characters to escape their bleak reality, just for a precious moment.

40 - Melancholia (Andi Engel, 1989) Curzon Soho, 35mm
The late Andi Engel earned his place in British cinema history by co-founding Artificial Eye with his wife Pamela (who also passed away this summer), but his brief foray into filmmaking is less well-known than it should be. It’s a quiet, introspective film starring Jeroen Krabbé as an art critic in London trying to escape his radical past, who is drawn back into his old life by an order to assassinate one of Pinochet’s torturers during a forthcoming London visit. Melancholia hardly satisfies the standard conventions of a thriller, but the film is steadily absorbing and directed with the confidence of a man who knows exactly what story he wants to tell and how to tell it. It has a wintry, unsettling, paranoid atmosphere and at times Engel’s style and particularly his use of architecture often recalls Antonioni. One wonders why Engel never followed up this accomplished debut with another film.

39 - Innocent Blood (John Landis, 1992) Cinema Museum, 35mm
I don’t think Innocent Blood works particularly well as a gangster movie or as a vampire film, but as a unusual comic hybrid I thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps John Landis would have enjoyed more success at the box-office if he had cast starrier names, but the idiosyncratic ensemble he brought together here is one of the film’s chief pleasures. Anne Parillaud is the vampire who feasts on criminals’ blood; Anthony LaPaglia is the undercover cop who falls for her; Robert Loggia is the mafia boss who becomes a vampire; and Don Rickles is his lawyer, who also becomes a vampire. The film is consistently amusing and sometimes startling, with terrific visual effects and a game cast, and it’s so much fun to watch Robert Loggia going nuts like this – pair it with Lost Highway for a double-bill of films in which Loggia attacks some poor schmuck for bad driving. It also feels like half the cast of The Sopranos is hanging around in the back of every shot. A flop on its initial release, it’s a film that deserves to get a new lease of life.

38 - Report to the Commissioner (Milton Katselas, 1975) Cinémathèque Française, Paris, 35mm
A gritty, authentic police procedural, Report to the Commissioner investigates the backstory to the tragic shooting of an undercover cop (Susan Blakely) by a young policeman who had just joined the force (Michael Moriarty). Told in flashback through a variety of narrators, the film builds a portrait of police corruption and complicity with the rookie cop doomed to be a sacrificial lamb as soon as steps into the station (the very end of the film feels a little too on-the-nose). Director Milton Katselas favours a documentary style that immerses us in the world of these cynical cops, with the mighty Yaphet Kotto taking us on a tour of New York's mean streets in one of the film's early standout sequences. The location photography is superb throughout, and the film boasts an ace ensemble cast (including youngsters Bob Balaban and Richard Gere), but it's the climactic face-off that the film is likely to be remembered for. As a cop and a criminal hold their guns on each other, both men equally driven by adrenalin and fear, Report to the Commissioner stakes its claim as the sweatiest movie ever made.

37 - River of Grass (Kelly Reichardt, 1994) BFI Southbank, Digital
Kelly Reichardt's own description of her debut feature River of Grass was “A love story without the love, a murder mystery without the murder, a road movie that never gets on the road.” That is a pretty good summation of the film's offbeat style, which is at odds with Reichardt's later films in a number of ways, most notably in the use of her native Florida as a location. It also hews to a classical genre template in a way she subsequently avoided, with its “criminal lovers on the run” narrative placing it in the lineage of films like Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde, although Reichardt's approach to these genre conventions is typically idiosyncratic. Cozy (Lisa Bowman) and Lee (Larry Fessenden) hit the road after believing Lee has killed a man, but they can't even make it out of town because they haven't got enough change for the toll booth. The film is laid-back, eccentric and full of unusual and fun details, not least in Cozy's autobiographical opening narration, which was improvised by Reichardt when she realised they didn't have enough footage to make their film feature length.

36 - Attack! (Robert Aldrich, 1956) Christine 21, Paris, 35mm
I discovered two films by Robert Aldrich when I visited Paris this year. The less said about his jaw-dropping comedy The Choirboys the better, but the tough and tense war film Attack! was much more up my street. A low-budget adaptation of a play, it inevitably feels a little stagy at times, but Aldrich and his cinematographer Joseph Biroc make every effort to find cinematic angles on the drama. It’s a compelling portrait of cowardice, with Eddie Albert playing a completely unqualified captain promoted to his position because of his family connection. We see him squirming under pressure as his men are slaughtered, with platoon leader Jack Palance growing more irate every time one of his troops falls. Aldrich stages a superb extended sequence in which Palance and his men are huddled in a bombed-out house, surrounded by snipers and Panzer tanks, and Palance’s gritty performance is one of his best. I loved the way he was run over by a tank and still kept going, determined to confront the craven Albert.

35 - The Blue Sky Maiden (Yasuzo Masumura, 1957) BFI Southbank, 35mm
The BFI's month-long celebration of Japanese melodrama was entitled “Tears and Laughter,” although we got a lot more of one than the other. After a few weeks of tragic tales, Yasuzô Masumura's The Blue Sky Maiden came as a welcome change of pace. This poppy late-50s comedy is reminiscent of Frank Tashlin with its vibrant colours and energetic style, and it boasts an infectiously upbeat lead performance from the incredibly charming Ayako Wakao. She plays Yûko, a young woman who is treated as a servant by her father's family, but refuses to let anything dampen her spirits or stand in the way of her search for her real mother. Behind the light, breezy tone the film is a pointed social commentary, with the free-spirited Yûko being unafraid to call out hypocrisy and injustice wherever she sees it, upending an expected reconciliation scene by chastising her ailing father for his misdeeds. Like many of the films in this strand, The Blue Sky Maiden captured the changing face of Japanese society, and while Yûko has many male admirers lining up to help her, it's clear that she is determined to forge her own path.

34 - Viy (Konstantin Yershov, Georgi Kropachyov, 1967) Barbican, 35mm
The biggest disappointment of Viy is Viy himself; a misshapen troll creature that's summoned towards the end of the film and doesn't really do anything of note. Aside from that, this 1967 feature directed by Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov is enormously entertaining. Viy is credited as the first horror film ever produced in the USSR, and it was adapted from a folk tale by Nikolay Gogol, so I wasn't at all prepared for how funny it is. Having killed a witch, philosophy student Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) finds himself forced to spend three nights standing vigil in her tomb, during which time he is plagued by a variety of demons and spirits, and by the witch herself (Natalya Varley), who refuses to stay in her coffin like a good corpse. Viy strikes just the right balance between scares and laughs, with the creepy atmosphere complementing the knockabout comedy (Khoma'snight of drunkenness before undertaking his vigil is a riot), and the practical stop-motion effects are often beautifully done.

33 - Batang West Side (Lav Diaz, 2001) Regent Street Cinema, 35mm
Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side strikes me as one of his most accessible works. It may run for five hours (brisk, by Lav’s standards) but the New Jersey setting and the point-of-view of a world-weary cop (Joel Torre) investigating the murder of a teenager should give viewers something to grab onto. It’s an unfamiliar perspective on a familiar world, focusing on New Jersey’s Filipino community, with Detective Mijares’ investigations taking us deeper into the world of the victim and a documentary filmmaker character pursuing the true in his own way. There's something a little rough-around-the-edges about the film, an inconsistency in performance and tone, but Miguel V. Fabie's long takes (making superb use of natural light) and the intermittent uses of black-and-white ensure it is always engaging. It's a superbly constructed film too, with Diaz's device of constructing his film Citizen Kane-style through a series of interviews paying off as the film transcends its procedural roots to grow into an absorbing exploration of truth, history and the immigrant experience, novelistic in its scope and depth.

32 - Fallen Blossoms (Tamizo Ishida, 1938) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
It’s a war film, of sorts, but the war takes place off screen and only exists for us as distant sounds. Similarly, men are occasionally heard but never seen in Tamizo Ishida's film, which takes place entirely within the walls of a geisha house in Kyoto and features a completely female cast. There is no single protagonist among the ensemble; Ishida simply moves from one woman to the next as they contemplate their options while the fighting gets closer. Should they stay or go? What has happened to their male friends and clients? What kind of life awaits them after this? Although it took me a while to get to grips with who is who in this drama, Fallen Blossoms quickly became engrossing, thanks to the subtle, emotive performances from the cast and Ishida's extremely imaginative staging. Never settling for a simple shot/reverse shot approach, the director finds a completely new angle on the situation with every cut, ensuring that this talky drama in a single set – which could easily have been staid and tedious in other hands – constantly feels fresh and alive.

31 - Dolores Claiborne (Taylor Hackford, 1995) BFI Southbank, 35mm
I made a number of discoveries during the BFI’s celebration of Stephen King – including Firestarter, Salem’s Lot and, er, Maximum Overdrive – but the clear standout was Taylor Hackford’s strangely forgotten Dolores Claiborne. What begins as a kind of murder-mystery – with Dolores (Kathy Bates) accused of murdering the elderly woman she took care of – soon deepens through flashbacks and memories into a story about a mother and daughter confronting years of familial abuse and secrets, and a wider study of collective female resilience in the face of male power. The flashbacks are skilfully woven into the narrative by screenwriter Tony Gilroy and Hackford’s elegant, unfussy direction gives his cast the room to give rich, detailed performances. Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh are as good as you’d expect them to be, but I also loved Judy Parfitt as the bitter old woman who reveals unexpected shades late in the film and also delivers the film’s signature line, “Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto.”

30 - Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982) Prince Charles Cinema, 70mm
I’d seen so many clips of The Wall over the years it almost felt like I had seen the movie, but I’m glad I waited to see it in a cinema, and on 70mm. I suppose I didn’t expect the whole movie to be so weird, and so full of surreal and grotesque visuals. Alan Parker keeps reaching for new ways to cinematically express his protagonist’s psychological trauma and descent into madness, and the result is one scene after another that really pops off the screen. Gerald Scarfe’s animation is justly celebrated, of course, but I was also struck by the potent glimpses of Pink’s (Bob Geldof) childhood and the fascist imagery in the second half of the movie, which possesses a chilling power. For all of that, however, my favourite part of The Wall has to be a single line delivery from Bob Hoskins, when he enters Pink’s hotel room to find it completely trashed, and discovers that the rock star has shaven off his eyebrows. “Fuck me!” Hoskins exclaims, “He's gone completely around the bleedin' twist!” Classic Bob.

29 - Cops and Robbers (Aram Avakian, 1973) Cinémathèque Française, Paris, 35mm
The poster for this film makes it look like a straightforward knockabout caper, but Cops & Robbers is a much smarter and more cynical film than that. Adapted from his own novel by the great Donald Westlake, Aram Avakian’s film tells the story of two NYPD officers (Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna) who realise that their police uniforms automatically give them a level of trust and access that they could easily use to steal a fortune. The tone is set in the opening scene, in which one of the cops calmly steal $40 from a liquor store; it’s a funny scene, but the way Avakian shoots it, with slow camera movements and an offbeat score, creates an uneasy tension. I also loved the way Westlake’s screenplay kept pulling the narrative in unexpected directions, from an extended heist at the New York Stock Exchange to a meeting with a mid-level mafia boss (John P. Ryan, on great form), and finally a very funny showdown in Central Park. It’s consistently smart and surprising, and such a confident piece of filmmaking. It’s unfortunate that Avakian, a longtime editor, only made two other features in his four-year directorial career.

28 - The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984) CinemaxX, Berlin, 35mm
The Cotton Club was always a doomed film. Robert Evans had already spent millions of dollars on his pet project before Francis Ford Coppola came on board as director, and by the time the film finally arrived in cinemas, the talk of extravagant spending and in-fighting drowned out any discussion of the film itself. As with most Coppola “flops”, however, the truth is that this is a terrific piece of entertainment. It’s a film that views the period through the cinema of that era – it feels like Coppola’s attempt to pull off a pre-Code musical and a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster picture all at once – and I loved it. Coppola’s direction is stylish and dynamic, and he gets great work from his large cast, notably Gregory Hines as a wannabe dancer and Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne, who have a hilarious and oddly touching double-act. With so many storylines and characters being juggled, the film inevitably feels overstuffed and curtailed in places, but I’d love to see the director’s cut that Coppola has been working on for the past few years.

27 - Sundays and Cybèle (Serge Bourguignon, 1962) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
What a delicate balancing act Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle strikes. It’s the story of a man haunted by his wartime actions who develops a deep bond with a young girl at a boarding school, and poses as her father in order to spend Sundays with her. This central relationship wouldn’t work at all if the two characters weren’t perfectly cast, but both Hardy Krüger and the extraordinary Patricia Gozzi bring a touching innocence and fragility to their performances. We feel their characters’ need and we can see the way that each of them fill the gap in each other’s lives. Cybèle falls in love with the older man and promises to marry him when she turns eighteen, and the two share a deep physical connection, often enjoying a long embrace, but this uncomfortable territory is negotiated skilfully by Bourguignon and his actors’ convincing naïveté. Henri Decaë’s gleaming black-and-white cinematography draws us so deeply into Pierre and Cybèle’s world, the tragic events of the finale – in which a society suspicious of this relationship finally takes action – has an overwhelming tragic power.

26 - A Real Young Girl (Catherine Breillat, 1976) Barbican, 35mm
Sometimes it takes a while for a filmmaker’s personality to develop, but Catherine Breillat was recognisably Catherine Breillat right from the start of her career. Made in 1976 (but unreleased until almost 25 years later), A Real Young Girl was an instant provocation, establishing the interest in burgeoning female sexuality that would be sustained in Breillat’s work for most of the next four decades. It’s a startlingly intimate film, with Breillat placing us inside the subjective experience of 14-year-old Alice (Charlotte Alexandra) as she explores her body and fantasises about the men around her. She is fixated on her bodily functions – “Disgust makes me lucid,” she says – and Breillat shares her fascination, as Alice spends much of the film toying with her bodily excretions or finding things that she can insert into her vagina. It’s a strange, raw, tactile film and while Breillat’s work would later become more accomplished, there’s an irresistibly rough, funny, curious spirit about this debut.

25 - Great Day (Lance Comfort, 1945) BFI Southbank, 35mm
The great day in question is a visit to a small English parish by Eleanor Roosevelt, an event that throws the local women into a frenzy. This is one of the many British films of the era that showed how women were keeping things together on the home front while the men were away at war, and this one stands out thanks to the witty writing and sharp characterisation. It’s an ensemble film with multiple narratives running in the background throughout, but the heart of the story lies in the relationship between Mrs. Ellis (Flora Robson) and her husband (Eric Portman), a Captain in the Great War now feeling useless and emasculated as he sits at home while younger men fight, and taking solace in drink. The scenes between these two actors are brilliantly played and extremely moving. Great Day was produced as a piece of propaganda promoting UK-US wartime relations, but through intelligent filmmaking and heartfelt performances it has outlived its stated purpose and deserves to be rediscovered as a mature and moving human drama.

24 - Divine (Max Ophüls, 1935) Sala Mastroianni, Bologna, 35mm
An early effort from Max Ophüls and Divine is instantly recognisable as a Max Ophüls film. Just watch the way the camera glides through the backstage corridors and dressing rooms at a Paris theatre, a hub of (often illegal) activity. Divine concerns an innocent girl from the country who is whisked to the capital to start a new life as a showgirl, and the stark contrast drawn between the wholesome goodness of country living and the moral corruption of the musical hall can feel a little too blunt and simplistic. The film is surprisingly frank in its depiction of drugs, sex and nudity and the storytelling is consistently brisk and lively, but the real attraction here is Ophüls’ dazzlingly inventive direction. I particularly appreciated the way he staged his two main characters falling in love, peeking at each other over the staircases that divide them, unable to bear parting from each other.

23 - Clothes of Deception (Kōzaburō Yoshimura, 1951) BFI Southbank 35mm
Clothes of Deception bears some resemblance to Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion, but it's a film that is very much engaged with the changing face of postwar Japan. In one striking scene, two women look out over the Kyoto skyline and lament the fact that their city escaped bombing during the war – at least those rebuilding Tokyo have the opportunity to escape the past and make a fresh start. This tension between old and new is at the heart of Kôzaburô Yoshimura's film, which features an outstanding performance from Machiko Kyô as the geisha Kimicho, who is trapped by the rigid codes of her profession while her younger sister (Yasuko Fujita) dreams of a different life. The film is fascinating in its examination of the hierarchy among the different geisha, the power dynamic between men and women, and the struggle faced by women to turn this confining system to their advantage. Until it explodes into melodrama towards the end of the film, Yoshimura's direction is understated and he lets Machiko Kyô's performance lead the movie, with every one of her sly glances and subtle gestures being completely mesmerising.

22 - Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983) Prince Charles Cinema, 70mm
Brainstorm inevitably feels like a compromised film. The picture was already deep into production when Natalie Wood died, and when it finally emerged from legal entanglements and multiple rewrites two years later, the scars were all too visible. Nevertheless, the film's chief selling point was always the spectacle it offered, and thankfully this aspect of the film still has a sizeable impact. Brainstorm explored the idea of scientists extracting thoughts and feelings from one person's brain and allowing others to experience them through a kind of virtual reality device, and Douglas Trumbull distinguished between these two levels of reality by shooting in both Super Panavision 70 and standard 35mm film. The flip to widescreen for these first-person perspective sequences really is something to experience on the big screen, especially if you are lucky enough to see Brainstorm projected on what is apparently the only 70mm print still in circulation. At its best, Brainstorm makes you wish that the rest of the movie had been able to live up to its peaks, and perhaps to wish that Douglas Trumbull had recovered from this experience and directed another feature.

21 - Shorts by Anna Biller: Three Examples of Myself as Queen, A Visit from the Incubus, The Hypnotist (Anna Biller, 1994-2001) The Castle Cinema, 16mm
I admired so much about Anna Biller's The Love Witch, and yet the film as a whole left me underwhelmed. I think it simply felt too thin and overstretched at two hours, and a viewing of her shorts later in the year confirmed my suspicion that her style works much better in shorter, more concentrated bursts. The one thing that is consistent across all Biller's work is her stunning attention to detail; her films are beautifully designed and shot, and every single aspect of the costume and production design feels just right. She creates brilliant worlds that recreate a bygone era of cinema, but this is no empty pastiche; she takes these elements and crafts something entirely her own from them, such as the western/musical/horror hybrid A Visit from the Incubus. The best thing about all her films, however, is the way she works with actors. She has a genius for casting faces that fit the period she's trying to evoke and she never fails to elicit the kind of performances that would fit perfectly into a 1950s melodrama or western. It is uncanny.

20 - Thundercrack! (Curt McDowell, 1975) ICA, Digital
How many porn films come complete with an intermission, and run as long as Nashville or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Thundercrack! truly is a unique experience, with the most remarkable thing about it being how director Curt McDowell and writer George Kuchar manage to justify the film's epic length. In fact, the film bears comparison to Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, as eight strangers (four men, three women, one gorilla) are forced to take refuge from a storm in an isolated house, with fucking taking the place of killing. Even during the long, repetitive sequences, such as Gert Hammond spying on multiple guests masturbating in an adjoining room, McDowell and Kuchar find imaginative ways to surprise and keep the film feeling fresh. Multiple narrative threads are layered among the sex scenes – subplots include a pickled husband, a flammabe dress, enlarged testicles and a flashback to a circus romance – and the film is frequently hilarious. We lost something like a third of our audience during the break, but those people didn't get to witness the culmination of the gorilla story, so it's their loss. 

19 - Ryan's Daughter (David Lean, 1970) BFI Southbank, 70mm
This is a film that I’d known by reputation only for a long time. The hostile critical response to Ryan’s Daughter in 1970 briefly prompted David Lean to consider retirement, but watching the movie this summer I was entranced by it. Of course, it helped that we were seeing the film presented on an immaculate 70mm print, which is the only way to do justice to Freddie Young’s Oscar-winning cinematography. The film’s other Oscar-winner hasn’t aged quite as well. I found John Mills’ gurning performance as the village simpleton grating, and quite at odds with the restrained work being done by the likes of Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard and Sarah Miles in the rest of the cast. I was even taken with Christopher Jones, whose performance has often been derided, but who I found quietly moving as he is besieged by flashbacks to his wartime horror. Perhaps Ryan’s Daughter felt like a film out of time when it was released as Hollywood was changing in the early ‘70s, but watching it now it feels like it has the same timeless quality that distinguishes Lean’s best films.

18 - Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) BFI Southbank, 35mm
I knew this was going to be a one-of-a-kind movie when it opened with not one but two highfalutin quotations from Euripides and Keats. David O. Selznick had instructed Ben Hecht to include this introduction to prepare audiences "for an entirely different kind of picture than they have ever seen." Well, it certainly is that. Selznick’s ambitious vehicle for Jennifer Jones stars Joseph Cotten as the struggling artist who is inspired when he meets schoolgirl Jennie (Jones), but does this beautiful stranger really exist? The film’s strange blend of romantic fantasy and eerie ghost story is utterly beguiling, and the film works as an exploration of the artistic process, with Cotton’s character constantly searching for his elusive muse. William Dieterle’s direction emphasises the strangeness of this conceit through his clever staging and lighting, and the largely black-and-white production makes brilliant use of colour, first in the extraordinary storm sequence, and then in the final unveiling of the portrait itself. A notoriously troubled and protracted production, Selznick said Portrait of Jennie was "doomed to be one of the most awful experiences any studio ever had," but it was worth it.

17 - Shorts by Bruce Conner: A Movie, Cosmic Ray, Vivian, Breakaway, Looking for Mushrooms, The White Rose, Liberty Crown, Report, Crossroads (Bruce Conner, 1958-1976) BFI Southbank, 16mm/Digital
This was an evening well spent, discovering the work of a singular American artist, and with all of his films on beautiful 16mm prints (with the exception of the newly restored Crossroads). The films are incredibly varied in their styles – just contrast the energetic dancing of Breakaway with the hypnotically slow explosions of Crossroads – but they are all clearly the product of a man fascinated with the limits of cinematic form. His most acclaimed work, 1958’s A Movie, is a collage of clips that comments on the very act of watching a movie, with Conner finding a thematic consistency amid the eclectic footage through his nimble editing. I was bowled over by the brilliance of his editing throughout these movies, and by the skill with which he manipulates sound and image. These films run the gamut of brief personal sketches to wider contemplations of society and humanity, and they are all made with incredible imagination and wit. They are invigorating films to watch; no wonder Dennis Hopper described seeing Conner’s work for the first time as feeling “like a veil had been lifted from my eyes.”

16 - Illusions (Julie Dash, 1982) BFI Southbank, 16mm
I’ve been impressed by everything I’ve seen from Julie Dash so far, and her 1982 short Illusions was another revelation. The film is just 34 minutes long but Dash uses the time available to her so intelligently. Set in 1940s Hollywood, the film focuses on two black women, one of whom has been passing as white to get a job at a studio and another who has been brought in to dub the singing voice of a white movie star. Dash uses this scenario to explore questions of race, sexism, censorship, power dynamics in Hollywood and the illusory nature of cinematic artifice itself, weighting every scene with multiple layers of meaning. The dubbing sequence itself is masterful; the face of the white movie star is large on the screen while the black singer stands in the shadows, giving her voice, and the faces of the white male technicians who will erase her from history observe from the recording booth. Illusions is a film about the the voices of the unseen, and it’s criminal that we haven’t seen more from Julie Dash on the big screen.

15 - Maddalena (Augusto Genina, 1954) Sala Scorsese, Bologna, 35mm
Few films this year shocked me as much as Maddalena, which contains a flashback late on that left me reeling. This was the only film by Augusto Genina that I managed to catch in Bologna and – even on a dodgy print with a bizarre combination of subtitles – it was good enough to make me wish I’d seen more. The stupendously gorgeous Swedish actress Märta Torén stars as a prostitute hired to play the Virgin Mary in a small village’s Easter pageant, with the townspeople under the impression that she is a good girl chosen from a local convent. Soon, villagers begin to believe that she is the Virgin herself, ascribing miracles to her presence, and the film takes a satirical look at religious faith and hypocrisy before plunging headfirst into melodrama, leading to a violent and wrenching conclusion. Torén is magnificent as a fierce young woman closely guarding a secret and determined to keep people at arm’s length. It was a great loss when she died of a cerebral haemorrhage three years later, while she was performing on stage. She was only 31 years old.

14 - Letters from a Dead Man (Konstantin Lopushansky, 1986) CinemaxX, Berlin, 35mm
Konstantin Lopushansky served as an assistant on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and it’s easy to see the master’s influence in his extraordinary directorial debut. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse (and released just months after the Chernobyl disaster), Letters from a Dead Man takes place in the basement of a museum, where a handful of survivors have taken refuge. Lopushansky’s hellish vision is stunning in its immediacy and authenticity; the whole film is shot through a woozy yellow haze, and the atmosphere of death and decay is so thick you can almost smell it. One scene, in which the doctor searches for his son in a hospital ward full of burn victims, is particularly horrific. Much of Letters from a Dead Man is concerned with the inevitability of humanity causing its own destruction, but the central character clings onto a sliver of hope, writing letters to his son in the hope that, some day, he might read them. The film even ends on a surprisingly optimistic note: “As long as a human being walks on, he has hope."

13 - The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) BFI Southbank, 35mm
I might forgo my morning coffee in 2018 and instead just start the day with a blast of The Big Country’s theme music. This film had me rapt from the opening credits and didn’t lose my attention for a moment during the subsequent 165 minutes. William Wyler’s direction is self-consciously epic, pitting the characters against the vast expanse of land that surround them, notably in the fight between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, in which both men get smaller and smaller as they throw increasingly exhausted punches at each other. Peck and Heston may be the nominal stars of this movie, but the man who you’ll come away from it remembering is Burl Ives, who deservedly collected an Oscar for his work here. We’re initially led to believe that his character Rufus Hannassey is the film’s antagonist, but in fact he emerges as a man of rare integrity and honour, which is tested by his own son in the film’s gripping climax. Ives’ performance lends this magnificent western a powerful tragic dimension. 

12 - The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi, 1978) BFI Southbank, Digital
Great cinema can be a time machine. Tree of Wooden Clogs is a film about peasant life in the late 19th century, and few films create such an immediate sense of time and place as Ermanno Olmi’s Palme d’Or winner. The film forces us to readjust to the pace of daily life in this community as Olmi immerses us their world. We watch as a pig is slaughtered, as an old man grows and sells his tomatoes, as a young boy walks miles to the nearest school in broken shoes; Olmi allows his film unfolds in a series of leisurely vignettes rather than imposing any clear narrative shape on the drama. The cast is made up of non-professionals playing roles barely removed from their own lives, and the camera never catches them acting, we are simply watching them live. The Tree of Wooden Clogs runs for almost three hours but there’s hardly a minute that isn’t absorbing, and through its simple, human, quotidian qualities, the film achieves a transcendent emotional power.

11 - The Shape of Night (Noboru Nakamura, 1964) BFI Southbank, 35mm
A film on the cusp of a new era, The Shape of Night blends the narrative of a classic melodrama with the more daring and abrasive style of the new wave of filmmakers who were emerging in the 1960s. The story of a young woman forced into prostitution by her Yakuza boyfriend, the film unfolds in flashback as Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) tells her story to the young man who may offer her a way out. The film is brutal at times – a rape sequence is truly horrific – and Noboru Nakamura achieves a gut-wrenching tension in the final scenes as Yoshie has to make a final choice about where her future lies. I loved Nakamura‘s inventive and purposeful use of colour, editing and widescreen framing, and Miyuki Kuwano is incredible in the lead role, giving a transformative, devastating performance as a naïve teenager whose spirit and light is gradually sapped away through her bruising life.

10 - Tally Brown, New York (Rosa von Praunheim, 1979) Barbican, 16mm
Tally Brown, New York is arresting from the opening scene, in which the star of the movie performs a bilingual version of David Bowie’s Heroes, in a single five-minute take. Her presence and star quality is unmistakable, and it was these qualities that made Tally Brown a star of the New York underground scene for decades. She was a wonderful raconteur too, and I loved listening to her soothing, beguiling voiceover as she recalled all of the highs and lows of her storied life in theatre. Rosa von Praunheim’s film is a marvellous portrait of this unique character, but it is also a film about a lost New York, with other icons of that era, such as Divine and Holly Woodlawn, also making an appearance. Tally Brown, New York is a film that has slipped through the cracks of film history – it is unavailable on DVD – so it was a privilege to see it projected from one of the few 16mm prints still in existence.

9 - Casanova (Alexander Volkoff, 1927) Sala Mastroianni, Bologna, Digital
One of the revelations of this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato was the silent screen star Ivan Mosjoukine, who I only knew as the face of Lev Kuleshov’s 1917 experiment. While many in Bologna also raved about his work in Kean, just seeing his performance in Alexandre Volkoff’s hugely entertaining Casanova was enough to confirm that he was an extraordinary talent. He’s a bold, charismatic performer with terrific comic timing (one swift about-turn towards the film’s end had me guffawing), and capable of going broad or subtle. He’s the perfect leading man for this grandiose comic epic, which takes us on an episodic adventure from Venice to St. Petersburg and back again, and is directed with almost as much flair as Abel Gance’s Napoleon from the same year. The adventurous camerawork and staging is augmented by tinting that adds a vivid flash of colour to some sequences, notably a dazzling nocturnal carnival late in the film. But thing that really distinguishes Casanova is how funny it is. Not many comedies can sustain themselves across two-and-a-half hours, but Volkoff and Mosjoukine kept me laughing consistently throughout. I'm now curious to see Mosjoukine's reprisal of the role, in a 1934 film for director René Barberis.

8 - Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007) BFI Southbank, 35mm
This might be the most fun I’ve had in a cinema all year. I’m not Bollywood-savvy enough to pick up on all the in-jokes and references in Farah Khan’s 2007 musical, but it’s hard to imagine anyone failing to have a good time with this film. Om Shanti Om is an emotional and narrative feast, packed with wild twists, breakneck tonal shifts and brilliantly conceived and executed musical set-pieces. The film succeeds as both a giddy metaphysical romantic musical, and as a raucous, extravagant celebration of the form itself, introducing a succession of Bollywood stars for the film’s centrepiece number and allowing all of the cast and crew to take a bow in the delightful end credits sequence. Above all else, Om Shanti Om is a sensational showcase for the blistering star power of Shah Rukh Khan. As both the lovestruck young wannabe in the film’s first half and the arrogant movie superstar in its second, he is an utterly magnetic presence. 

7 - Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Helmut Käutner, 1954) Sala Scorsese, Bologna, 35mm
Who is Helmut Käutner? Before this summer I’d never even heard the name, and now I’m desperate to see how entire body of work. I caught three of his films at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and had a terrific time with both his barge-set romance Under the Bridges (shot in Berlin during a summer of heavy bombardment) and his sprightly Lubitsch-ish comedy A Glass of Water, but the standout for me was Portrait of an Unknown Woman. The film has a great premise: an artist, bored at the opera, sketches the beautiful woman he sees in a nearby box, but then she disappears, and when he uses her head on a nude painting it causes a political scandal for her diplomat husband. Käutner was clearly a master storyteller, and I loved the way this story kept evading my expectations, darting off in new directions while always staying true to the skilfully drawn characters. It’s a lovely, elegant movie that feels like it could have come from the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. In fact, it’s a surprise that a movie as beautifully written as this was never remade.

6 - Behind the Door (Irvin Willat, 1919) BFI Southbank, 35mm
A genuinely nightmarish tale of revenge, which hasn’t lost any of its power almost a century after it was made. Behind the Door begins with Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) facing bigotry in the American town where he has lived for most of his life because he has German heritage and the United States has just declared war. He proves himself by signing up to fight for the US but when his wife is kidnapped and killed (in an appalling way) by a U-boat captain (Wallace Beery!), Krug becomes consumed with the desire to wreak an equally brutal vengeance on him. Irvin Willat stages the key set-pieces brilliantly – I loved the image of Krug alone on the vast ocean as his wife is taken from him forever – and the slow-burn build-up to the violent climax is gripping. Nothing can prepare you for the gruesome revelation at the end of the film, though. I get chills just thinking about it.

5 - Perfect Strangers (Alexander Korda, 1945) BFI Southbank 35mm
Perfect Strangers is a film about two people in a moribund married, forced to spend time apart and discovering a new sense of life. In the film’s opening scene, Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr brilliantly give us an immediate sense of who these tired people are, and it’s an extraordinary thing to see them both grow and change over the next ninety minutes as they individually embark on wartime service. Clemence Dane’s Oscar-winning story strikes an expert balance between their parallel narratives, as each character has encounters and experiences that slowly draw them out of themselves, and Alexander Korda generates a considerable sense of tension as the couple finally reunite in the film’s final scenes, with each having independently reconsidered the state of their marriage. It’s a subtle but insightful film about the way people change when shaken out of their familiar surroundings, made with great humour and empathy, and it closes with a beautiful final shot that ties their new perspectives into that of a war-torn city looking ahead into the future.

4 - Eight Hours Don't Make a Day (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972/73) BFI Southbank, Digital
I spent two wonderful months at the BFI this year filling in almost all of the gaps in my Rainer Werner Fassbinder knowledge, with films such as Whity and Lili Marleen being among many exciting discoveries. However, the undoubted highlight of this season was the afternoon I spent watching his five-part TV series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day. The film focuses on a group of factory workers attempting to control the means of production and a devise a fairer distribution of profits among the workers, but over a leisurely eight hours it expands to explore the workers’ family lives too. One wonderful subplot follows an elderly couple (Luise Ullrich and Werner Finck) as they embark on a new relationship, find a home and then attempt to open a kindergarten. Fassbinder’s control of pacing and tone is faultless, and the performances from an ensemble of his regular collaborators (including Gottfried John, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann and Kurt Raab) are typically wonderful. The series was originally commissioned for eight episodes before being prematurely cancelled, but perhaps this act was a blessing in disguise; Fassbinder had planned to take events down a dark road in the remaining episodes, and instead the curtailed ending makes this feel like his most uplifting and optimistic work.

3 - The Eternal Breasts (Kinuya Tanaka, 1955) BFI Southbank, 35mm
The women’s picture was a staple of ‘50s Japanese cinema, and every great director of the era has a number of female-led stories to their name. Kinuyo Tanaka was a familiar face on screen in this period – appearing in films for Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kinoshita among others – but perhaps her greatest achievement came behind the camera. The value of a female perspective can be felt throughout The Eternal Breasts, a remarkably frank and intimate portrait of Fumiko (Yumeji Tsukioka), a divorced mother and poet who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Tanaka has a brilliant visual sense, exploring her protagonist’s emotional and psychological journey through expressive images and lighting; a close-up of a bra discarded on a bed, for example, or the looming shadows and claustrophobic framing that surrounds her in the final hospital scenes. The depiction of female desire is beautifully handled and Yumeji Tsukioka is breathtakingly good in the lead role. It's a revelatory film, and I’d love to see more of Tanaka’s work as a director.

2 - Home from the Hill (Vincente Minnelli, 1960) Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, 35mm
I didn’t expect Home from the Hill to hit me as hard as it did. I went into it with tempered expectations, having never heard much talk about the first film Vincente Minnelli made after his extraordinary successful Gigi and Some Came Running. Two and a half hours later, I emerged wondering why this isn’t more widely hailed as one of his greatest achievements. It’s a complex film about family secrets, the legacy of sin and codes of masculinity, and it gradually accumulates a stunning emotional force through the patient storytelling, Minnelli’s typically potent widescreen compositions and the first-rate ensemble. Robert Mitchum gives one of his most imperious performances as the womanising landowner Wade Hunnicutt, but the surprise of the movie is how good the actors around him are; Eleanor Parker, George Hamilton and George Peppard may be better known as TV actors, but they give real movie star performances here. Our attempt to screen Home from the Hill in the UK was scuppered by a damaged print, but we haven’t given up on it and we hope to bring this film to a wider audience soon.

1 - West Indies (Med Hondo, 1979) Sala Scorsese, Bologna, 35mm
“I wanted to free the very concept of musical comedy from its American trade mark” Med Hondo said of his 1979 film West Indies. “I wanted to show that each people on earth has its own musical comedy, its own musical tragedy and its own thought shaped through its own history.” This truly is a musical like no other. Hondo foregrounds the artificiality of his project from the start, showing us the warehouse surrounding the wooden ship, on the deck of which the entire film will take place. West Indies is highly theatrical – with its use of a single location, and with a small troupe of actors switching roles throughout – but Hondo’s dynamic and energetic use of the camera makes it incredibly cinematic too. This was one of three Med Hondo films I saw in Bologna, and each of them found a different and equally imaginative way to investigate questions of colonialism. His bracing debut Soleil O followed an African immigrant in Paris while his engrossing 1986 film Sarraounia told the tale of marauding French soldiers whose progress is halted at a village protected by a witch, but West Indies is the pinnacle. Hondo is attempting to explore centuries of French-African colonialism and slavery in the space of two hours, using music, dance and short dramatic scenes, and the astonishing thing is how brilliantly he pulls off this ambitious feat. It’s an audacious and exhilarating thing to experience, and it was a particular treat to appreciate Hondo’s use of colour and compositions on a 35mm print that looked like it had never been touched. At the time of its making, West Indies was the most expensive African production of all time, and it’s a scandal that a film this momentous has been allowed to slip through the cracks of cinema history to the point where it is practically invisible. It deserves to be resurrected, and to take its place alongside the great screen musicals.