Another concern is the recent stories from the United States about Disney withdrawing films from the Fox library from circulation. This policy hasn’t affected the UK yet but Disney’s desire for complete dominance knows no bounds, and corporations withholding all of their entertainment behind paywalls feels increasingly like a model that more studios are likely to adopt as they attempt to maintain control and maximise profit from their back catalogues. Will the cinema landscape look very different by this time next year? I hope not, but for many reasons I’m anxious about the future.
In the meantime, all I can do is to salute every programmer who made the below screenings possible, and to encourage everyone reading this article to support your closest independent and repertory cinemas and seek out the rare, unusual and intriguing at every opportunity. We all need to do what we can to keep real cinema alive.
Without further ado, here are my 2019 highlights:
50 – Naked Tango (Leonard Schrader, 1990) – Cinema Museum, 35mm
Celluloid Sorceress Nikki Williams paid tribute to Leonard Schrader this year with a welcome 35mm revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman and this ultra-rare screening of his sole directorial credit. The film opens with a silent film clip, which sets the tone for a movie that's completely in thrall to silent cinema; the performances, characterisation and storytelling all feel rooted in the 1920s. Mathilda May and Vincent D'Onofrio sadly don't generate a great deal of heat together, but Juan Ruiz-Anchia's cinematography is extremely stylish and the plot really barrels along, getting everything wrapped up in 90 minutes. Naked Tango is extravagant and often extremely silly (I love the scene where May and D'Onofrio dance in an abattoir, blood sloshing around their shoes, as they hold knives to each other's necks), and it's a highly entertaining erotic melodrama
49 – The Night They Raided Minsky's (William Friedkin, 1968) – Prince Charles Cinema, 35mmWilliam Friedkin's direction here is fascinating, simultaneously looking into the past and the future. He uses archive footage and a keen sense of period detail to bring 1920s New York to life, but the camerawork and editing has a jagged, propulsive rhythm that feels invigoratingly out of step with the material. This is a bawdy backstage farce played with great energy by an eclectic cast. That energy sometimes feels misdirected – with a few scenes being more frantic than funny – but it's generally a captivating picture that builds to a brilliant ending, in which Britt Ekland's character accidentally invents the striptease. Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom are a most unlikely double-act, Ekland gives one of her best performances, and Bert Lahr invests the film with the quiet melancholy of the old performer desperate for one last encore: "They still remember me in there..."
48 – The Mystery of Oberwald (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1980) – BFI Southbank, 35mmIt certainly is a shock to see an Antonioni film that looks like this, being an early experiment with video, and this material seems like such an odd fit for him too. The plotting can come off as a little stagey and sleepy at times, but it gradually drew me in, with Monica Vitti (in their last collaboration) delivering a mesmerising and moving performance, and the director finding some brilliant compositions throughout. Antonioni's real interest lies in what his new camera can do, and he can't resist trying out some audacious lighting and colour trickery in almost every scene. Sometimes he drains out the colour and at other times he blows the colours out to garish extremes; occasionally he even manipulates the image so two characters in the same shot will be shaded in completely different ways, with one character exuding a blue-ish glow whenever he appears. This experimentation isn't always successful, but it does result in a film that's quite unlike anything else Antonioni ever made. A fascinating oddity.
47 – Der Fan (Eckhart Schmidt, 1982) – Barbican, 35mm
was screened from a gorgeous UK release print from the early '80s, although this particular print was marred by some terrible dubbing. Désirée Nosbusch is Simone, a teenager obsessed with enigmatic pop star R (Bodo Steiger), and I really liked the opening third of the movie that dealt with her infatuation; daydreaming at school, repeatedly going to the post office to see if her letters have been answered, and fantasising about their inevitable meeting. The middle section – in which Simone meets her idol as he shoots a TV show – dragged a little, and I don't think it was necessary to make us watch R's entire terrible music video in its entirety, but things certainly pick up with the wild (though strangely gore-free) climax! Shot in a detached, hypnotic style (the English-language title is Trance, which seems apt) Der Fan is an uneven but compelling portrait of obsession, and it left me with a newfound respect for the strength of German kitchen utensils.
46 – The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939) – BFI Southbank, 35mmThe BFI's January/February season was entitled The Golden Age of Alexander Korda, but best film in it was directed by his brother Zoltan. The Four Feathers is a completely absorbing tale of cowardice, heroism and friendship, superbly shot in Technicolor by Georges Périnal. John Clements' years-long odyssey of self-flagellation and redemption reaches some absurd proportions but it remains thoroughly compelling, and Ralph Richardson's performance is so moving. The sequence in which the blind man and the mute trek across the desert together has a visceral real power, as does the wonderful moment when the white feather falls out of the envelope at dinner, with everyone at the table realising its significance except for Richardson.
45 – Under the Cherry Moon (Prince, 1986) – Prince Charles Cinema, 35mmI can't believe Prince wanted Martin Scorsese to direct this film. I can't believe Kristin Scott Thomas went on to have a very successful career after making this, er, inauspicious debut. I can't believe Steven Berkoff only gave probably the third or fourth hammiest performance in a movie. There are so many things in Prince's indulgent folly that are utterly confounding – it's a film that consists entirely of bizarre non-sequiturs, hysterical close-ups and wildly unmodulated line readings – but there's something irresistible about the whole cheerfully ludicrous picture. As pop star vanity projects go, Under the Cherry Moon is marvellous entertainment, and discovering it with a packed house at the Prince Charles Cinema was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year. How can you not have fun with a film that includes lines like "You selfish son of a biscuit-eater!"
44 – Penny Serenade (George Stevens, 1941) – BFI Southbank, 35mmThis movie is not subtle about wanting to jerk the audience's tears by any means necessary, and it really puts its central couple through the ringer. Romance, marriage, pregnancy, earthquake, miscarriage, adoption and death packed into two hours of flashbacks, with these memories being prompted by the records Irene Dunne is placing on the turntable. She and Cary Grant are wonderful together, of course, and they get invaluable support from Edgar Buchanan (who pretty much steals the movie) and Beulah Bondi. Penny Serenade can feel a bit disjointed structurally (and I'm not sure I'm buying its depiction of American adoption procedures), but Stevens and his stars play it with great tenderness, and the scenes in which Grant and Dunne are trying to figure out how to deal with the (extremely cute) baby are irresistible.
43 – Romance on the High Seas (Michael Curtiz, 1948) – BFI Southbank, 35mmDirected by Michael Curtiz, with a screenplay by the Epstein brothers and I. A. L. Diamond, and musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley, Romance on the High Seas (titled as It's Magic on this UK print) has quite a pedigree. Its most notable credit is probably for Doris Day, who made her film debut in this picture, and she is an absolute delight from her first minute on screen as the showgirl pretending to be a wealthy heiress on a cruise ship. The musical interludes aren't particularly Busby Berkeley-ish – although some like The Tourist Trade are very nicely choreographed – but they're consistently good fun, and the whole movie is a brisk and occasionally hilarious entertainment; I particularly loved the gag involving Don DeFore and Oscar Levant getting blind drunk without drinking a drop. The farcical Rio-set ending is great, and the colours really popped on this vintage dye transfer Technicolor print.
42 – It Started in Paradise (Compton Bennett, 1952) – BFI Southbank, 35mmThe print we saw at this screening of It Started in Paradise was apparently the only viable 35mm copy still in existence, and it certainly showed off Jack Cardiff's cinematography to winning effect, although the attempt to create makeup that would look vibrant in Technicolor does give everyone an amusingly rosy-cheeked complexion. It Started in Paradise is a terrifically entertaining melodrama with more than a hint of All About Eve, set behind-the-scenes at a London fashion house where the established names are always under threat from a younger designer with fresh ideas. Marghanita Laski's script is hilarious, but it's also sharp and poignant in its portrait of once-rising stars growing stale and losing their way in an inevitable cycle. The performances from Martita Hunt, Jane Hylton and Muriel Pavlow, as three generations of designers, are superb, but the film is almost stolen by Ronald Squire as bitchy critic: "I wish I could remember how to be sincere..."
41 – Echoes of Silence + Pestilent City (Peter Emmanuel Goldman, 1964-65) – Barbican, DigitalTwo unusual films comprised of 16mm black-and-white footage shot in New York. Pestilent City is a portrait of down-and-outs, nocturnal wanderers and lonely souls on streets where vice and murder are rife. Goldman uses slow-motion and negative images to create a haunting, unnerving effect, and the film is a fascinating and atmospheric snapshot of a particular time and place. Pestilent City is an intriguing little experiment, but Echoes of Silence is something quite extraordinary. Goldman uses the same technique to create a loose episodic narrative in which a group of people drift in and out of sexual relationships. The film is entirely silent except for the jazz soundtrack, and Goldman uses close-ups and offbeat editing rhythms to create a real sense of intimacy, and I loved the way he cut in still photographs into the drama. The film can be a bit meandering and might be a little too long, but its best moments are completely mesmerizing; a sequence in an art gallery with echoes of Vertigo, an awkward scene in an artist's studio, or a hesitantly erotic encounter between two male friends late at night. The film’s sense of isolation and longing is palpable.
40 – Def by Temptation (James Bond III, 1990) – BFI Southbank, 35mmThis movie has a lot more style than coherence, but it's a fascinatingly weird and extremely entertaining vampire romp. Written, directed, produced by and starring James Bond III, the film was obviously put together on a tight budget, but Bond makes brilliant use of some outlandish and inventive effects (I loved the TV killing, which is reminiscent of Videodrome), and the great Ernest Dickerson shoots the hell out of every scene. The film has a fine cast, particularly Bill Nunn and Kadeem Hardison, who have some hilarious scenes together in the second half, and Cynthia Bond as the predatory embodiment of temptation. It also boasts lines like "This freaky bed says that you are one hot-natured freakazoid and you can’t wait to jump my bones, because you know I got the key to your pleasures.” This is a wildly uneven film, but it's sincere and full of surprises, and the dedication in the credits by Bond – who apparently never did anything else after this – to his father and grandfather is rather touching: "I'm the last one now."
39 – Ponette (Jacques Doillon, 1996) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
It's often hard to judge child performances, and to know how much a child is acting or simply having their behaviour caught on camera, but four-year-old Victoire Thivisol's performance in Ponette – which won her the Best Actress prize at Venice in 1996 – is clearly something special. As the little girl trying to come to terms with her mother's death, her emotions feel utterly authentic throughout, and watching her as she prays to God to let her speak with her mother is unbearably moving. In fact, Doillon gets unaffected and touching performances from all of the children in the film, and he aligns us strictly with their perspective throughout, which makes the subjects of grief and faith seem even more overwhelming and incomprehensible; the best scenes in the movie consist of these kids having various theological discussions. I'm not sure about the way he ends it, which feels pat and cloying in a way the film carefully resists otherwise, but at its best Ponette is honest, compassionate and heartbreaking.
38 – Pharos of Chaos (Manfred Blank and Wolf-Eckart Bühler, 1983) Cinéma Lumière, Bologna, DigitalThis documentary is a remarkable portrait of a man who is full of guilt and self-loathing, drinking his days away. The filmmakers spent seven days on Sterling Hayden's barge listening to him talk, and the footage they've captured is alternately fascinating, funny and upsetting. It is particularly riveting when Hayden discusses his testimony in front of the HUAC commitee, an act he still feels deep shame over, and he has nothing but contempt for most of the films he made during his career. There are so many amazing moments here, not least Hayden's near-death experience occurring halfway through the shoot, when he fell into the canal while drunk and was fortunate that his son was there to rescue him. Spending two hours in his company can be hard work, but Pharos of Chaos is a powerful and sad study of an alcoholic entering the final years of an extraordinary life.
37 – Union Pacific (Cecil B. DeMille, 1939) BFI Southbank, 35mmBarbara Stanwyck gets a tremendous introduction here, standing tall on top of a train as it races along, but then she opens her mouth and... well, I guess we've found something Barbara can't do. Her Irish accent comes and goes (and it's better when it goes, to be honest) but the love triangle between her, Joel McCrea and Robert Preston is well played by all three. There are lots of great action sequences in Union Pacific (The train crashes! The payload robbery! The siege!), terrific character turns all the way down the cast list, and some fun dialogue ("Nobody ain't drinkin', Brett. Ain't you heard? The Irish is teetotalers."), but it's also just a whole lot of stuff, with DeMille clearly setting out to make the train epic to end all train epics and throwing every storyline he had into the mix. At one point I felt certain that the movie was winding down and instead a whole new narrative kicked off! You certainly get plenty of bang for your buck with Cecil.
36 – My Death is a Mockery (Tony Young, 1952) BFI Southbank, 35mmThe main draw for this brilliantly titled British obscurity was the presence of Kathleen Byron, so it's a shame she gets sidelined halfway through the film and doesn't get a great deal to do when she is on screen. Aside from that disappointment, this is a nifty and taut little thriller about a desperate fisherman drawn into a smuggling scheme and eventually facing the gallows; the film is bookended by him telling his story to the priest before his execution. The narrative is slight but compelling, particularly in the second half when the two main characters seem to gradually switch personalities. Bill Kerr's cocky smuggler becomes increasingly panicked and guilt-ridden, while Donald Houston as the fisherman transforms into a cold-blooded and mercenary crook. Both actors are superb, especially during the final police interrogation scene.
35 – The Flesh and the Fiends (John Gilling, 1960) BFI Southbank, 35mmwas pulled out of the archive by the BFI to mark Donald Pleasance’s centenary and he’s on great form as one half of the corpse-trading double-act Burke and Hare, with George Rose playing his partner in crime. Neither actor has top billing, however, as an imperious Peter Cushing starring as their frequent customer Doctor Knox, who provokes angry debates among the medical and religious community with his experiments on dead bodies; "I can show you the heart, my dear reverend” he tells one. "Can you show me the soul?" The Flesh and the Fiends doesn't soften the bleakness of this story, making Burke and Hare deeply unpleasant characters and depicting a number of violent acts that are genuinely chilling, but what makes the film even more unnerving is its sense of pitch-black humour. It's a very daring tonal balancing act adeptly carried off by writer-director John Gilling and his co-writer Leon Griffiths, and Gilling also uses the camera superbly throughout, aided by Monty Berman’s exceptional black-and-white ‘Scope cinematography. Despite some unconvincing accents, the whole cast delivers the goods, but I particularly enjoyed Billie Whitelaw's passionate and bawdy turn as a prostitute offered the chance of a new life with one of Knox's students.
34 – Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994) BFI Southbank, 35mmThis rambling, talky chronicle of various lesbian romances in early '90s New York was presented at the same Sundance festival as Clerks, a film it bears some similarities with, but it’s a shame Rose Troche’s career didn’t take off in the same way as Kevin Smith’s. Like many US indies of this era, Go Fish is something of a time capsule, with some of Troche's stylistic affectations feeling dated, but I still enjoyed her fondness for jazzy editing rhythms and impressionistic interludes, which gives the film a vibrant energy. The script by Troche and Guinevere Turner is frank and witty as it explores multiple questions relating to lesbian relationships and representation, but mostly it's just fun to spend time with these endearing characters and see how they interact with each other. It's a very funny movie, and the romance between Max and Ely is genuinely sweet.
33 – Wild Reeds (André Téchiné, 1994) BFI Southbank, 35mmOne of two entries on this list that originated from the TV series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, André Téchiné's Wild Reeds is a film full of confused, messy feelings and teenagers trying to figure out who they are – learning to bend rather than break – against the backdrop of the Algerian war. I love the way the camera feels so alive to the emotional state of these characters, its movement is always so intuitive and fluid. The young cast play it perfectly, particular Élodie Bouchez, who was such a radiant and refreshing screen presence in this era. This is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. It's tender, meandering and full of moments that touch the heart in unexpected ways. It was a particular pleasure to enjoy the entrancing The sun-dappled climax on a beautiful 35mm print.
32 – Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930) BFI Southbank, 35mmThis excellent pre-Code was Stanwyck's first collaboration with Frank Capra. She's the party girl picked up by a wealthy artist who sees her as the embodiment of Hope, but who remains largely oblivious as she falls in love with him. It's a tight, snappy screenplay and Stanwyck is entirely great. She's sassy and flirtatious in the film's early stages, but she brings subtle shades and a real emotional punch to her performance as her romance with Ralph Graves develops and the movie shifts into melodrama. Capra gives her some adoring close-ups – you can see why he fell in love with her – but the cast all do fine work, particularly the wonderful Marie Prevost, whose climb up the stairs towards the end lends the film an unexpectedly stirring and heroic climax.
31 – Her Majesty, Love (Joe May, 1931) BFI Southbank, 35mmA beautifully crafted musical comedy that put me in mind of filmmakers like Mamoulian, Wilder and Lubitsch. Joe May's direction is lively and elegant, brilliantly using the camera to accentuate the comic impact in each intricately constructed set-piece. There are some hilarious gags here – the juggling, the constantly disappearing flowers, the gymnastic musical number – and May gives all of his supporting players ample room to make their characters memorable. An American remake, directed by William Dieterle, was made and released in the same year! I'm curious to see it, although I doubt it will be as charming as Joe May's film.
30 – Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins (Med Hondo, 1974) Cinéma Lumière, Bologna, 35mm + Fatima: The Algerian Woman of Dakar, 2004) BFI Southbank, 35mmIn the same year that he passed away, the BFI hosted a seective retrospective of Med Hondo's work, shining a long-overdue spotlight on this brilliant, overlooked figure. It gave me the opportunity to see Fatima: The Algerian Woman of Dakar, which was the last feature Hondo completed. He uses the rape of an Algerian woman (the superb Amel Djemel) to explore ideas about faith, tradition and identity within Islam communities, as well as questioning the possibility of a united Africa. Self-funded and barely distributed, the film suffered the same fate as too many of his pictures, including the one I caught in Bologna. Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins is a provocative, confrontational and stimulating exploration of African cinema, colonialism, capitalism, socialism, immigrant labour, exploitation, racism and more. The film unfolds in a series of arguments and sketches that give us an awful lot to digest, and it sometimes feels like too much, but what keeps it from getting bogged down in rhetoric is Hondo's aggressive and imaginative style. I wish Med Hondo had been able to make more films, but the ones we have are all special and deserve to be more widely distributed.
29 – Finishing School (Wanda Tuchock and George Nicholls Jr., 1934) BFI Southbank, 35mmReleased just a few months before the Hays Code was rigidly enforced, Finishing School is a portrait of bad girls that snuck in just under the wire. Frances Dee is the young woman sent to a very exclusive and oppressive girls' school to learn proper etiquette, only to be led astray by Ginger Rogers and fall in love with Bruce Cabot. They drink, they smoke, they stay out all night partying and Dee even ends up getting pregnant out of wedlock – it’s little wonder Finishing School earned a place on the Legion of Decency’s ‘condemned’ list. There are great performances all round, including Billie Burke as Dee's self-obsessed mother, and Irene Franklin as the struggling stage actress hired by the girls to be their fake chaperone (“One step lower, and I’ll be in the movies,” she complains), but it's Ginger Rogers who grabs all the best lines. "It’s like putting a saddle on a pekingese, but here it is," she says when loaning her bra to a friend, and after considering the 'proper' young men being lined up for them she observes, "If you took all the hair off their combined chests, you couldn’t make a wig for a grape!”
28 – A Single Girl (Benoît Jacquot, 1995) BFI Southbank, 35mmAlthough this film is bookended by long dialogue scenes, what really elevates it is the almost real-time middle hour that follows Valérie (Virginie Ledoyen) on her first day working in a hotel. It's a masterclass in quotidian filmmaking. The camera tracks Valérie as she marches up and down the corridors, fulfilling room service orders, negotiating difficult interactions with both guests and colleagues, and stealing away for a few private moments whenever she can. Ledoyen is absolutely mesmerising, giving a thoughtful, guarded performance with some wonderfully expressive glances and body language. Outstanding camerawork and editing that never calls attention to itself and keeps the film flowing seamlessly. The epilogue feels like a slightly awkward fit, even though it's quite lovely and Ledoyen looks even more breathtakingly gorgeous in it.
27 – India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975) Ciné Lumière, 35mm + The Lorry (Marguerite Duras, 1977) Regent Street Cinema, 35mmTwo very unusual films by Marguerite Duras film, both of which largely take place in a single location. India Song is often inscrutable but largely entrancing, with the way the characters move through empty spaces - often reflected in mirrors – being reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad. As the actors dance in front of the camera, every conversation takes place off screen, with the narration giving it the feel of a fable. It's a film of stillness and ennui, although the soundtrack's hushed murmuring is often disrupted by Michael Lonsdale's anguished howls. The Lorry is something completely different, consisting of Duras and Gérard Depardieu sitting around a table, reading the script for her unmade film and discussing what it might have been. Their conversations can be frustratingly cryptic and fragmented, and often repetitive, but I really enjoyed the rhythm of the film as it cut between the internal and external shots. I'm looking forward to discovering more of Duras's work as this retrospective organised by Another Gaze continues into 2020.
26 – L'homme du large (Marcel L'Herbier, 1920) BFI Southbank, 35mmThis adaptation of Balzac's story about a proud fisherman and his ne'er-do-well son is a thrilling exercise in style. Everything from the framing and editing to the tinting and intertitles is crafted with imagination and expressive intent; he even incorporates text within the frame rather than keeping the action and intertitles separate. The rugged landscape is brilliantly utilised and L'Herbier creates a number of poetic and potent images. Story-wise, L'homme du large plays like a classic silent melodrama, although it did feel like the film was heading towards a much darker climax than the one we eventually got, and it came as no surprise to discover afterwards that the ending is changed from Balzac's original. Despite this it's unquestionably a remarkable piece of filmmaking and one of the singular achievements of the silent era.
25 – Shakespeare Wallah (James Ivory, 1965) BFI Southbank, DigitalAn early film from Merchant-Ivory, and one of their best. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script is affecting both as a story of young lovers and as a portrait of a nomadic acting family reaching the end of the road, but it's also perceptive on class, culture and changing times. It's a playful, romantic and melancholy film, and James Ivory's elegant direction ensures it flows beautifully from one captivating scene to the next. The cast is flawless (notably a scene-stealing Madhur Jaffrey, who gives depth and complexity to what could have been a one-note comical diva role) and Satyajit Ray contributes a lovely score. But the main reason I fell in love with this film – and the reason I'm so delighted I caught it on the big screen – is the cinematography by Subrata Mitra. Even by his own high standards, this is a jaw-droppingly luminous and atmospheric film, with one breathtaking sequence in which two lovers walk along a mountain path enshrouded in mist recalling Ray and Mitra's earlier masterpiece Kanchenjunga.
24 – Personal Problems (Bill Gunn, 1980) Birkbeck University, DigitalPersonal Problems was shot on U-Matic video and it takes a while to get used to the video quality, but I quickly became absorbed into this uncategorisable two-part ensemble piece. In fact, the low-grade images occasionally work to the film's advantage, giving scenes an impressionistic quality as characters move through them, with their actions leaving ghostly traces or colours congealing into a blocky smear. I particularly loved the way the water looked shimmering in the sunlight in the second half. The narrative, apparently developed through improvisation, is quite wayward and uneven - and I was sometimes perplexed by the editing choices - but the performances across the board are just astonishingly good. They're funny, raw, complex and utterly authentic. Gunn switches focus a few times and you get the sense that every one of these characters is rich enough to be worth following. I thought of people like Cassavetes and Mike Leigh as I watched it, but Personal Problems really is its own unique thing.
23 – On to Reno (James Cruze, 1928) Cinema Museum, 35mmThis very entertaining divorce caper is a real obscurity so it was a rare treat to see it projected from an excellent BFI print as part of the Cinema Museum's Silent Film Weekend. Marie Prevost is the young woman trying to earn some extra cash by pretending to be a woman filing for divorce in Reno; a premise that leads to all manner of farcical misunderstandings. There is much running in and out of bedrooms, a hilarious sequence in which a naked man has to hide in a swimming pool, and it climaxes with a chase involving two married couples and dozens of divorcées. I loved the portrait of Reno as a haven for women who have left their husbands, including a women-only bar called The Alimony Club, where they partake in violent Apache dances with a male dummy. Marie Prevost is on typically charming and funny form as the main character, but Ned Sparks' hysterical mugging steals the movie.
22 – Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955) Forum des Images, Paris, 35mm
He may have stated that CinemaScope was only good for “snakes and funerals” in Le Mépris, but Fritz Lang used the wide screen brilliantly in Moonfleet, his first film in the format. I particularly loved his blocking in the scenes set in the smugglers' den, and the way the smugglers were introduced with their faces all lined up and filling the screen. After a series of tough American crime films, this swashbuckling family adventure might have seemed like an unusual assignment for Lang, but his knack for unexpected bursts of violence and stark, disturbing imagery makes this a much darker and more atmospheric affair than it might have been in other hands. There’s something haunting and ominous in the film, and a real sense of impending death, that gives it an unexpected gravity; it made me wish that Lang had tried his hand at a Dickens adaptation. This is surely one of the director’s most underrated films, although that’s apparently not the case in France, where I saw it projected from a beautiful 35mm print – Cahiers du Cinéma named it as one of their top 100 films in 2008.
21 – No Man's Land (Victor Trivas, 1931) BFI Southbank, 35mm
This remarkable film traps five disparate soldiers - a German, a Frenchman, a Brit, a black American and a shell-shocked Jew - in a trench together in 1918. The first half of the film shows us each man's contented pre-war life, brilliantly using match-cuts to tie them together, and while the dialogue scenes in the second half can be a little stiff, the film's commitment to authenticity and the sincerity of its plea for peace is very affecting. The most impressive thing about No Man's Land is Victor Trivas's thrillingly ambitious filmmaking. The film is full of striking, visceral and haunting imagery, the editing is inventive and powerful, and the sound design - just a few years removed from the silent era - is incredibly impressive. It's surely one of the most powerful films ever made about The Great War.
20 – Muna Moto (Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa, 1975) Cinéma Lumière, Bologna, Digitalhas a gripping opening scene, depicting a man running from a crowd with a child in his arms, before it flashes back to show us how he reached this desperate point. We learn about his futile attempts to raise the dowry that will allow him to marry the girl he loves, before his wealthy uncle could claim her as his fifth wife, and Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa's film is a tale of thwarted love in a deeply misogynistic society, where women are bought and sold, and will be beaten if they dare to speak up or disobey. It's a tough but lyrical piece of filmmaking, and beautifully crafted. Dikongué-Pipa makes superb use of subjective shots and close-ups (one can't help wondering if Barry Jenkins has seen this film) and the editing is hugely impressive. Muna Moto is another vital restoration from the African Film Heritage Project.
19 – The Ancient Law (E.A. Dupont, 1923) BFI Southbank, Digital
E.A. Dupont's tale of a young Jew pursuing his dream of becoming an actor is an extraordinary film about faith and art, ambition and devotion, prejudice and assimilation. The storytelling is patient and intelligent, and the performances are superb, particularly Avram Morewski, who is so moving as the old Rabbi. The focus on tradition, rituals and behaviour helps Dupont create what feels like a remarkably authentic portrait of 19th century Jewish life, just as the theatre scenes allow us to glimpse various strata of Viennese society. The brilliant art direction was by Alfred Junge - who later became a Powell & Pressburger mainstay - and the level of detail in his work is shown off by this outstanding restoration, while Dupont's direction (though not as showy as his Moulin Rouge, another first-time viewing this year) gives us so many beautiful and haunting images. It's an incredible film.
18 – The Mad Miss Manton (Leigh Jason, 1938) BFI Southbank, 35mm
Three years before The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda had a love-hate relationship in this undervalued screwball gem. She's the flighty socialite who keeps stumbling over dead bodies with her gang of female friends, he's the newspaper editor pursuing her, and the film is almost stolen by Sam Levene as a dyspeptic police lieutenant. Leigh Jason's direction is so fluid - brilliantly orchestrating multiple crowd scenes - and his comic timing is so sure, it makes me wonder why I've never heard his name before now, but the film has impressive credits in other areas. The zinging screenplay is by Philip Epstein and Nicholas Musuraca shoots it like a noir. It's a terrific, frequently hilarious comedy that really should be more celebrated than it is.
17 – Baara (Souleymane Cissé, 1978) Cinéma Lumière, Bologna, 35mm
The English title for Souleymane Cissé’s film is Work, and his examination of labour from a variety of perspectives details a whole social and economic fabric, and the cycles of exploitation and corruption inherent within it. So many scenes in this film hinge on a negotiation, or some discussion of capital and debt. It's urgent, powerful filmmaking that feels completely authentic. I was so riveted by Baara I didn’t mind the occasional flaws in the very rare 35mm print (the best the festival could locate after a very long search) but Cissé’s disappointment with the quality of this presentation dominated the post-film Q&A. One hopes this film is next on the World Cinema Foundation's restoration list. It certainly feels as relevant as ever and deserves to be seen.
16 – In Jenen Tagen (Helmut Käutner, 1949) Cinéma Lumière, Bologna, 35mm
15 – Life Begins Tomorrow (Werner Hochbaum, 1933) BFI Southbank, 35mmThis is a sound film but Werner Hochbaum has very little use for dialogue. He is a man determined to tell his story in purely visual terms, and to try out some new technique in almost every scene; at one point he gives us a point-of-view shot of a guy playing a violin while watching himself in a mirror. The protagonist is a man released from jail after five years and Hochbaum expresses his anxiety and turmoil in a variety of ways; a series of quick cuts and skewed close-ups as he returns to the city, for example, or a brilliant montage of gossiping neighbours set to a creepy chorus of whispers. I really liked the way the film gradually revealed the nature of Robert's crime through flashbacks too, and how it maintained a degree of ambiguity and tension as he considered repeating the act late on. It's an incredibly invigorating and impressive piece of work.
14 – Aventurera (Alberto Gout, 1950) BFI Southbank, DigitalNinón Sevilla was the star of Victims of Sin, one of my major discoveries of 2018, and this earlier Rumberas film was a major 2019 highlight. This time she plays a young woman forced into prostitution who gradually turns the tables on those who put her there, with the film unfolding as a cascading series of wild plot twists, including one humdinger halfway through that briefly turns the film into hilarious comedy of manners. Aventurera has a surplus of style, energy and surprises, and it even throws in a few extravagant dance numbers – what more could you ask for? It also boasts another tremendous star turn from Ninón Sevilla. She's such an expressive and impulsive performer, and the venomous looks tossed back-and-forth between her and Andrea Palma are priceless. It's a stupendously entertaining film.
13 – Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967) Tate Modern, 16mmAs life and death happens in the margins of the film, Snow's mechanical eye moves inexorably forward, ending with a magical awakening of a still image. The pitch of the audio cycles upwards until it reaches a level that had my nerves on edge and made my teeth ache (but in a good way). It made me think of La Jetée and Blow Up, but it's a wholly unique experience. A mesmerising and fascinating exploration of of cinematic space, it was an extraordinary privilege to see it for the first time projected on 16mm. This particular screening was followed by the world premiere of Snow's new work Waivelength, a collaboration with Mani Mazinani that acts as a kind of inversion of the original film and had a soundtrack specifically designed for Tate's Dolby Atmos setup. Whereas Wavelength made me feel anxious, Waivelength had a more inviting rhythm that even made me feel a bit drowsy (but in a good way).
12 – U.S. Go Home (Claire Denis, 1994) BFI Southbank, Digital
This is pretty much a perfect film. It captures so many subtle, complex emotions in a running time of just over an hour. Every shot seems to communicate so much about these characters as they try to enter an adult world that they're not quite ready for. Impeccable performances from the young cast, particularly the stunning Alice Houri, a wonderful Vincent Gallo cameo ("I'm offering you my last Coca-Cola, Alain." "I'm a Communist. I don't drink Coca-Cola."), and an insanely good soundtrack; although the rights issues surrounding that soundtrack are partly responsible for the film’s lack of widespread availability. Given the fact that this episode and André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds both earned a place on this list, and that I’ve loved the other two films from Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge that I’ve seen (Chantal Akerman's Portrait of a Young Girl in the Late ’60s in Brussels and Olivier Assayas's extended version of Cold Water) are wonderful too, I’m desperate to catch up with the rest of this series.
11 – Spring Night, Summer Night (Joseph L. Anderson, 1967). Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Digital
Spring Night, Summer Night was dropped from abruptly dropped from the 1968 New York Film Festival to make way for John Cassavetes' Faces, and it subsequently slipped into complete obscurity. I'm glad it's finally having a revival. It's a story of incest, but it's also a story about an unhappy family, a dead-end town, and a way of life. Anderson and his co-screenwriters Franklin Miller and Doug Rapp respect the dimensions and the ambiguity of their four main characters, each of whom has their own unfulfilled desires, their own private sadness and regret. John Crawford as the father initially comes off as a gruff, one-note bully, until a stunning late monologue, which is one of many moments that made me catch my breath. (For another, consider the pause between "I knew what I was doing" and "I could have stopped you.") The black-and-white cinematography is astounding, making the film feel both authentic and timeless, and Larue Hall's performance is an all-timer. A true revelation.
10 – The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix E. Feist, 1947) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mmI had the pleasure of discovering a number of terrific noir films by Felix E. Feist in Bologna this year. I loved Lee J. Cobb’s performance and the haunting finale in The Man Who Cheated Himself, and the way Feist brought a more classical studio style to Tomorrow is Another Day without compromising on moral complexity. But the title of this strand in the Il Cinema Ritrovato programme was 'Brutal, Nasty and Short,' and no film lived up to that billing better than The Devil Thumbs a Ride. It’s a brilliant comic thriller that keeps upending audience expectations. Running for a shade over an hour, there's not an ounce of fat on the film, but Feist manages to pack in so many fun characters and side plots without it feeling rushed or overstuffed. It's a perfectly crafted and frequently very funny movie, with a magnificent mean bastard performance from Lawrence Tierney. It’s played on a double-bill with the tense and brutal The Threat, but this film alone is worthy of inclusion on the list.
9 – Smoking / No Smoking (Alain Resnais, 1993) Ciné Lumière, 35mmNine characters, five hours, two films, two actors and one extraordinary experience. Alain Resnais’s adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges is one of his most ingenious productions. Resnais constantly rewinds the film to explore different possibilities within the narrative's multiple branches, asking “But what if…?” at every juncture, and he leaps ahead in time by five days, five weeks or even five years. There’s so much invention in the way Resnais stages each episode, with an actor disappearing from view as one character only to arrive seconds later as another, and I loved the theatrical backdrops that reinforce a sense of artifice around the whole production. But amid this artificial construction and the often wacky and outlandishly comical scenarios, the amazing Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi keep Smoking/No Smoking grounded in a sense of truth and humanity, giving pitch-perfect performances as every one of the characters.
8 – 3 Bad Men (John Ford, 1926) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, DigitalThis was John Ford's last western before he redefined the genre with Stagecoach thirteen years later, 3 Bad Men is a dazzling display of his effortless mastery. The poster boasts a cast of 25,000 and Ford seems determined to show us all of them during the epic land rush sequence, which begins with a line of horses stretching endlessly into the horizon, but he gives weight to this spectacle by making us care so deeply about the characters in the film's first half. The black-hatted thieves grow into some of Ford's most endearing heroes, while the white-hatted sheriff emerges as a despicable villain, and the last stand of these 'bad men' is so moving. Ford's composition is consistently breathtaking, and from the burning church scene onwards, 3 Bad Men simply serves up one staggering sequence after another. It’s an astounding and deeply moving film, and it has instantly become one of my favourite Ford pictures.
7 – Film Without a Title (Rudolf Jugert, 1948) Cinéma Lumière, Bologna, 35mmOne of the most striking aspects of the Il Cinema Ritrovato strand exploring filmmaking in postwar Germany was how imaginative and playful a lot of the films were. Far from the neo-realist ‘rubble films’ one might expect, they instead took unexpected and bold formal approaches to dealing with the pain and historical significance of this period. Consider Film Without a Title, an ingenious romantic comedy that begins by asking if it's possible or even right to make such a lighthearted film in the immediate aftermath. As three filmmakers (including Willy Fritsch, making a very funny cameo as himself) debate this question, we see the romance play out and get rewritten multiple times. The inventive touch of screenwriter Helmut Käutner is evident in the way the film adroit toys with genre conventions, while Rudolf Jugert directs with a brisk energy and sense of humour.
6 – Where Chimneys Are Seen (Heinosuke Gosho, 1953) ICA, 35mmThis is surely one of the greatest films about postwar Japan; a portrait of people attempting to build new lives while facing economic hardship and carrying past traumas. Gosho's direction is so fluid and precise, framing his shots with real wit and imagination and filling them with wonderful character details. His command of the film's tone is impeccable too, ensuring it remains consistently funny even as it explores complex emotional territory. I loved the central metaphor of the factory chimneys in the centre of town, which look different to each person depending on where you are and how you look at them. It's a beautifully acted film - with each member of the central quartet doing subtle, empathetic and expressive work - but Kinuyo Tanaka gives a particularly magnificent performance. A masterpiece.
5 – State Fair (Henry King, 1933) + Wait 'til the Sun Shines, Nellie (Henry King, 1952) Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mmHenry King's long career covered every genre, and the Bologna retrospective included a number of his great westerns and war films, but I think he was at his best with these nostalgic visions of a bygone America. In State Fair, King’s direction immerses us in the energy and excitement of the fair, as two innocent farmer's children pursue affairs with more worldly lovers. It’s a beautifully crafted film, keeping multiple stories on the go at once, traversing comedy and heartache, and closing with a dazzlingly romantic final shot. State Fair was an early highlight of this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, but Wait 'til the Sun Shines, Nellie was an even greater revelation. It’s a bizarre picture that seems to shift genres three or four times as it tells the story of fifty years in the life of a country, a town, and a man. It’s an idealised vision of early 20th century America, but one marked by a potent sense of melancholy, loss and regret as
Ben Halper’s refusal to yield or consider others invites tragedy into his life. Enjoying Leon Shamroy’s dazzling Technicolor cinematography on one of the best prints I saw all year was an incredible experience too. King remains a sorely undervalued director.
4 – Tonka of the Gallows (Karel Anton, 1930) Phoenix Cinema, DigitalThis was an early Czechoslovakian sound film, with a few lines of dialogue and a couple of songs by Ita Rina being synchronised on the soundtrack, although it plays primarily as a silent film and we saw it accompanied superbly by Stephen Horne, who briefly paused for Rina’s contributions. Anyway, who needs dialogue when you have a face as stunning as Ita Rina and direction as expressive as Karel Anton gives us here? Tonka of the Gallows is the story of a woman ostracised for spending a night in prison with a condemned man before his execution, it's a brilliantly crafted film with a thundering emotional force. There's so much tenderness and pain in Rina’s lead performance, and Karel Anton's filmmaking is breathtaking, particularly during the build-up to the execution which boasts some ingenious shot and editing choices. The film builds towards a climax that I found completely shattering. Tonka of the Gallows is a magnificent and haunting film.
3 – La maison des bois (Maurice Pialat, 1971) BFI Southbank, DigitalMade between Maurice Pialat's first and second features, La maison des bois has long been one of his most scarcely seen works, but this seven-part series made for French TV is clearly one of his greatest masterpieces. A portrait of life in rural France during the First World War, the film is seen through the eyes of Hervé (Hervé Lévy), a young boy from Paris sent to foster parents (the utterly adorable Pierre Doris and Jacqueline Dufranne) while his father is fighting at the front. Much of La maison des bois, particularly the first half of the series, is spent simply watching daily life unfold in this bucolic environment. It feels unforced and casual, but through these beautifully observed episodes we gradually develop a deep emotional connection to these characters, which pays off in the deeply moving later episodes when the First World War – initially a distant spectre – intrudes on this idyllic life. The endings of episodes five, six and seven each had me in tears. Maurice Pialat can be tough viewing, and he’s not somebody I’d recommend to an unsuspecting viewer, but this is one of his most accessible and tender pieces of filmmaking. It's charming and funny from the opening episode onwards, with Pialat's relentless pursuit of authenticity resulting in drama that feels entirely spontaneous and unscripted, and performances that never feel like acting. La maison des bois is an astonishing achievement and one hopes it will eventually receive wider distribution, allowing people to discover another jewel in this singular career.
2 – Mes Petites Amoureuses (Jean Eustache, 1974) Barbican, 35mm
Having fallen completely in love with Jean Eustache's masterpiece The Mother and the Whore when I first saw it about five years ago, I've been longing for an opportunity to see his second (and sadly final) feature on the big screen. Mes Petites Amoureuses didn't disappoint in the slightest. It's the story of a boy taking his first awkward steps into manhood and leaving school behind to get a different kind of education, one developed through watching and listening, as he attempts to to understand the complicated rituals of teenage romance and sexuality. The film unfolds casually in a series of funny, awkward, empathetic vignettes, each of which is beautifully observed and handled with a deft and perceptive touch by Eustache. Néstor Almendros brings that luminous, Rohmer-esque sunshine to this portrait of a formative summer, and the final scene - showing us how much Daniel has changed - is perfect. I'm very grateful to the Barbican for sourcing this impeccable 35mm print from Eustache's son Boris, and for expertly providing live subtitles. It's an experience that will live long in my memory.
1 – So This is Paris (Ernst Lubitsch, 1926) - 16mm
The programming of silent films at the Cinema Museum by Michelle Facey has been a constant source of pleasure and illumination throughout 2019, and she excelled herself with this gem, which was presented from Kevin Brownlow's personal 16mm print. So This is Paris is a relatively unknown Lubitsch film, but it's a sublime one. From the opening moments, with the ridiculous 'Dance of Despair', pretty much every scene in this sparkling farce hits the right note. Lubitsch's touch is at its most refined and ingenious here as he sets up the various misunderstandings and deceptions that propel the plot, and he gets perfect performances from his four stars, especially Monte Blue, whose drunken attempt at a seductive wink is particularly priceless. Lubitsch's direction is breathtakingly inventive too, not just in the kaleidoscopic dance sequence, but in his comic staging and use of unexpected visual effects. It's an astonishing film, a major discovery, and the 'moral lesson' that we are left with at the end of the film is the perfect punchline. So This is Paris is prime Lubitsch, so of course it tops my list.