And so, we come to the end of the first full year of cinemagoing I’ve enjoyed since 2019, although I can’t help feeling that I haven’t quite got back up to full speed yet. In total I saw 290 films on the big screen this year, which is a marked decrease on my numbers from 2019 (400) or in previous years when I would habitually break 300. There are a number of factors at play here – including real life, illness and work just getting in the way – but I think part of it is that I have become more discerning since the pandemic. I used to try and see anything and everything, but now I think I have come to realise that life is just too short to spend it watching movies I probably won’t like or remember.
That dip in cinemagoing enthusiasm is primarily related to new releases, however – I only saw 134 of those – and my passion for repertory cinema, particularly film projections, remains as fervent as ever. I attended 156 screenings of older films in 2022; a total that included 123 on 35mm, five on 16mm and one on 70mm. (I also saw one new release on 70mm this year, Kenneth Branagh’s long-delayed and instantly forgettable Death on the Nile.) I remain very grateful to all the cinemas listed below, who have continued to present rarely seen works and frequently collaborate with independent curators to bring a wider variety of films to our screens. A special mention here for the ICA, who have been great partners for The Badlands Collective this year, helping us present beautiful 35mm prints of The Dead, Saint Jack and The Sweet Hereafter to audiences, many of whom were experiencing these films for the first time. There is nothing more satisfying than introducing somebody to a great film and seeing them fall in love with it. The ICA appears to be upping the 35mm ante in 2023 with their new Celluloid Sundays strand, and I’d encourage every Londoner reading this to get one of their Red Memberships, which is surely the best value deal available for cinephiles in the capital.
Such screenings feel more precious than ever now, as these are tough times for cinema. The instantaneous collapse of film culture in Edinburgh and Aberdeen earlier this year was a shocking reminder of just how perilous the situation is. There are efforts being made to rescue the Edinburgh Film Festival, but what will happen to the Edinburgh Filmhouse or the Belmont Cinema in Aberdeen? Not only were these cinemas vital cultural centres, they were invaluable as community hubs, and their absence leaves a huge void that needs to be filled by something. The owners of the Filmhouse have already rejected a number of bids aimed at maintaining the space as a cinema – is its fate to be sold to developers to be converted into another office or block of flats? In London currently the Curzon Mayfair – one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful cinemas – finds its future under threat from developers. A city without culture is a city without a soul but we live in an age where culture increasingly needs to justify its existence and fight for every scrap. We have to continue the fight in 2023 and support all these venues, to show how vital they are in our daily lives.
Without further ado, here are my favourite film discoveries of the year.
50 – I Was an Adventuress (Gregory Ratoff, 1940) – Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, 35mmThis is not a great film, but it has some great material in it, notably the inspired decision to cast Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre as a pair of conmen who have been working together for years and act like an old married couple. They play off each other beautifully and both display pin-sharp comic timing, which would have been perfect for the kind of snappy caper movie that this movie shows promise as in its early stages. Alas, the extraordinarily dull romantic pairing of Richard Greene and ballet dancer Zorina – along with a lengthy ballet sequence shoehorned in towards the end – means von Stroheim and Lorre are rather sidelined for much of the movie, but they’re so good together they make you wish the whole movie had been about them.
49 – Original Gangstas (Larry Cohen, 1996) – BFI Southbank, 35mmA victory lap for a group of Blaxploitation icons, with Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Pam Grier teaming up to take on the gang of youths terrorising their community. Larry Cohen makes good use of the rusting steel mills and derelict storefronts of Gary, Indiana, but his direction is generally perfunctory, and he relies heavily on the charm of his cast to carry the picture. Fortunately, it’s a hell of a cast. The three leads are joined by Ron O'Neal and Richard Roundtree in their vigilante squad, while reverend Paul Winfield attempts to keep the peace. Robert Forster is the cop always a step behind the action, and I enjoyed Charles Napier and Wings Hauser as the mayor and his obsequious aide. The action in the explosive finale is ludicrous and cheesy, but watching these charismatic stars take down a bunch of cocky gangsta wannabes half their age is extremely satisfying.
48 – Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996) – BFI Southbank, 35mmI’d always been intrigued by this film after reading a dismissal from the art critic Robert Hughes that described it as “a film about our worst dead artist, made by our worst living one." That's a good line, but it's also pretty harsh. As a director, Schnabel is all over the place, capable of creating moments of beauty and imagination, but frequently wayward and heavy-handed. Jeffrey Wright gives a sensitive and nuanced performance at the film's centre, but he is often eclipsed by the actors he is surrounded by. David Bowie is an amusingly awkward Warhol, Gary Oldman is the Schnabel stand-in, Dennis Hopper is Bruno Bischofberger and Parker Posey is Mary Boone. There is a lot to enjoy in watching these actors play and in Schnabel's idiosyncratic style, and while Schnabel doesn't make much of a case for Basquiat's art or give us a great deal of insight into it, but he does do an effective job of showing what it was like for him as a black artist exploited and pigeonholed in the New York art scene of the 1980s.
47 – Death Wish 3 (Michael Winner, 1985) – Prince Charles Cinema, 35mmAfter the unremitting ugliness of Death Wish 2, the third of Winner's vigilante fantasies is a preposterously entertaining experience, with 64 year-old Charles Bronson wiping out a whole army of thugs in New York (actually Lambeth). As usual with Winner, the film consists of cack-handed action, bizarre shot choices, awkward close-ups and mismatched cuts, but it's a hilarious and often jaw-dropping picture, especially in the insanely overblown action of the final twenty minutes, where Bronson takes to the streets with a bazooka and Martin Balsam – as a taxi driver who keeps a machine gun in his closet – getting thrown out of a window. Pure trash and an incredibly fun film to watch with an audience. We were also treated to a conversation between Alex Winter and Edgar Wright after this screening, with Winter comparing the Michael Winner experience to being directed by the Peter O'Toole character from The Stunt Man.
46 – Jury's Evidence (Ralph Ince, 1936) – BFI Southbank, 35mmFor about 69 of its 70 minutes, Jury's Evidence plays as an above-average quota quickie, but then it ends with a whiplash-inducing twist that casts a different complexion over the whole film. The film begins and ends in a courtroom, where a man is on trial for the murder of his wife. In the jury room, foreman Hartley Power tries to convince his fellow jurors of the man's innocence by spinning a yarn that imagines each of them in the key roles, with Power himself playing the lecherous boss of Margaret Lockwood's innocent secretary. The bulk of the film consists of this speculative reconstruction, and it's a lot of fun. The direction is tight, the dialogue is witty, and the performances have a lot of character (especially a scene-stealing Jane Millican as the brusque and very loud Agatha). The film cleverly maintains the mystery about what actually happened right up to the end, but then that final twist sends you out of the cinema reeling.
45 – For Me and My Gal (Busby Berkeley, 1942) – BFI Southbank, 35mmThis film marked Judy Garland's first adult role and it was Gene Kelly's first screen role of any kind. He seems a little green in the dramatic moments, which is where Garland's emotionally charged work really shines. The film is less Busby Berkeley-ish than you might expect, with the director perhaps being constrained by the realistic vaudeville setting and the fact that he's directing a wartime propaganda piece. The shadow of the Great War hangs over the film's first half, and the most interesting aspect of the film is the way Kelly's character is shunned as a coward for injuring himself to beat the draft. Of course, he has to find redemption, and the way he does so is ludicrous, with Kelly marching through No Man's Land to single-handedly take out an enemy gun embankment. When the film was previewed the dissatisfied audience felt Garland should end up with George Murphy's character rather than Kelly, which led to three weeks of re-shoots to make his cynical and opportunistic character more appealing. Perhaps these re-shoots explain why the film feels uneven and awkwardly paced at times, and Murphy's character still ends up coming across as the better man anyway.
44 – Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke (Yasujirō Shimazu, 1935) – BFI Southbank, 35mmKinuyo Tanaka plays a blind woman in this film, but the actress makes no plea for our sympathy. Her character Okoto is stubborn and prickly, often displaying a superior and dismissive attitude to those around her, including her besotted servant Sasuke (Kokichi Takada), who remains completely devoted to her. Parts of the movie can feel a little sluggish and wayward - some details, like the pregnancy plot, don't really land - but it's mostly absorbing. It's fascinating to watch the power dynamics between Okoto and the two men who desire her (with Tatsuo Saitō's playboy clumsily pursuing her), and the performances are excellent. What really distinguishes Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke is its extraordinary ending, with Shimazu's direction growing bolder and more expressive as the film moves towards a strange, sad and haunting climax.
43 – Stevie (Robert Enders, 1978) – BFI Southbank, 35mm"Eh, you are a difficult girl sometimes," Stevie Smith's aunt tells her a couple of times in this film. This is a portrait of a prickly and awkward artist who resisted relationships and feared change, an approach to life that allowed her poetry to thrive but also left her with a sense of loneliness and often despair. She's a hard woman to get close to, but having a peak-era Glenda Jackson playing her ensures she is always fascinating. Mona Washbourne is an excellent foil for Jackson, and Trevor Howard appears as a kind of on-screen narrator who is credited only as "The Man." Much of the film consists of Stevie narrating her life story directly to the camera from the living room of the suburban house she shared with her aunt, and it can feel a bit suffocating and dry, although I admired the intelligent and occasionally incisive writing, and the way Stevie's poetry was woven into the piece to reveal more of Stevie's character. "I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning."
42 – Greased Lightning (Michael Schultz, 1977) – BFI Southbank, 35mmA pretty straight role for Richard Pryor in this biopic of Wendell Scott, the first black NASCAR driver. The first half of the movie deals with his early days as a bootlegger, outwitting the redneck cops (led by Vincent Gardenia's Sheriff Cotton), before he joins the racing circuit and is instantly made a target by the white drivers. Some boilerplate writing and direction, but the film squeezes a fair bit of tension out of the final race, when Wendell is so determined to win he sets off with a half-screwed tire. Pryor is on very good form here and he's supported by a fine cast. Cleavon Little is his right-hand man, Pam Grier is solid in a stereotypical wife role, Beau Bridges is the racing rival who becomes a close friend, and Richie Havens plays his mechanic, while also contributing a couple of songs to the soundtrack.
41 – Sheba, Baby (William Girdler, 1975) – BFI Southbank, 35mmPam Grier's Sheba is a private eye returning to her home town to singlehandedly take down the criminal organisation threatening her father in this decent blaxploitation picture. It suffers from some pretty hamfisted direction but I enjoyed Pam coming up with inventive ways to get information out of people, with the car wash scene being a highlight. There are also some colourful character turns, notably from D'Urville Martin, Christipher Joy (hilarious as Walker the loan shark), and the extremely smarmy Dick Merrifield as the chief villain of the piece. The film builds to a strong climax with a speedboat chase and Grier apparently doing a lot of her own stunts. The final scene between her and Austin Stoker made me think of her saying goodbye to Robert Forster in Jackie Brown.
40 – Vida en sombres (Lorenzo Llobet Gracia, 1949) – Close-Up, DigitalThis film was quickly forgotten after its 1949 premiere and suffered numerous drastic re-edits over the years, so while this restoration is not quite its director's original vision, it's the most complete version we are ever likely to get. This is the only feature Lorenzo Llobet Gracia ever directed, which is a shame, as he uses the camera beautifully at times, and the film originally contained an extremely ambitious single-take tracking shot, that we only have fragments of. It is a film about cinephilia, with its protagonist being born with the medium – his mother goes into labour at a demonstration of the Lumière brothers' new invention – and growing up through its silent and sound eras to become a filmmaker himself. He loses faith when he blames his cinema obsession for the death of his wife, but then the power of cinema - specifically Hitchcock's Rebecca - rekindles his passion. Vida en sombres is a little rough around the edges, but it's heartfelt, funny, skilfully made, and it has a lovely ending.
One of the crop of New York-based indie vampire movies that emerged in the mid-90s, although Larry Fessenden pointed out in the Q&A that he'd made a version of Habit as a film student, and so he'd rather be seen as a pioneer instead of being lumped in with the likes of Nadja and The Addiction. Like those features, Habit roots the vampire myth in a sense of everyday reality, with the distorted perspective of Fessenden's drunk and depressed protagonist adding a note of ambiguity to the events presented. Shot with a tiny crew on a budget of $60,000, the film looks fantastic, with Frank DeMarco's inventive 16mm photography mostly using available light and providing us with a wonderfully atmospheric snapshot of New York in this era. Aside from Fessenden, the cast is rounded out by the very funny Aaron Beall ("For that, she's a vampire? because she won't shit in front of you?") and the compellingly enigmatic Meredith Snaider. In his Q&A, Fessenden revealed that Snaider was creeped out by the exploitative roles she was offered on the back of this film, and so she quit acting and became a psychiatrist. Habit ended up being her only screen appearance, and she certainly makes a lasting impression in this absorbing, visceral and haunting picture.
There’s something a bit small and mundane about Robert Lieberman's film of an apparent true story of alien abduction. The director makes it look handsome enough, with some nice widescreen compositions, but he can't generate a great deal of genuine tension or excitement, and Tracy Tormé's screenplay is full of clunky, clichéd scenes. I think the filmmakers needed to dig a lot more into the trauma and readjustment of the returning Travis, especially as it was adapted from his memoir, but they don't seem to know where to take the story in its second half and it ends on a weirdly truncated and unsatisfying note. However, it earns a place in this list thanks to a truly extraordinary sequence depicting a subjective experience of alien abduction, which is brilliantly designed and contains some genuinely startling horror movie imagery. One wonders if the Wachowskis had this film in mind when they were creating The Matrix? It honestly feels like it has been dropped into the middle of this story from another, more visceral movie, and it’s so remarkable as a standalone sequence it earns this generally underwhelming film a place on the list.
There's a compelling tension in this film between the fervent propaganda of the government-approved script and Kinoshita's emphasis on the human cost of war. The film extols the virtues of honour, duty and devotion to the Emperor, and almost every conversation centres on these ideas. One character, as he lies dying in hospital, chastises his son for rushing to his bedside instead of first paying his respects at the imperial palace, while another is criticised for worrying about his son's fate at the front instead of considering the bigger picture of the army's success. Kinoshita enlivens some potentially stodgy scenes with his dynamic camerawork and expert composition, and by drawing on the emotional power of great actors like Kinuyo Tanaka and Chishū Ryū. But his filmmaking intelligence really shines in the film's closing stretch, which poignantly focuses on Tanaka's emotions as a mother watching her son march off to war, probably to never return. This perspective potently undercuts the nationalistic flag-waving of the moment, and it caused outrage among the top brass, with Kinoshita being accused of treason. As the director later said, "I can’t lie to myself in my dramas. I couldn’t direct something that was like shaking hands and saying, ‘Come die.’”
One year after Get Carter, Michael Caine and Mike Hodges reunited for this eccentric noir pastiche, which plunges Caine's nonchalant novelist into a confounding mystery. The film acknowledges its influence by throwing in Bogart and Lorre lookalikes – although the Joan Crawford, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow promised by the credits found online didn't appear as far as I could see. The central plot isn't particularly interesting at all but the film offers ample pleasures around it, with a number of surprising visual and verbal gags, and a strong atmosphere. I also appreciated the oddball performances from Dennis Price, Lionel Stander and Al Lettieri, and the final screen appearance from Lizabeth Scott. Best of all is Mickey Rooney, who really goes for it and squeezes every drop of energy and comedy out of his minutes on screen.
"Just take your cute little behind out there and get those pictures and, god damn it, don't get involved." Needless to say, photojournalist Friday Foster is soon deeply involved in an absurdly convoluted conspiracy, and everyone is trying to kill her. This may be my favourite Pam Grier performance of the ‘70s. She's relaxed and funny and she looks absolutely sensational; she steals a hearse and a milk truck; and she has a sparkling rapport with the always-brilliant Yaphet Kotto. This film also offers a nutty Eartha Kitt cameo, a rooftop punch-up between Kotto and Carl Weathers, a very flamboyant Godfrey Cambridge, and Scatman Crothers as a dirty-minded priest. As an added bonus, the 35mm print we had for this screening was one of the most beautiful I saw all year.
I'm not sure why Natacha Régnier didn't go on to have a much bigger career. She followed Erick Zonca's masterpiece The Dream Life of Angels with this film, and she's sensational in both. She's incredibly charismatic as the seductive teenager who manipulates Jérémie Renier into committing a murder for her. The pair hit the road, and there's something amusing about their naïveté and constant bickering in this situation – after holding up a jewellery store, Régnier complains that they should have robbed a bakery instead so they could have taken croissants and cinnamon rolls. The film doesn't develop into the classic Lovers on the Run picture that it suggests, however. They get lost in the woods, and here the film ventures into weirder territory but unfortunately it also becomes a bit too static, with the ending feeling rushed and perfunctory. The montage of animal reaction shots as Alice and Luc have sex by the waterfall is very funny, though.
I don't think Sophia Loren's character ever wears pink tights in this film, which is just one of the odd things about George Cukor's only western. His depiction of the wild west is a deliberately theatrical and artificial one, following a travelling theatre troupe as they go from one state to another, leaving behind a trail of bad debts. The film is a bit of a mish-mash with a number of plot elements that feel forced together – and Cukor apparently disowned the final cut – but it's a beautiful spectacle. The colourful production and costume design and Harold Lipstein's Technicolor cinematography is dazzling. The performances are very enjoyable too. Anthony Quinn gives a sweetly humble turn, while Sophia Loren is simply radiant. She plays her sly, flirtatious character with a light comic touch, and she's wonderful in the scene where she tries to hustle the poker game.
The Norwegian thriller Thin Ice opens with a statement assuring us that there are no 'fakes' in the film, and all the external shots were filmed high in the Norwegian mountains. The footage is genuinely stunning, from the ski-jumping that opens the film to the train heist at the centre of the plot. The shots of the train ploughing through the snow are amazing, and the nocturnal scenes are expertly captured by Günther Krampf, whose lighting is spectacular throughout. How lucky we were to see it on a terrific 35mm print. The plot is pretty ridiculous – the whole motivation for the heist is flimsy at best, and puts the film's hero on morally shaky ground – but it's really absorbing stuff, directed with wit and flair.
31 – Mother (Mikio Naruse, 1952) – BFI Southbank, 35mmAnother exceptional performance from Kinuyo Tanaka is at the heart of Mikio Naruse's poignant drama. She plays the mother of the title, a hard-working woman who strives to keep her family together even as illness, death and financial strife conspire against her. Tanaka plays this humble, self-sacrificing character with such understated authenticity, and Naruse uses her great facility to communicate volumes in wordless close-ups - I was so moved by the shot of her reacting to seeing Toshiko in the wedding dress. Toshiko is played by the great Kyōko Kagawa, whose performance is absolutely adorable, with her smile lighting up the screen. In fact, every actor in the ensemble plays a vital part in the vivid sense of real life being lived that Naruse creates here. Mother is also very funny at times, and the inspired "The End" gag that Naruse throws in halfway through the picture completely caught the BFI audience off-guard.
As in her amazing 1932 picture Merrily We Go to Hell, Arzner shows a knack for capturing the acute embarrassment of drunken behaviour and the strain it can place on a relationship, with a ruined dinner party being a particular highlight in this film. Ruth Chatterton is wonderful as the down on her luck ex-showgirl who gets accidentally married to a drunken lawyer and resolves to make a go of it, despite being very out of place among his high society circle. Arzner's direction is full of neat touches – the business with the fans is a delightful callback – and she stages scenes with some excellent and inventive blocking.
The chief pleasure of this slow-burning Cannes-set thriller is watching two generations of French stars play off each other, with the disparity between their screen personae being reflected in their characters. As the grumpy old-school crook, Jean Gabin is stolid and precise, while his partner Alain Delon is flashy, arrogant and more of a wildcard. It's also a pleasure to watch the work of cinematographer Louis Page, who produces some exceptional widescreen compositions and does great work with minimal light during the heist. Henri Verneuil takes his time getting to the heist itself, and he throws in a number of elements – the wife, the dancer, the shaky brother-in-law – that feel like setups for something but are dropped as soon as their purpose in the plot has been fulfilled. This keeps the film tense and unpredictable right up to the extraordinary ending, which is reminiscent of Kubrick's The Killing but has a strange and lyrical quality that is most unexpected.
A dark and twisted little picture about two drifters (Corey Allen and Warren Oates, in one of his earliest roles) who follow a rich wife home with the intention of seducing her. The film is a slow-burning psychosexual thriller. As the two men lurk in the abandoned house next door, we see glimpses of the wife and her husband (Kate Manx and Robert Ward) and get a sense of the dissatisfaction that leaves her open to the advances of the confident and charismatic Allen, who approaches her while the more awkward (and possibly gay) Oates watches from the sidelines. Shot on a tiny budget, this is a tightly focused and potent piece of filmmaking that benefits greatly from some terrifically imaginative and purposeful cinematography by Ted McCord, which often puts us in the voyeurs' perspective; at one point, the window they spy on her from is framed as if they are watching TV. (The underwater shots were captured by another great: Conrad Hall.) Private Property is unnerving and suggestive, and it's perhaps unsurprising that it was condemned by the Legion of Decency upon its release, before slipping into obscurity soon after. Now restored, it's a very welcome rediscovery.
This is yet another of the great Iranian films about childhood. Played with irrepressible spirit by Madjid Niroumand, Amiro is an orphan who does whatever he can to earn money – collecting bottles, shining shoes, selling ice water – and as he strives against the odds we see his unshakeable determination and resilience. The film is plotless, unfolding as a series of moments that follow Amiro and his pals at work and play, and Naderi lets their energy dictate the rhythm of the film, resulting in a film that feels thrillingly alive from one scene to the next. The Runner is visually stunning, making brilliant use of locations, and Firooz Malekzadeh's camera captures a series of breathtaking compositions – I loved the shot of Amiro cycling down the runway in front of a plane, or the incredible triumphant shot of him holding his block of ice aloft against the backdrop of the oil fires. Amiro's desire for escape and education gives The Runner a powerful sense of poignancy and resonance.
In his introduction to this, his only film as a director, Arby Ovanessian talked about the importance of establishing a specifically Iranian tempo in this film at a time when most Iranian cinema was following the rhythm of the commercial cinema from America, France or Russia. This film could be quite a straightforward tale of forbidden love, but he has created an enigmatic, poetic, dreamlike picture that slowly and steadily cast me under its spell. With its deliberate movement and gestures, repetitive rhythms and cryptic conversations, the film it most reminded me of was Last Year at Marienbad, while the luminous cinematography by Ne’mat Haghighi put me in mind of Subrata Mitra's work. The film is full of beautiful frames and bold cuts. It's mysterious and often elusive, but I found it really hypnotic and feel so lucky to have had the chance to see it on the only print that exists, which was thankfully archived by Henri Langlois shortly after the film's first paris screening.
This charming German comedy gets going with a fun meet-cute, as Max Hansen and Jenny Jugo are forced into cohabitation after he dives into her bed to evade the police. Hansen, who was loathed by the Nazis (he performed a skit in 1932 that portrayed Hitler as a homosexual), is an energetic and endearing comic performer, and he has a sparkling chemistry with Jugo. The film sets up and executes a number imaginative and funny gags – particularly in the long sequence at the fair – and has a pointed take on class distinctions in 1930s Germany, with the cunning showed by Hansen and his pal (Willi Schur) allowing them to outwit the bourgeoisie, here embodied by Otto Wallburg.
Bones feels like a mashup of haunted house, zombie, vampire, and blaxploitation movies, and it's directed with real style. There are some very impressive and icky practical effects (the City of the Dead sequence put me in mind of Brian Yuzna's Society), and Dickerson stages a couple of fine set-pieces, notably the one involving a huge amount of maggots. Snoop Dogg is the ex-crime boss resurrected from the dead and in search of revenge, and Pam Grier is his psychic ex-lover, and the plot is neatly set up to pay off in a pretty satisfying way. It's got some sharp and funny lines too; I loved it when Snoop was carrying around the still-talking severed head of one of his victims, who says, "I killed you, you killed me, we're even! Damn, why you gotta get all meta-fucking-physical?"
This film recreates the lynching of five students by an angry mob that took place in Canoa in September 1968, and Felipe Cazals presents this horrific act in meticulous detail. The violence is brutal and sickening. These villagers were whipped up into a frenzy by the all-powerful local priest, who had accused the innocent students of being Communists plotting to destroy their way of life. The Church is portrayed here as a criminal racket, leeching money from the poor villagers and controlling how the mostly illiterate masses receive their news. Cazals takes a faux-documentary approach in the long build-up to the explosion of violence, including having characters break the fourth wall, and the film's take on the power of right-wing rhetoric and propaganda to stir up hatred feels powerfully resonant.
A hundred years on, this remains an incredible spectacle. The sets are huge and packed with countless extras, while the production and costume design (the latter by Mitchell Leisen) was clearly crafted with an eye for realism and detail. Fairbanks doesn't appear in his Robin Hood guise until more than half of the movie has elapsed, but I love the way he is introduced; we see a number of his arrows targeting Prince John's men, before he fleetingly appears at the castle windows and leads the soldiers on a merry dance. Fairbanks is marvellous, but everyone is on very good form here, with Dwan creating a thrilling adventure that is well-paced, superbly shot, witty and surprisingly violent.
This was Satyajit Ray's penultimate film, and although it's a story he had written decades earlier, it's impossible to miss the personal resonance in the story of a 70-year-old man recovering from a heart attack. Ray's health problems restricted him to making a film that takes place almost entirely indoors, but his effortless grasp of film craft ensures the film never feels stagey or static. This is a consummate late film, directed with an elegant simplicity and economy. The fluid camerawork is always shifting in and out of close-ups and finding new compositions within the scene, and Ray subtly shifts our perspective on these characters too, as he reveals his theme of moral corruption through a series of absorbing conversations. The ending is very touching. A superb late work from a master.
I guess you could call this picture a heist film, but it's a heist film with no tension and no peril. Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley decide to steal three sea turtles from London Zoo to release them into the ocean, and they just do it with relative ease, thanks to the help of a jovial and completely unfazed zookeeper played by Michael Gambon. The film is really about these lonely and stuck characters liberating themselves and finding a connection with each other, and all of Harold Pinter's efforts go into developing this aspect of the film, with the great turtle robbery being almost incidental. The film is full of awkward encounters between people who each have their own quirks, and Pinter's writing is perfect for these lonely English eccentrics. Turtle Diary is a resolutely low-key picture that trundles along at its own gentle pace and takes a number of unexpected detours. It's funny and odd and occasionally quite sad, and I was completely charmed by it.
Aravindan Govindan apparently began this project with a script that ran to just four pages, and he discovered the rest during the production. There is often something Wiseman-like about the footage he captures of this travelling circus as they bring their show into town and perform for the villagers, whose delighted reaction shots are a highlight. The cinematography is stunning throughout, and although the film unfolds at a steady pace and creates a repetitive rhythm, it is usually entrancing. There are also some remarkably potent moments when Govindan gets some of the older members of the troupe to stare directly at the camera as we hear their inner monologue. They tell us how they joined the circus as young children, how many decades they have been performing for, and how tired they are.
Melina Mercouri's effervescent spirit is this movie's driving force. From the moment Ilya encourages all the dock workers to leap into the sea in the opening scene, it's clear that she has the entire island captivated, and the audience soon falls under her spell too. Dassin casts himself (with more enthusiasm than skill) as American tourist Homer, who sees her as a symbol of a lost Greek civilisation. He vows to educate her and to rescue her against her will from a life of prostitution and fantasy, but the film skewers Homer's pretension and condescension rather than try to force a romantic Pygmalion narrative on Ilya. The story is slight but Dassin's direction is full of lively frames and he makes great use of the Greek locations. I also enjoyed Ilya's habit of rewriting Greek tragedies with a happy ending, concluding them all with the line "and they all go to the seashore!"
Sergio Leone came up with the idea for My Name is Nobody and produced it, and the film plays as a tongue-in-cheek sendup of his movies (while also taking some jabs at Peckinpah). Henry Fonda is the veteran lawman heading towards retirement, and Terence Hill is the cocky young sharpshooter who idolises him and wants to see him go out in a blaze of glory. There's hardly anything to the plot here, and the near-two-hour running time has an awful lot of padding, but plenty of that padding is very funny. Terence Hill plays his role as a kind of living cartoon with his manic energy contrasting sharply with the stoic, weary Fonda. Valerii doesn't have Leone's vision or panache, but he pulls off some good set-pieces, including the drunken shooting match that ends with Hill repeatedly slapping a guy, an amusing spin on the old shootout in a hall of mirrors gag, and the climactic shootout between Fonda and 150 marauding bandits. Morricone's score is one of his most playful, as he pastiches his own work and even riffs on Ride of the Valkyries.
This remarkable film is the story of a fractious divorce as seen through the eyes of a child. The child in question is played by 14 year-old Nova Pilbeam - in the same year she appeared in Hitchcock's The Man who Knew Too Much - and she gives a nuanced and skilful performance that really brings to life the surprising psychological and emotional complexity at the heart of the story. There's a strong Germanic influence on this British picture, thanks to director Berthold Viertel, cinematographer Günther Krampf and art director Alfred Junge (it was also written by Christopher Isherwood, just returned from Berlin), and while some of the direction can feel stiff, the film boasts numerous bold and surprising sequences that feel heavily indebted to German expressionism. I also thoroughly enjoyed the extremely funny and charming performance by Jimmy Hanley as the cockney errand boy Felicity develops a crush on, much to the disdain of her sneering friends.
The protagonist of this film is named Damophilia, and she opts for this shortened version over "Damn." She's a tomboy who prefers to dress in male clothes, and runs away to avoid marriage, before getting romantically involved with a professor who hates women and flees at the sight of them. Clara Beranger's script is smartly written, building in references to Sappho and withholding the identity of one key character for the film's punchline. There is some suggestive dialogue in the intertitles, and the film makes amusing observations on male/female dynamics. Oscar Apfel's direction boasts some tight comic staging and Evelyn Greeley's effervescent lead performance is a real treat. It's a very enjoyable film and it certainly deserved better than the review Variety gave it in 1919. Their bizarre reaction was to dismiss it as "a sissy play, too nice for our boys; we want them to be manly."
This was an intriguing introduction to the work of the Finnish filmmaker and polymath Jörn Donner. In Black on White he cast himself as the unlikeable and pathetic protagonist, a married salesman who embarks on an affair with his teenage colleague. The film is a satire on late-60s Finnish society, highlighting its shallow, bourgeois and misogynistic aspects, and he stages a couple of terrific sequences, especially the office party that gets progressively drunker, messier and more depressing. Donner furthered his interest in sex and infidelity with Sixtynine, which apparently scandalised Finland when it was released. Sixtynine stars the excellent Ritva Vepsä as a woman who catches her husband cheating and retaliates by having an affair with her gynaecologist (played by Donner). The film jumps between each of these relationships and appears to come to the conclusion that the cheating of both parties is the secret to a contented marriage. It's another lively and funny picture, full of ideas and provocations.
Peter Sellers tried to have Hoffman suppressed before it was released, feeling that his performance had revealed too much of himself. It certainly is a fascinating and compelling piece of work. Sellers is the besotted loner who blackmails his young secretary into spending a week living at his flat, and as creepy and misogynistic as this man often is, the actor creates moments when he evokes an unexpected sympathy. The film is essentially a two-hander between Sellers and the equally impressive Sinead Cusack, and it's a pleasure to watch these two play off each other. Hoffman never probes the complexities of this relationship and power dynamic as deeply as it might have, and it has a terribly weak and rushed ending, but it's absorbing viewing. This screening was introduced by its 93 year-old director who shared some good stories about the Peter Sellers experience, including the star once turning up to a meeting in lederhosen under the misguided belief that Hoffman should be played as an Austrian.
This astonishing film is a rarity – apparently it's not even available on DVD in Japan – so it was a real privilege to discover it on an absolutely stunning 35mm print. It's a riveting and stylish thriller with a dark sense of humour. Noboru Nakaya stars as a serial womaniser who carefully chooses his 'prey' and keeps a diary detailing his various conquests, ultimately finding himself in a tight spot when his one-night stands start being murdered. The second half of the film follows a lawyer and his young assistant (Kazuo Kitamura and Yukiyo Toake, both excellent) as they dig into the case and uncover an unbelievably convoluted revenge plot. Their investigations take them through a cross-section of Japanese society – including nightclubs, a massage parlour and a gay bar – and all of these locations are brilliantly captured by Yoshihiro Yamazaki's atmospheric widescreen compositions. The Hunter's Diary can be really funny at times (the lawyer's response to his wife giving birth had me cackling), but it also serves up a nightmarish, Cronenbergian image that I won't soon forget.
"Reality is my enemy" one character says in this film, and it gets increasingly hard to separate reality from fantasy as the four unhappy individuals in this sombre but vibrantly directed drama get lost in their private reveries. I've rarely seen a film segue into flashbacks and dream sequences as ingeniously as Dancing in the Rain, with Boštjan Hladnik often staging them within the scenes the characters are currently in, and skilfully using lighting changes to mark the transitions. He also uses exaggerated and incredibly aggressive sound effects to accentuate his characters' psychological states, and he incorporates a young couple who we see fleetingly throughout the film to represent the ideal romantic love that is out of reach for the film's subjects.
A complete retrospective of the work of Fronza Woods unfortunately only runs to around 25 minutes. These are two beautifully crafted shorts, though. Killing Time is about a young woman planning her suicide but constantly getting waylaid by her struggle to find the perfect pose and outfit to be found dead in. It's a very sharp and funny one-woman show that builds to a great punchline. I was even more taken with Fannie's Film, in which Woods profiles the 65 year-old cleaner who worked at the dance studio where she was a teacher. Although we might see her as someone living a hard life, she sounds contented with her lot and proud of the life she has lived, which has allowed her to support her family and given her financial independence. The way Woods lays her humble and philosophical commentary over footage of her cleaning or the dancers stretching (and admiring themselves in the mirrors) is superbly done. I really enjoyed hearing the forthright and self-effacing Woods talk about her work afterwards too, and one hopes these restorations will give her small gems a new lease of life.
Mickey Rooney played Andy Hardy in 16 films over nine years at MGM! This is the first one I've seen, and after thoroughly enjoying myself I'd be happy to see more. Rooney gives an energetic performance, full of dynamic physicality and cartoonish expressions, and he's often very funny. The plot sees him mixed up with two girls played by Lana Turner and Ann Rutherford ("Polly, if you're still my girl after this mess is cleared up, I'll never go in for polygamy again!"), but the real star turn here is from 16 year-old Judy Garland. There's something incongruous about her playing the dowdy neighbour who bemoans her lack of glamour when her star quality is so evident, but she and Rooney are adorable together, and her performance of a couple of songs at the end is fantastic.
This is a sorely undervalued film from Sirk's pre-melodrama late period. Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie are the young couple who elope to escape her disapproving family, but then find it impossible to consummate their marriage, or even find a moment alone together. Joseph Hoffman's screenplay gets away with some extremely risqué gags, but it's also intelligent and pointed in its take on postwar married life and the dubious effects of America's capitalist progress. Curtis and Laurie are magic together, and Spring Byington is a hoot as Laurie's conniving, hypocritical mother. What really elevates the material to another level is Sirk's direction, as he demonstrates impeccable blocking and comic timing throughout. I wish I could have stayed in Paris longer and experienced the whole of this retrospective - such a comprehensive survey of this great director in London is long overdue.
Smog completely disappeared from view shortly after its Venice premiere in 1962, so this screening felt like a real discovery. It's an outsider's view of Los Angeles, following an Italian lawyer as he spends some time wandering around the city while waiting for a connecting flight. He doesn't speak the language, but he finds a small group of Italians who have semi-assimilated into American society, and the film follows him as he drifts from one encounter to the next. Smog traverses different social strata – from a young man doing various odd jobs to get by and a group of housewives learning Italian, to a party with one of the city's richest families – and it's a captivating experience. The style is strongly reminiscent of Antonioni (La Notte was released the previous year) and Rossi brilliantly exploits the locations and architecture he finds across the city, with cinematographer Ted McCord framing shots beautifully and doing some great work with reflections. I was engrossed in it and the abrupt, melancholy ending caught me off-guard.
The Pirate was a big flop in 1948 and it was described by Cole Porter as "a $5,000,000 Hollywood picture that was unspeakably wretched, the worst that money could buy," but I adore it. The filmmakers fully embrace the ridiculousness of the plot to produce an extravagant spectacle that is hysterically funny, and The Pirate also boasts some of Minnelli's finest staging and camera movement. This is surely one of Garland's funniest performances; her dead faint is priceless, and I loved watching her destroy an entire room to vent her anger at Kelly. As for Kelly, he is on fire here (almost literally in Judy's erotic fantasy, which demonstrates just how lusty and uninhibited this film feels), with his extraordinary athleticism and charisma on full display. The 'Nina' number is as impressive as it is amusing, and watching Kelly perform alongside the Nicholas Brothers is a real thrill.
The first Croatian film to be nominated for the Palme d'Or and an Academy Award, The Ninth Circle is the story of a Jewish teenager who witnesses her parents being taken by the Nazis and enters into a marriage of convenience with a Catholic family to avoid the same fate. Štiglic develops tension around Ruth's fear of discovery and Ivo's conflicted feelings over his role as husband, especially when his fellow students - some of whom have joined the fascist movement - learn about his marriage. Boris Dvornik and Dušica Žegarac bring a youthful earnestness and naïveté to their roles that I found very affecting. This beautifully crafted film is full of lyrical and evocative images. I loved the scene where an air raid siren clears the streets, allowing Ruth to walk freely in the park where she had previously been humiliated by a Nazi, and the simple shot of passing train carriages, with hands gripping the bars of every window, is very potent. Does the film grow increasingly implausible in the last twenty minutes? Undoubtedly, but this part of the film has a heightened nightmarish quality, which I was still entranced and moved by.
Peter Greenaway's extraordinarily ambitious and convoluted multimedia project was a big gap in my knowledge of one of my favourite directors for a long time, so getting the chance to experience it on the big screen this year was a true thrill. In its entirety, The Tulse Luper Suitcases consisted of films, books, an exhibition, multiple DVDs and two websites, all of which are connected to the picaresque adventures of Tulse Luper, as he travelled through America and Europe, filling 92 suitcases with items to represent the world. Greenaway puts all of these suitcases into the film. He also puts academics on screen and sometimes into scenes to explain Luper's life. Sometimes he cuts between different takes within a scene, with different actors, and he shows us line readings from other actors who auditioned for these roles! Then he has actors reading their lines straight to camera exactly as they are saying the same lines in the scene, and with the script being printed on screen too! It's a whole lot of stuff, basically. Every scene is densely packed with allusions and references, and the graphics and effects (with their very early-2000s CD-ROM aesthetic) make everything even more cluttered. The shaggy-dog nature of the narrative can leave it feeling bloated and exhausting, but it's relentlessly stimulating – even the longueurs in these films always offer something to grab your attention – and incredibly fun to watch. A singular project from a one-of-a-kind artist.
When Francis Ford Coppola shut down the Hammett production mid-shoot to demand rewrites, Wim Wenders went to Portugal to help Raúl Ruiz finish his movie, and then used much of Ruiz's crew to come up with an impromptu feature of his own. The State of Things is a film about a cast and crew stranded in Portugal when they run out of money and film stock, and their producer goes missing. In this bleak, empty seaside resort, the film develops a meandering and entrancing rhythm as we watch these people find ways to pass the time. The star turn is undoubtedly Sam Fuller as the crusty old cinematographer, barking out aphorisms with that enormous cigar permanently wedged in his lips, but there are so many great moments here – Geoffrey Carey's monologue about his many adolescent ailments is particularly hilarious. It's a spellbinding film to look at too. Wenders' location work is as smart and imaginative as ever, and the breathtaking black-and-white cinematography by Fred Murphy and the great Henri Alekan glowed on this 35mm print. "Life is in colour, but black-and-white is more realistic," Fuller advises, a perspective furiously disputed by the runaway producer (a brilliant Allen Garfield cameo), and Wenders pitches his film as a satire on the differing views of cinema from Europe and Hollywood, at a time when he was caught between both worlds.
Although it was based on a real-life incident, Mikko Niskanen makes it clear in his opening statement that he has poured much first-hand experience into this story: "Booze was the root of all evil in our family." Niskanen himself plays the alcoholic farmer who ends up shooting four policeman in a drunken rage, and Eight Deadly Shots lays out the various social and psychological pressures that pushed him to that point, as well as the corrosive impact his drinking and moonshining had on his health, livelihood and family. As a director, Niskanen has an eye for quotidian details and he does an incredible job of immersing us into the ordinary lives of this family and community. As an actor, he is simply astonishing - particularly in the wrenching closing scenes - and he is matched by Tarja-Tuulikki Tarsala as Pasi's long-suffering wife, who is increasingly furious and fearful as her husband's drinking worsens. These characters feel so authentic and the narrative has a loose, uneven quality that matches the up-and-down rhythm of real life. Originally presented as a miniseries, Eight Deadly Shots runs for 316 minutes and gets more riveting with every passing second, as Niskanen accumulates more details, as we get to know these characters more intimately, and as the awful foregone conclusion creeps into view.
1 – Black Tuesday + The Raid (Hugo Fregonese, 1954) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
Every year at Il Cinema Ritrovato there is a revelation, and this year his name was Hugo Fregonese. Looking at a simple breakdown of his career, which saw him hopping from genre to genre in multiple countries, one might easily peg him as little more than a reliable gun-for-hire. A closer viewing of his films, however, revealed a compelling auteur at work, who elevated the material handed to him with his nuanced sense of characterisation, his willingness to delve into grey morality, and the shadow of fatalism that hangs over so many of his films. He operated primarily in noirs and westerns, with riveting films like Hardly a Criminal, One Way Street or Blowing Wild, but I also loved his explosive World War II drama Seven Thunders and thoroughly enjoyed a rare lighter picture with his cowboy comedy Saddle Tramp. But the two real gems in the Fregonese strand were both made in 1954. Black Tuesday is an astoundingly brutal low-budget thriller that boasts a monstrous performance from Edward G. Robinson as a callous mob boss who hatches a plot to escape from Death Row. The film is taut, claustrophobic, and stunningly vicious in the way it despatches its characters, while also taking on an increasing moral complexity as the characters weigh up the value of human life. That moral complexity was also at the heart of The Raid, in which Van Heflin leads a troupe of Confederate soldiers in an assault on a defenceless Vermont town, which they plan to loot and then burn to the ground, but the conviction of these men is shaken by the relationships that develop as they stake out their target and become embedded in the community. I was gripped by this film’s exploration of heroism, cowardice and the futility of war, and I was stunned by the climax, when I could almost feel the heat from the onscreen flames. Black Tuesday is one of the darkest noirs I’ve ever seen and features a career-high turn from a Hollywood legend, and The Raid should be regarded as one of the great American Civil War films, but both of these films are barely known today and are only available in substandard copies. I felt incredibly privileged to discover them both on such vibrant prints and I hope efforts can be made to make these masterpieces – along with the rest of Fregonese’s remarkable body of work – available to a wider audience.