It took a while for this year to get going. The cinemas closed just before Christmas last year and they didn’t reopen until May 17th. At lunchtime on that day, I lined up at the Prince Charles Cinema to watch Clerks on 35mm. I’m not a particularly big fan of Clerks or Kevin Smith films in general, but seeing a film projected again after a gap of 154 days – and hearing Smith’s heartfelt introduction, specially recorded for this screening – was an extremely emotional experience. God, I had missed it so much.
Thankfully, we managed to make it to the end of 2021 without any regression into lockdown, although as I type these words we are again sitting under a cloud of uncertainty, with constant speculation of impending restrictions and with nobody having any idea what our dithering government is planning to do from one day to the next. I’ve continued to do the only thing I can do in these circumstances, which is to try and live my life while maintaining a sense of normality. For me that means going into the office every day, going to art galleries, football matches and theatres, and above all else going the cinema as frequently as possible.
This year’s repertory cinema viewing still wasn’t quite the full feast that I have enjoyed in years past. I failed to attend Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna for the first time in six years, and I haven’t made one of my semi-regular trips to Paris for more than two years now; I’m hoping that both of those destinations will reappear in my film calendar in 2022. Nevertheless, as you can see from the below list, I still discovered some extraordinary films. The BFI’s Bette Davis season and their superb overview of Japanese cinema form the backbone of this rundown, and I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to them and to all the venues where I saw 35mm or 16mm prints in 2021 – the Prince Charles Cinema, the ICA, the Cinema Museum, the Ciné Lumière, the Barbican, the Genesis Cinema, the Curzon Soho and Café Oto.
Of the 234 films I saw in cinemas since they reopened in May, 108 were older films, and 56 of these were first-time viewings. I saw 91 films on 35mm and 6 on 16mm, and my favourite cinema discoveries of the year are below.
This was a key film for Bette Davis, being her first production after she had tried to get out of her Warners contract. Her beef with the studio was over the quality of scripts presented to her, but this is a good one, and she is excellent as the hostess in a gangster-run clip joint who is implicated in a murder. Bogart is also on fine form as the D.A. trying to persuade her to testify against her boss, and a couple of the girls in her troupe get a chance to shine, especially Isabel Jewell and Jane Bryan. Marked Woman is a solid crime drama elevated by its cast, some lively dialogue and a convincing atmosphere. Lloyd Bacon's direction can be a little static, but there are some potent flourishes here; notably a brutal off-screen beating that we only hear, and a final scene that ends the film on a poignant note.
Julie Walters is this movie's engine, and without her vibrant and funny performance I'm not sure it would be worth much. The film feels shapeless and draggy, and some of its narrative points – like the anonymous man Christine almost starts a relationship with – are very badly handled. While there is an appealing frankness to the way it depicts much of the sexual activity, it always seems torn between treating it seriously or playing it for laughs. Some of it is amusing and surprising, while the cinematography (by Roger Deakins) and production design gives the whole film a low-rent, grotty atmosphere that feels apt. Interesting to note that Personal Services was banned in Ireland, giving Jones the distinction at the time of having directed three features banned in the country.
This is a marvellous film about the interactions between two families, and in particular college student Keitaro and his attractive neighbour Yaeko. Although Yaeko's growing attraction and flirtation is obvious, the pair have a friendly sibling-type relationship, until the arrival of her divorcée sister complicates matters. Shimazu presents the domestic lives of both families in a casual, informal way and there's a great sense of authenticity and fluidity about the performances. Beyond the engaging characters and narrative, the film is a fascinating portrait of 1930s Japanese society, from the specifics of family dynamics and the role of women, to baseball games, cinema trips and restaurants. There’s even the unexpected bonus of a Betty Boop cartoon in the middle!
The role that won Bette Davis her first Oscar is a washed-up alcoholic actress, whose self-destructive tendencies bring down all men who enter her orbit. Franchot Tone plays the up-and-coming architect who is captivated by her, and the first hour of the movie is mostly terrific; it's swift and witty and intriguing, and Davis is on fire. There's a neat scene where Tone leaves both Davis and his fiancée Margaret Lindsay in quick succession, and they both proclaim their belief that he will return to them. I thought the script was setting up something confrontational between the women, but things go awry in the final act, as the narrative follows a rushed and moralistic trajectory, leading to a limp finale where Davis is forced to become a good girl and repent all her sins.
The first (and by his own admission, the best) of Basil Rathbone's run as Sherlock Holmes, which stretched across 14 films and more than 200 radio plays. It's actually a little surprising how much time he spends off screen in this picture, but whenever he and Nigel Bruce's frequently exasperated Watson are playing off each other, the film is a delight. A bit too much of the 80 minutes is given over to the dull romance between Richard Greene and Wendy Barrie, but that's a minor complaint. The film is generally tight, witty and very engaging, with some fun character turns among the supporting cast. Lanfield's direction and Peverell Marley's lighting create an effectively spooky atmosphere, particularly during the climax on the misty Moor.
Mr. Skeffington was originally released as a 147-minute film before being recut shortly after release, and I think the two-hour prints are the only ones available now. Although I enjoyed the movie, I certainly didn't need another half an hour of it. Having fun with a sharp script by the Epsteins, Bette Davis again displays her absolute commitment to playing frustrating and unlikeable protagonists. Fanny Trellis is a selfish, spoiled and shallow woman whose vanity and obsession with sustaining her romantic appeal causes her to lose almost everything. By the end of the film, her wig and garish makeup feels like it's foreshadowing Baby Jane. She's supported by a wonderful performance from Claude Rains, who is drily funny and ultimately very affecting.
It's hard to say who exactly the title is referring to in this story of three young children abandoned by their mother to live with their feckless father and his absurdly horrible wife; it's sufficient to say these adults are all awful, and the kids never stand a chance. There are some incredibly distressing scenes here, notably the ones involving the infant, who is force-fed rice at one point. I think Nomura falters by taking such a melodramatic approach to this tough material. The score frequently crescendoes as the second half drags out the will-he-won't-he question over the father's plot to get rid of his son, and this ultimately lessens the film's emotional impact, but it's undeniably potent stuff. The archive print The Demon was screened on was one of the best I saw all year.
Rudolph Valentino’s first big hit after his legal battle with Famous Players had led to a two-year break, The Eagle stars the Latin Lover in a role tailor-made for his abilities. He’s the masked avenger, out to take down a land baron while simultaneously falling for his daughter. It's a terrifically enjoyable adventure, played with flair by its charismatic cast; aside from the Valentino, who gives a deft and funny star turn, I particularly enjoyed Louise Dresser as The Czarina and James Marcus as the villain, who quivers with fear whenever The Black Eagle is mentioned. The film boasts impressive stuntwork by Valentino, and it's very nicely directed by Clarence Brown, with some striking compositions and ambitious tracking shots, including one great shot that tracks backwards across a dining table and recalls the later tracking shot in Wings.
Nell Gwyn is the story of the impoverished orange seller who charmed King Charles II, and the title role is a perfect one for Dorothy Gish. She gives a terrifically vibrant, funny and charming performance, and takes advantage of any opportunity to show off her comic gifts - notably when she wears the biggest hat you've ever seen to mock her rival. Herbert Wilcox does a good job of keeping the story moving and it is an impressively grand production, with the set and costume designers really going to town (although the costume department's key goal appears to have been to reveal as much cleavage as was decently possible). A very entertaining and satisfying picture. Favourite intertitle: "It'll be the ruin of 'er - - baths ain't healthy!"
Despite the English-language title, the couple in this film are not married. Ryukichi (Hisaya Morishige) has run off from his estranged wife with geisha Choko (Awashima Chikage), and this act has resulted in him being cut off from his inheritance. The film details their struggle to build a life together, facing various setbacks and illnesses, while he tries to figure out a way to get the money he feels is his birthright. The story is told from the perspective of Choko, who displays endless reserves of resilience and patience as she strives to make this relationship work, while Ryukichi repeatedly proves himself to be a self-pitying and wasteful fool - when she slaps him or dunks his head in a barrel of water, it's hard not to cheer. Toyoda strikes a fine balance between humour and melodrama, his use of the camera is elegant, and he is brilliant with actors. Every performance in the film is excellent, but the deeply moving and sympathetic Awashima Chikage is absolutely tremendous. Lovely ending.
30 – Strawberry and Chocolate (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, 1993) – Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
This was one of the last films Tomás Gutiérrez Alea made, which he co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabío due to his failing health, and it became the first Cuban film nominated for an Oscar. It's a film about sexual and political freedom in post-Revolution Cuba, with contradictory perspectives being explored through the interactions between gay artist Diego and Communist student David. I really liked the way the dynamic between them developed, with David initially being sent to spy on Diego's subversive activities, but ultimately having his eyes opened and his cultural horizons expanded as a genuine friendship blossomed between them. Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz are both excellent. It's a very warm and engaging drama, but one that also acts as a pointed critique of the country's past.
After this screening I read the New York Times review from 1980, in which Vincent Canby said: "I challenge even the most indulgent fan to give a coherent translation of what passes for an explanation at the end. The movie's metaphysics, bogus anyway, are not helped by the appearance of a creature that looks as if it had been stolen from a Chinese New Year's parade." The print we saw was dated 1981 and it had no such creature, so I presume it was one of the revised copies Disney produced after extensive reshoots (152 endings were reportedly considered). Our version was also shorter, but the ending still didn't make much sense. There was plenty to enjoy here, nonetheless. Ostensibly a kids' film, much of The Watcher in the Woods plays as a straight-up horror, with jump scares, creepy POV shots, a mist-shrouded atmosphere and a genuine sense of threat. There are some neat tricks involving mirrors and - in the same year as The Shining - there's even a possessed child writing backwards!
I do enjoy a good gaslighting mystery, and this one is a lot of fun. Jean Simmons is very good as the young Englishwoman in Paris, who wakes up to find her brother has disappeared – along with his room – with the whole hotel staff insisting that neither he nor the room ever existed. It's got a clever script, it's deftly directed, and it sustains the intrigue extremely well... at least until the bizarre final ten minutes, that feel like they've come from a different movie (and possibly a different century). Aside from Jean and Dirk Bogarde, there's a great collection of character actors to enjoy here. Austin Trevor as the French police chief, Cathleen Nesbitt as the sinister hotel owner and – best of all – a hilariously haughty Betty Warren as Dirk's prospective mother-in-law.
This romance marked Sidney Poitier's solo directorial debut, and even if the storytelling is a bit muddled, it's a very enjoyable picture. I was particularly taken with the intriguing cat-and-mouse element of the first twenty minutes before it settled into something more conventional. Poitier's direction can be quite clumsy, but it's a sweet and earnest film, and I was charmed by it. He and Esther Anderson are terrific together, and it's a shame this was her last film role as she looks every inch a movie star here, with a smile that lights up the screen. The film is a nice snapshot of early-70s London, and I liked the way Poitier weaved aspects of African music and culture into it wherever he could. Presented on an absolutely gorgeous 35mm print.
26 – Police Python 357 (Alain Corneau, 1976) - Ciné Lumière, 35mm
The running time listed for Police Python 357 on IMDb and the Ciné Lumière website was 165 minutes, but this print ran for something like 130. Perhaps half an hour being lopped out of it explains some of the more opaque and mystifying elements. The first half in particular is often bewildering, with abrupt plot developments and tonal shifts, and Stefania Sandrelli playing a character whose personality seems to shift scene by scene (and sometimes mid-scene). When she is killed and the plot kicks into gear, it becomes very compelling - all evidence points to tough lone-wolf cop Yves Montand as the killer, although we know his boss François Périer is the guilty party. There are lots of fun and unexpected twists, including a couple of utterly bizarre twists towards the end, and the film is accompanied by an overblown Georges Delerue score that the characters sometimes switch off as if it's diegetic music. I went into this expecting a fairly straightforward '70s policier, but I got something considerably stranger.
It was a treat to see this lavish Technicolor production on a great 35mm print, as they really went to town on the costume design and decor. Bette Davis also goes to town here. She gives a big, attention-grabbing performance with her shaking limbs and mirror-smashing furies, but she also connects with Elizabeth's underlying emotions, as she wrestles with the conflict between her desire as a woman and her duties as a queen. The script is perceptive in its depiction of the pride, power and ambition that comes between these would-be lovers, and Michael Curtiz's direction is as astute and elegant as ever. I wish Olivia de Havilland had more to do, though. She has a couple of good scenes at the start that suggest she'll be a key player, before being oddly sidelined for much of the movie.
All four of these shorts made by Alia Syed were presented on 16mm and I loved the visual texture of them, with the grainy black-and-white of the first three films leading to the vivid colours of the fourth. I also loved the way she shoots her quotidian subjects; tight close-ups, unexpected angles, shadows, repetitive cycles. Syed matches these images with a narration that I sometimes found hard to grasp - and the muddy soundtrack on Unfolding frustrated me - but seeing these films projected was pretty mesmerising nonetheless. I found myself getting more in tune with Syed's rhythm and perspective as the films progressed, and I found the evening's final film Eating Grass completely captivating, with some visual ideas and cuts that took my breath away.
This Jean Kent vehicle - her favourite of her own pictures - is a pretty charming romp through the music halls and high society of early 20th century London. Kent plays the stage star-turned-Duchess who has an on-off relationship with a balloonist, and she's excellent, playing her role with an infectious, saucy sense of fun. She's very entertaining when performing her songs too, although the musical aspect of the film feels a bit half-baked. The supporting cast features Bill Owen, Hattie Jacques, Lana Morris and James Donald, as well as brief appearances from a young Christopher Lee and Roger Moore. Kent aside, the main reason to see the film is Harry Waxman's lush Technicolor photography, and the vibrant production and costume design.
This portrait of delinquent youth is a real time capsule, full of London teenagers spouting beatnik slang. "You'll really flip your lid." "That's straight from the fridge." "Daddy-o! I'm over and out." Poor old David Farrar looks completely exasperated throughout, reacting with bafflement when he is called a "square": "This language! These words! What do they MEAN!" Gillian Hills is enjoyably cocky and contemptuous as the tearaway teen who wants to expose her stepmother's past and ends up almost being groomed by Christopher Lee. It was amusing to see Oliver Reed goofing about in the background as one of the youths. Beat Girl is rather stiff and unconvincing, and I wish it showed us more of 60s Soho rather than so many studio interiors, but it's an entertaining picture, and John Barry's first film score is really swinging, daddy-o.
This is a fascinating film about a samurai who returns home to face rumours about his wife's infidelity. The truth of what happened between Tane and the travelling drum teacher is gradually pieced together through flashbacks, but that truth is muddied by a series of unreliable narrators. Imai's direction is understated and his pacing is measured, and it took me a while to get involved in this film, which occasionally feels a little stiff despite the excellent, nuanced performances by Rentarō Mikuni and Ineko Arima. I was often more intrigued by the film's sense of period detail and the way it depicts the customs, class distinctions and economic realities of samurai life. But in the final third of the film things suddenly snap into focus, and Imai stages some remarkable scenes as he builds to a tragic, powerful ending.
As I watched Dead Ringer, I had the nagging feeling that I’d seen it before – it was only afterwards that I realised it was a remake of the excellent 1946 Mexican film La Otra, starring Dolores del Río. I can't resist any film involving twins or doppelgängers, and the scenes with Bette Davis playing against herself as both the poor sister Edith and rich sister Margaret are seamlessly done and loads of fun to watch. We only really get two scenes of them interacting before Edith has killed Margaret and assumed her identity, and the rest of the film is about her attempts to get away with it. Davis' former co-star Paul Henreid does a neat job behind the camera, Karl Malden plays another empathetic cop, and Peter Lawford suffers a particularly satisfying gruesome death. Strangely, the print we saw bore the alternative title Dead Image, which is an absolutely terrible title in comparison.
This poetic memory piece begins with an old man (played by the great Chishū Ryū) heading back to his home town, and reminiscing about a teenage love affair that was thwarted by local gossips and interfering family members. The first flashback scene has a blurry iris around the edge of the frame, as if we're viewing this through the haze of the old man's memory, and I thought that effect would diminish as we got into the main narrative, but to my surprise the whole film looks like that. It's an interesting choice and I'm not sure how much the effect really adds to the film, especially as the images captured by Hiroshi Kusuda's camera are so ravishing I didn't want any part of the frame to be obscured. This is an astonishingly beautiful film. Kinoshita's composition is exquisite, and the use of light is breathtaking - I feel blessed to have see this on a print. The story Kinoshita tells is a simple and sad one, played with great feeling and tenderness by his young leads Noriko Arita and Shinji Tanaka, and the inevitable tragic ending is very moving.
I spent so much of this film bracing myself for something tragic, but turns out that all of the tragedy is in the backstory. Waitress Shino is a child of the red light district, while student Tetsuro comes from a family marked by a history of mental illness and suicide. All of this is laid out by the characters as they get to know each other, and while I thought Kei Kumai was building to a dark revelation involving Tetsuro's visually impaired sister, the second half of the film is deliberately anti-climactic. It's just a story about two young people who fall in love, make peace with their pasts, and get married, and Kumai tells this story with great patience and attention to character details. The film trundles along pleasantly at an even pace, which makes it hard to know where exactly we are in the narrative (the abrupt ending took me by surprise), and it's gorgeously shot by Kiyomi Kuroda, with Kumai throwing in a few unexpected stylistic flourishes. The performances from Go Kato and Komaki Kurihara couldn't be better, with Kurihara being particularly captivating. I don't think I've seen this actress in anything else, she had my heart the very first time she smiled.
Based on the title I had anticipated something in the vein of a Hammer horror, so I was completely taken by surprise by this unusual and ambitious picture, which spans decades as it follows the often tragic fortunes of a medical family. The film packs an awful lot into its 96 minutes and director Anthony Kimmins keeps it moving fluidly, with some clever transitions marking time gaps, while Otto Heller lights it superbly. The film was shown to mark Joan Greenwood's centenary, and while she doesn't have as much screen time as one might expect, she is marvellous as the naïve young woman who gets mixed up with the working class George Cole. It's a film of two halves, and the second is distinguished by a very charming Glynis Johns performance - as the straight-talking suffragette who falls for Richard Todd's fiery scientist - and by the fascinating depiction of a pandemic outbreak.
You go into this Hammer production expecting Davis to be the nanny from hell, but for much of the movie she is an innocent, matronly figure, and the real terror is her 10 year-old charge Joey. Surly, demanding, disobedient and constantly up to something, Joey is unquestionably one of the most slappable child characters in film history, and with William Dix's terrific performance, he's a formidable foe for Davis. The uniformly strong acting is the highlight of this picture - Pamela Franklin is also a standout as Joey's teenage neighbour - and the film is a smart and efficient piece of work, which does a good job of keeping us guessing who the real villain is between Joey and The Nanny. Things get a bit more clunky in the final third with some awkward plot developments and motivation shifts (I fear some lines of dialogue were lost in this choppy print too), but it's an incredibly entertaining film.
A fascinating film about race, class and sexuality in 1960s London, exploring how two flatmates, one black and one white, see each other's worlds and their own identity. Jamaican lawyer Andrew carries himself as a perfect English gentleman but knows he will never be accepted as part of the establishment, while advertising executive Roddy is drawn to black culture but often seems to view it as a voyeuristic tourist. "It's a joke: me trying to get into the English middle class, and you trying to get out," Andrew says. Roddy's repressed homosexuality, strongly suggested throughout, is also a key factor in his climactic identity crisis crack-up. Ted Kotcheff puts together some excellent sequences - notably an immersive Caribbean party at Shoreditch Town Hall and a strange, awkward trip to Roddy's crumbling family home - and he gets fine work from his actors. Norman Rossington steals scenes as Roddy's boorish pal, and the late reveal of how he lives is hilarious. Aside from the film's own knotty, compelling qualities, it's a wonderful snapshot of a whole cross-section of London life in this era, and on this knockout print the colours absolutely popped!
A true one-off, The Man Who Stole the Sun is the story of a lazy high school science teacher (superbly played by Kenji Sawada) who decides to steal some plutonium and construct a nuclear bomb in his apartment, but then doesn't seem sure what to do with it. He begins making demands (uninterrupted baseball games on TV, a Rolling Stones concert in Tokyo) but mainly he gets involved in a cat-and-mouse game with a tough detective (Bunta Sugawara). That's about all there is for a plot, and this movie has no business being two and a half hours long, but every time I felt like the movie was starting to stall, something unexpected and ridiculous would happen. The film works as a media satire and a commentary on the absurdity of nuclear proliferation, but generally it works as a shaggy deadpan comedy. There are lots of terrific sequences dotted throughout The Man Who Stole the Sun (the plutonium heist sequence is inspired), but the escalating lunacy of the final 30-40 minutes is truly something to behold, with Bunta Sugawara's performance as the unstoppable cop coming into its own here.
Although he is top-billed, Dirk Bogarde only turns up around halfway through this strange, haunting and completely absorbing picture. Most of the film is carried by the seven children who react to their mother's death by burying her in the back garden and contentedly going on with their lives, while Bogarde delivers a sly turn as their dissolute and conniving father, who decides to exploit this situation. The film is very astute when it comes to the children's behaviour, with the deeply religious convictions their mother embedded in them leading to a couple of dark moments, notably the very upsetting scene when they punish young Gerty by chopping off her hair. Clayton skilfully navigates through a series of tricky scenes and tonal shifts while getting remarkably authentic performances from all of the kids. The sole disappointment is that this 35mm print (the only one available) had faded to a reddish brown hue that didn't do much to show off the work of cinematographer Larry Pizer; he creates some beautiful compositions here, and I'd love to see this undervalued film restored to its original look.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Denis Villeneuve film I saw in 2021 which consisted of people wandering about in the desert. No, not Dune (which I never got around to seeing, as I generally find Villeneuve to be a crushing bore), but his eccentric debut August 32nd on Earth. The film has a sense of humour and a brash, youthful energy and romanticism that I found very appealing, and the chemistry between Pascale Bussières and Alexis Martin kept me hooked. I also loved André Turpin's widescreen images and the way he framed the two lead characters against their surroundings. This is very much the attention-grabbing work of a first-time director, full of showy camera moves and jump-cuts. I don't know what it ultimately adds up to, and towards the end it feels like he has no idea how to finish the story, but it's pretty captivating in the moment, and it's probably the only Denis Villeneuve film I'd consider watching more than once.
Originally, this film apparently opened with a solemn address by a police officer denouncing the trafficking of girls into the London sex trade. We didn't get that on this print, which begins with a clever credits sequence focusing on the legs of pedestrians, before revealing the stunning form of Diana Dors. She's one of the prostitutes working for a sinister pimp played by Herbert Lom, who operates two adjoining brothels; one "classy" establishment, and the low-rent rooms next door where uncooperative girls are sent. The story is lurid but compelling, and it's directed with a real sense of style by Rakoff, who uses the camera expressively (Nic Roeg was the operator) and throws in a surreal nightmare sequence. The cast is strong all the way down. Eddie Constantine and Odile Versois are surprisingly sweet in their scenes together, and Robert Brown is a welcome presence as Eddie's loyal pal. Jackie Collins and Joan Sims make an impression with their brief roles, and there's even a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance for Michael Caine and Anne Reid.
I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've seen Fisher Price named in a film's end credits as a supplier of camera equipment. Blending Jim Denault's atmospheric cinematography with the grainy, smeary 'pixelvision' of his toy camera is just one of the ways Almereyda experiments with vision and sound to create something really unusual and compelling. Nadja is a playful spin on the Dracula story, casting Elina Löwensohn and Jared Harris as the vampire's offspring, and exploring their entangled family dynamics. The film is a little clunky and uneven, but it boasts an unexpected and welcome streak of goofy humour (much of it provided by Peter Fonda's Van Helsing), and it's such a distinctive product of the mid-90s indie filmmaking scene, existing partway between Hal Hartley and Abel Ferrara, whose similarly styled The Addiction was made a year later. It was a real privilege to discover this film on what is the only 35mm print that still exists in Europe.
Silence Has No Wings begins with a young boy catching a rare butterfly (a gorgeous sequence) but failing to convince anyone that he really caught it, and then the film follows a caterpillar as it travels across Japan - even taking a detour via Hong Kong - and gives us a bug's eye view of Japanese society. We meet characters involved in crime and vice, others engaged with a protest movement, and some haunted by their status as survivors of the atomic bomb. The film feels allegorical and political, and concerned with questions of freedom and transformation, but it's hard to discern what it's ultimately about. However, I was completely entranced by Kazuo Kuroki's filmmaking. The film is full of amazing close-ups (of both humans and insects), bold angles, freeze-frames and jarring cuts. It's one of the most visually striking films I've seen this year, and I found the experience of watching it incredibly stimulating and beguiling, even as it confounded me.
One of the notorious flops that led to Robert Altman being exiled from Hollywood in the early 1980s, Quintet is a wintry post-apocalyptic film that moves at a glacial pace, is built around a game that remains completely impenetrable, and consists of a series of enigmatic conversations that do little to further our understanding of these characters and their motivations. I guess it’s not hard to see why this sci-fi epic failed to find an audience in a post-Star Wars world. This is a bewildering film on so many levels, but it's also a mesmerising one. Quintet is an extraordinarily atmospheric production, with some remarkable location work and production design creating a desolate, brutal world where humanity has lost all sense of hope. It’s the kind of film that nobody but Robert Altman would have made, and I'm glad I got to discover it on such an impeccable print. For better and for worse, there's nothing quite like it.
A gang of orphans and a repatriated soldier form a kind of makeshift family as they travel through postwar Japan in this remarkable film. Shimizu takes a neo-realist approach, casting non-professionals and shooting on location, and he has given us a fascinating perspective on a country devastated by war, and in particular the innocent victims forced to do anything to survive. In his introduction to this screening, co-programmer Alexander Jacoby mentioned Kore-eda as a successor to Shimizu, and there is certainly a kinship in their ability to bring out the personalities and emotions of children on screen. Children of the Beehive is initially charming and funny, but it saves some astonishingly powerful moments for its second half. There's a haunting scene set at Hiroshima, and another where one of the boys carries his friend up a steep mountain, which is a legitimately stunning and ultimately heartbreaking sequence.
Is there anything better than watching black-and-white widescreen Japanese films projected from 35mm? There's something irresistible about the look of so many films from this era of Japanese cinema, and Pale Flower is among the most ravishing, with its sensational high-contrast nocturnal cinematography and countless brilliantly crafted compositions. Shinoda's direction is so exhilarating, and perfectly suited to this story of bored characters chasing ever more dangerous thrills ("I'll show you something even better than dope. I'm going to kill a man. Want to come?"). I loved watching all the gambling scenes despite having no idea what was going on, I loved every close-up on the stunning and enigmatic Mariko Kaga, and I loved the melancholy ending. It's just an incredibly exciting and satisfying film to watch on the big screen.
Shot in Academy ratio black-and-white, Oguri's debut feature is a self-conscious homage to the cinema of Japan's Golden Age, but this is no nostalgia piece. Seen from the perspective of nine-year-old Nobuo, who befriends the neglected children of a local prostitute, the film is a portrait of those left behind by Japan's postwar prosperity, and a critique of the nation that left its returning veterans to live and die in poverty. Oguri fills his film with beautifully observed moments, and the scene where Nobuo's family invite his new friends to dinner is a masterclass in acting and framing. Shōhei Andō's gorgeous lighting was well served by this excellent print, and the last few minutes of the film are heartbreaking. Muddy River should be regarded as yet another Japanese entry in the annals of the great films about childhood.
I always worry with anthology films that one story is going to let the side down, but there's no chance of that here. Each of the short stories in Tales From The Hood is superbly crafted, and they add up to one hugely enjoyable and satisfying package. What's really remarkable about the film is that for all of its humour, invention and spectacular deaths (and this film has some REALLY spectacular deaths), it engages with social issues and black history in a fascinating way. Tales From The Hood explores police brutality, gang warfare, drugs, domestic abuse, right-wing politics and reparations, but the film's engagement with these subjects never feels heavy-handed or gets in the way of the comedy and horror. The film is full of bold, surprising and potent imagery, and at its centre it boasts a very memorable performance from Clarence Williams III, with his wild eyes and crazy grin and milking every bit of juice from the phrase "The shit." It's an extraordinary film and it was a privilege to see it on an absolutely spotless 35mm print.
A work of such simplicity and purity. Ten shots of the sky, each lasting for around ten minutes, although some felt much shorter than others to me. Cloud formations drift across the screen, some illuminated by a celestial light while others are dark and heavy. In the distance we hear the drone of an airplane, muffled and indistinct conversations, and even some gunshots, but whatever is happening outside the frame, Benning just keeps his camera pointed upwards. Ten Skies invites us to give our attention to something that is always in sight but often goes unnoticed; we are given the time and space to look at the sky, contemplate it, react to it, and let our thoughts drift along with it. Seeing this film projected from a 16mm print with an attentive audience was entirely entrancing, and more moving than I anticipated. A really special cinema experience.
I'd somehow never heard of this movie before I sat down to watch it at the BFI, but it had me laughing for two solid hours. The Epsteins' screenplay (from a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman) is wall-to-wall acerbic dialogue, with the lion's share of it consisting of the venomous insults that Monty Woolley spits at anyone who comes near him. Sheridan Whiteside is a monstrous character and Woolley absolutely relishes every single line. Davis gives the film its understated emotional centre while the rest of the actors are allowed to go hilariously big, but this is a real ensemble piece, with everyone pulling their weight and displaying crack comic timing. Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner, Mary Wickes and George Barbier are the standouts, while William Keighley handles the escalating chaos and multiple plot threads with impressive efficiency.
The prime focus of Mizoguchi's career was the plight of women in Japanese society, and this is one of his most forceful and explicitly political works. Kinuyo Tanaka is magnificent as the woman trying to assert her independence against the backdrop of late-19th century political turmoil, aligning herself with a Liberal Party politician who talks about equality but whose personal actions don't measure up. Mizoguchi drives his points home in a surprisingly blunt manner here, and he includes scenes of violence that I found genuinely shocking, while the threat of rape feels ever present. But Mizoguchi presents this raw, bleak drama with breathtaking style; there are so many shots in here that are staggering in their elegance and precision, and the way he moves the camera through a number of extended sequences is the work of a master. The closing image of female solidarity is deeply moving. My Love Has Been Burning was made just before Mizoguchi began his incredible career-defining run of 1950s films, but it's an unjustly obscure film that deserves to be more widely seen.