Saturday, December 30, 2023

My Cinema Discoveries of 2023

I saw 171 older films in cinemas in 2023. Of these, 119 were projected from 35mm (including two from 3D 35mm prints), three were shown on 70mm, fourteen were on 16mm, and I enjoyed three nitrate film presentations – my first nitrate experiences in more than a decade. The nitrate screenings took place at BFI Southbank, the only cinema in the UK licensed to show such prints, and two of them came at the BFI’s Film on Film festival in early June. This four-day celebration of celluloid was one of the year’s highlights. Not only was it a treat to see so many rarely screened films and formats, but it was so heartening to see an emphasis on the unique qualities of film presentation, and to shift the focus onto the projectionists, archivists and curators who make such events possible. The buzz around the BFI over that weekend was like nothing I’ve ever felt there. It’s another indicator that audiences will genuinely respond to passionate and knowledgeable curation and the opportunity to see something that they can’t experience at home or in any multiplex. I hope they take this lesson to heart and continue to push for more film presentations and more seasons built around the archive, as we saw with the excellent Powell and Pressburger retrospective towards the end of the year.

Of the 171 repertory screenings I attended, 92 were for first-time viewings. Here are some of the standout discoveries.

50 – The Seventh Veil (Compton Bennett, 1945) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Sydney and Muriel Box won the Oscar for this screenplay, and for a while that made sense to me, as the film is a pretty absorbing melodrama – at least, up to a point. It’s structured through flashbacks, with Ann Todd’s suicidal pianist undergoing hypnosis to discover the root of her overwhelming anxiety about damage to her hands, which leads her to recall her life as an orphan in the care of the ultra-controlling James Mason. The film is skilfully acted by all, although Yvonne Owen stands out from the ensemble with her cameo, which is simultaneously hilarious and hugely psychologically damaging for the protagonist at a critical moment. It might have ranked a few places higher in this list if it wasn’t for the inexplicably dreadful ending, which was apparently altered from the original script at the behest of Mason.

49 – The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926) – BFI Southbank, Digital
Everything you could want from a Douglas Fairbanks-starring pirate swashbuckler. He swings on the rigging, he uses his knife to slide down the sails, he walks the plank and he engages in a number of swordfights – and he does it all with great charisma and absurd athleticism. I was hugely impressed by the production design and the stunt work, and the film contains some striking images: I loved the shot of Fairbanks being triumphantly carried up through the ship's levels by his triumphant men, and the underwater photography that preceded the climactic assault on the pirate ship. Donald Crisp is very funny as a one-armed pirate who has unusual methods of keeping himself awake.

48 – Good-Time Girl (David MacDonald, 1948) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
A teenage Diana Dors appears as a surly delinquent at the start of the film, but she's not the good-time girl of the title. Instead, Flora Robson tells her a story about Gwen Rawlings (Jean Kent) in the hope of scaring this troublesome teen straight. It’s a familiar tale of a young woman being led astray by the bright lights and shady men of Soho, with those dodgy characters being played by Herbert Lom, Griffith Jones and a hilariously slimy Peter Glenville. Dennis Price is the comparative 'good guy' in this scenario, but even he steals a quick snog from this 16-year-old before she gets packed off to reform school. The film is quite gripping as Gwen gets drawn deeper into a life of drunkenness and criminality, and the McDonald's portrait of nocturnal London and Brighton is atmospheric.

47 – The Black Hole (Gary Nelson, 1979) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
The most expensive film Disney had ever made at the time, and also notable as the first Disney film to earn a PG rating thanks to one surprisingly violent death. Maximilian Schell delivers an amusingly bizarre performance as the mad scientist who has enslaved his crew and is determined to explore the black hole, and there's an unusual homoerotic undertone to his scenes with Anthony Perkins. Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens voice a pair of wisecracking robots. A lot of the film is hackneyed and cheesy with underwhelming action scenes, but there's much to appreciate in its craft. The miniature and matte work is often impressive, and John Barry's score is marvellous. It earns extra points for an unexpectedly surreal ending.

46 – Beverly of Graustark (Sidney Franklin, 1926) – Cinema Museum, Digital
This crossdressing farce stars Marion Davies as the woman who pretends to be the king in place of her injured cousin and finds herself attracted to Antonio Moreno while she's dressed as a man. It’s a great showcase for Davies, who gives a tremendously cute and funny performance, and Sidney Franklin's accomplished direction throws up a few striking images; I loved the long shot framed over an assassin's rifle, and the late sight of Davies wearing both her dress and the king's trousers, which encapsulates the gender confusion she gets herself tangled in. The unexpected blast of early Technicolor at the end of the film came as a pleasant surprise.

45 – The World's Greatest Sinner (Timothy Carey, 1962) – Cinema Europa, Bologna, Digital
Carey's only film as a director is a truly wild experience. He plays an insurance salesman who abruptly decides to quit his day job and start a cult, promising people that anyone who follows him will never die. From cult leader he aims for the presidency, and Carey effectively makes his point about how easy it is for an unconventional candidate to dupe the press and the public: "If they believed what I was doing, they'd try to stop me. That's what makes it so easy for me." The laughs thin out generally as Carey's character grows more demonic and the fascist imagery becomes more prominent, and I was hoping for a stronger finale, but The World’s Greatest Sinner is a fascinating and often very funny one-off, with Carey displaying a distinctive vision behind the camera and delivering a completely unhinged performance in front of it.

44 – The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
The tenth and final pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although Rogers was only enlisted as a last-minute replacement for Judy Garland. The film’s highlights include an odd shoe shop number with some fancy special effects that ends with Fred shooting a bunch of shoes, and the performance of My One and Only Highland Fling, which boasts some amusing lyrics, a pair of horrific Scottish accents, and Ginger rolling her Rs like crazy. All the scenes where the humdrum plot is forgotten and Fred and Ginger are allowed to just dance are a pleasure to watch, and the way they reprise They Can't Take That Away from Me from Shall we Dance is a nice touch. Oscar Levant's intense piano numbers are very impressive – and probably the most riveting sequences in the film – even if I’m not sure what purpose are they serving in a Fred and Ginger vehicle. 

43 – On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1957) – Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
The semi-fictional narrative concerns railroad worker Ray Salyer as he arrives in New York looking for work and only finding drink, but what makes this film so vital is the documentary footage that Rogosin of the bums and drunkards who lived on these streets and in these bars, with Richard Bagley’s camera observes every line and scar on the faces of these weary, wrecked men. Rogosin got vivid and authentic performances from the local drinkers who appeared in the key roles, notably Gorman Hendricks as the Bowery veteran, who helps Ray find his feet but isn’t above stealing his luggage for a few bucks. Hendricks died of cirrhosis of the liver before the film opened and Salyer – who was offered a Hollywood contract on the back of this film – died an alcoholic a few years later. This knowledge adds an extra weight to the film’s ending, when Hendricks helps Salyer in his attempt to clean up and get away from the Bowery, and we hear another drunk mutter, “He’ll be back.”

42 – Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1986) – ICA, Digital
A film about sex workers that presents it as just a job like any other. The women who work out of this New York apartment complain about their clients, are screwed over by their boss, and struggle to keep boredom at bay between jobs. Borden captures the mundanity of these lives but she also films the multiple sexual encounters with the same detached objectivity, refusing to heighten or eroticise an encounter that means little more to these women than another payment added to the daily total, even if some of the men think there's a greater emotional bond there. Borden derives a lot of comedy from the more eccentric clientele, but she also uses each encounter to give us a different perspective on the dynamics at play here, with the various prostitutes ranging in experience and background. Working Girls is economical in its storytelling but thematically rich, and it is brilliantly shot by Judy Irola.

41 – Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (William Klein, 1969) – Cinema Lumière, Bologna, 16mm
William Klein's documentary follows Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, while he's wanted in the US on a murder charge. We hear a lot of Cleaver's political rhetoric, with much of it still feeling relevant today, and it's interesting to watch him interact with representatives of other oppressed people. Klein also effectively incorporates archive footage to support the points being made, with the use of shocking images of atrocities committed in Vietnam having a particularly brutal impact. I definitely need to see more of Klein's documentary work. I left the film feeling curious about what happened to Cleaver subsequently, and reading his Wikipedia page is an eye-opening experience to say the least.

40 – Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1948) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Louisiana Story came fifth in Sight & Sound's first ever Greatest Films of All Time poll four years after its release, it was nominated for an Oscar, and the score won a Pulitzer, but now it seems mostly forgotten. I suppose Flaherty's blend of documentary realism and blatant dramatic manipulation looks less impressive to modern viewers, but the scenes depicting oil drillers at work are fascinating and Flaherty has an undeniably strong eye for capturing moments of natural splendour. The footage of the young Cajun protagonist on the river are beautiful, with the cutaways feeling like a clear influence on Malick. The film is let down by the moments when Flaherty tries to marry these sequences together through scripted scenes that are awkwardly acted and stiffly written, and it’s hard to swallow the propaganda aspect of the way the oil company and its relationship with the people and the land is presented.

39 – Easy Money (Bernard Knowles, 1948) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
I'm always a little wary of portmanteau films, but each of these four stories made me laugh. They are tales of people who won big on the football pools: A family (led by Jack Warner and Marjorie Fielding) who are made miserable by their impending windfall, not realising that one of them forgot to post the coupon; a meek, henpecked husband (Mervyn Johns) who doesn't want to quit his job despite his wife insisting; a couple (Dennis Price and Greta Gynt) who conspire to cheat their way to the big prize; and a disgruntled double-bassist (Edward Rigby) who leaves the orchestra after his big win. Each story is cleverly written, full of great one-liners, and beautifully performed, and the film also offers an insight into the operation of the football pools when they were at the peak of their popularity.

38 – The Last Outlaw (Arthur Rosson, 1927) – Cinema Museum, 16mm
This is a fairly nondescript silent western in most respects. Rosson's direction is unremarkable and the climax, which involves a herd of stampeding cattle, should be a good deal more exciting than it is. But The Last Outlaw does have one thing that distinguishes it and compensates for all of its flaws – sheer star power. This was one of Gary Cooper’s first leading roles, and there's an early scene where he makes his case for becoming the new sheriff in which you can see him becoming a movie star in front of your eyes. He performs with such swagger, charm and playfulness, and he has a terrific chemistry Billy Butts, as the child who becomes his loyal pal. It’s worth seeking out this picture just for his revelatory lead performance.

37 – Bushman (David Schickele, 1971) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Digital
I've never seen a film unfold quite like this one. It begins as a fiction-documentary hybrid about a young Nigerian man living in the US and this half of the film is engrossing as a study of identity, prejudice and fetishisation. It's a beautifully crafted film with some exquisitely composed cinematography by David Myers. About halfway through the making of Bushman, reality suddenly came crashing in and meant they couldn't finish shooting with their lead actor Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam, so the climax of the film is actually a straight documentary explaining what happened to him. As the director puts it, "In this case reality wasn't stranger than fiction, it was just faster." It's a fascinating, poignant and singular film.

36 – The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
"He looks as if he had stepped out of a melodrama," a character says of Paul Wegener, who plays the titular magician. With his intense eyes, dramatic eyebrows and habit of flouncing away with his cape swirling around his shoulders, he plays the villainous mastermind to the hilt. His plot is to mesmerise and kidnap a young sculptor (Alice Terry) and use her blood for his Frankenstein-like experiment. It’s a fine There is some beautiful staging by Ingram – including a spectacular orgiastic fantasy sequence set in Hell – and the film builds to an exciting and explosive climax, with some great model work. It’s a strong film and its style and atmosphere seems to set the tone for some of the gothic horrors that studios would produce in the next decade.

35 – A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt, 1935) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Mickey Rooney's intensely aggravating performance as Puck is almost enough to capsize this glossy Shakespeare adaptation, but there's plenty to admire in this slightly overlong but charming film. First of all, it looks fantastic, with the cellophane-wrapped sets and beautifully designed costumes all bathed in a shimmering, silvery light. There are some enchanting moments, like the fairies appearing in the woodland mist or the creation of the veil from the spider's web. James Cagney overacts like crazy every minute he's on screen (perhaps because he knows he'll be under a donkey's head for most of the film) and the bits where he must play romantic scenes with Joe E. Brown are very funny. Olivia de Havilland and Jean Muir are both extremely charming, and the mixed-up romantic desires of the four Athenian lovers are nicely played. Replace Rooney with literally anyone else, and you’d be left with a very fine picture.

34 – Le Départ (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1967) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Even by Jean-Pierre Léaud's standards, this is a manic goofball performance for the ages. He plays a guy who is obsessed with obtaining a Porsche in order to enter a race, but the narrative here is just an excuse for Léaud to run around Paris, getting into scrapes, scamming people, stealing cars, distributing wigs, pulling walnuts out of his pockets, encouraging a colleague to punch him in the face, or trying to rent a car with a deposit of "cash and some valuable hair." The film was shot in a few weeks and it feels like every moment was improvised on the fly, often amidst baffled-looking crowds. Le Départ is propelled by Léaud's wildly mannered performance and an incessant jazz score, but Skolimowski and his cinematographer Willy Kurant also find moments of real beauty in it, particularly in the few quieter scenes between Léaud and Catherine Duport in the car show or in the hotel room. It ends with the film burning up, and that feels like the only way it could end.

33 – Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
A weird Freudian sort-of musical starring Ginger Rogers as a successful magazine editor beset by inexplicable anxieties, who decides to try psychoanalysis as a last resort. The conversations with her therapist lead to a retrograde dissection of Rogers' character – chastising her for not being more feminine and concluding that she needs "some man who'll dominate you" – but these scenes are merely a springboard for a number of astonishing dream sequences. Elaborately designed and costumed, these set-pieces get increasingly surreal as the film progresses, to the point where I felt like I was losing my mind during the long circus sequence - Ray Milland in a sparkly suit! A pink elephant taking notes! An audience full of egg people! Ginger appearing first as a child and then in that spectacularly leggy red dress! The film is also funny in its non-bizarre moments, with Mischa Auer as an outrageously camp photographer getting the last word and pretty much stealing the film. It's a mesmerising spectacle.

32 – Land of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2005) – Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
Romero's return to the Dead series after a two-decade absence takes place some years after the zombie apocalypse, with people having adapted to life alongside the undead. The most interesting wrinkle sees the zombies beginning to evolve, learning to problem-solve and communicate, and figuring out how to use tools. The class commentary is blunt but effective, with the rich (led by a slimy Dennis Hopper) living the high life in their ivory tower while using both the zombies and the oppressed have-nots for their labour and entertainment, and the film is also interesting as a post-9/11 and War on Terror movie. Romero finds endless variations on the basic setup of zombies creeping up and biting people (although one quick glimpse of a woman's belly button ring being ripped out may be the film's queasiest moment), and the shot of the zombie hordes rising up out of the river is one of the strongest images in the whole series. 

31 – Wachtmeister Studer (Leopold Lindtberg, 1939) – Cinema Lumière, Bologna, 35mm
This film moves at a very sedate pace and there's not much action in it. To be honest, as I watched the first half hour unfold, I doubted it would sustain my interest for the duration. However, there's something absorbing about the way the plot gradually reveals itself, and in the film's second half I was completely hooked. It also helps that there's a magnificent central performance to enjoy. Heinrich Gretler is tremendously watchable as Studer, the city detective despatched to the countryside to investigate a staged suicide and get the suspect in custody off the hook. Studer is a brilliant protagonist: gruff, stubborn and with a sharp instinct for tiny details, he remains doggedly on the case even when it initially appears resolved, and even when a fever has him coughing and sweating through the final act. It's really satisfying to watch him piece it all together. Gretler reprised this role in 1947’s Madness Rules and I’d happily watch a whole series of Studer films.

30 – Bluebeard's Castle (Michael Powell, 1963) – BFI Southbank, Digital
Made for German television, an opening subtitle warns us that "This is an opera sung through in German, but don't let that put you off." I found Norman Foster and Ana Raquel Satre so compelling to watch I didn't mind that I didn't understand exactly what they were singing about. I was also agog at the aesthetic feast that Michael Powell and Hein Heckroth created here. The lighting is so beautiful and expressive, shifting rapidly to denote a change in mood, and the production design is extraordinary. Each of the seven rooms that Bluebeard takes Judith into is uniquely crafted and some contain marvellous effects – especially the room that appears to have tears slowly falling into the pool, with those drops later becoming drops of blood. It’s by far the most fascinating project from Powell's post-Peeping Tom wilderness years.

29 – 1871 (Ken McMullen, 1990) – ICA, 35mm
Yes, that is Med Hondo as Karl Marx whispering into the ear of Dominique Pinon’s Napoleon, and this eclectic ensemble also boasts Roshan Seth, John Lynch, Maria de Medeiros and an amusingly vulgar Timothy Spall. Ken McMullen's ambitious film about the Paris Commune has an artificial, theatrical quality played with a raucous spirit that places it in the tradition of Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell and Med Hondo himself, whose West Indies is surely an influence. The film is set largely within a theatre and it is imaginatively staged, with some fluid camera moves taking us from one part of the location to another. It's a dense, provocative, elegant and lusty production. I don't think I always followed the drama, but I found the experience captivating and stimulating, especially on this astonishingly vivid 35mm print.

28 – Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960) – BFI Southbank, Digital
This is an astonishingly beautiful film shot by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa in gorgeously textured black-and-white, and some of the scenes – especially the mist-shrouded woods and the candlelit cave at the end – are breathtaking. Macario is a parable about poverty, greed, power and faith, but what really took me by surprise is how funny it is. As the simple woodsman granted healing powers, Ignacio López Tarso is wonderful, offering some great double-takes and mugging as Death (a suitably skeletal-looking Enrique Lucero) tells him who can be saved and who is condemned. The film is sharply written – I loved the bit when Macario's wife (the beautiful, empathetic Pina Pellicer) asks the Inquisition why they are smashing things when she has the key, and one replies "The law needs no key!" – and it boasts excellent performances across the board. 

27 – The Blue Kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993) – ICA, 35mm
We’re fortunate to have this film at all, as The Blue Kite suffered from a great deal of interference from officials during its production and editing process, and it subsequently earned Tian Zhuangzhuang a long ban from filmmaking in China. His ambitious film depicts three phases of Mao's rule – the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – and shows how these policies impact the lives of a young boy and his mother, whose three husbands all fall victim to the party. The film powerfully shows the plight of ordinary people caught up in the sweep of history, with ideological shifts severing relationships and with friends, neighbours and co-workers being forced to turn against one another. It’s tenderly acted and very moving.

26 – Hondo (John Farrow, 1953) – BFI Southbank, 35mm 3D
I never imagined I'd get to see John Wayne in 3D! Not many cinemagoers actually did, as Hondo's 3D release was limited in 1953, so this presentation was an extremely rare opportunity to see this fine western as intended. There isn't much 3D gimmickry here, beyond a few arrows, spears and knives thrust towards the camera. Instead, Farrow uses it to give a sense of depth and perspective to his classical composition. The plot is strangely similar to Shane, which came out a few months earlier, with Wayne playing an isolated gunman who gradually becomes integrated into the lives of Geraldine Page and her young son. This is a terrific Wayne performance: he delivers great lines like "Everybody gets dead. It was his turn"; he tells Geraldine Page what she smells in weirdly specific detail; and – in the film’s inarguable highlight – he teaches a small boy to swim by picking him up and launching him into the river. It was surely an oversight to not have the kid flying at the camera in 3D, though.

25 – Miranda (Ken Annakin, 1948) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
All I knew going in to this screening was that Glynis Johns plays a mermaid, which was enough to sell me on the movie, but I was pleasantly surprised by the supporting cast around her. Googie Withers, Margaret Rutherford, John McCallum, Yvonne Owen and David Tomlinson all give fine comic performances in this highly enjoyable film. Johns is on disarming form as the mermaid who persuades Griffith Jones to take her back to London, where she bewitches every man she meets. It's a tightly scripted and very funny film, which contains a surprising amount of risqué humour. I had a great time with it, although I admit to being completely flummoxed by the film's closing shot, which suggests that Miranda was somehow impregnated by one of her suitors? The most bewildering ending to any film I saw this year.

24 – To Sleep So As To Dream (Kaizô Hayashi, 1986) – ICA, 16mm
Kaizô Hayashi's debut is an eccentric, poetic and spellbinding homage to silent cinema. The dialogue is all presented in intertitles, with the exception of the antagonist's voice, who is heard on a tape delivering the clues that a pair of detectives must follow to locate a missing woman. As well as the missing woman, there is a reel missing from the climax of the film-with-the-film that we see several times, and these two mysteries dovetail at the end in an affecting way. To Sleep So As To Dream is very funny, getting big laughs from running gags such as Uotsuka's obsession with eggs or his sidekick Kobayashi's frequent excited exclamations of "One million yen!" but it's also touching in the way it explores our relationship with film, and how it evokes a dream state the deeper its two investigators get drawn into the plot. It's a gorgeous picture, full of superbly composed shots and brilliant uses of shadows and snow, and it was wonderful to see it projected from a 16mm print.

23 – Schatten (Arthur Robinson, 1923) – Cinema Lumière, Bologna, 35mm
The use of shadows in this film is remarkable. The shadows can be suggestive and misleading – a jealous husband sees a silhouette that indicates his wife is being fondled by another man – but they can also be revealing. A travelling illusionist puts on a shadow play for a party that puts the viewers into a dream state, creating a dramatic scenario that plays out all of their hidden desires. Presented without intertitles beyond the opening credits (the three acts are noted by silhouetted fingers being held up), it's often an ingenious piece of visual storytelling, with some beautiful cinematography and effects, and expressive performances. It builds to a climax that is genuinely shocking, but then it goes on and on, and the unnecessarily extended epilogue does dilute its impact a little. When it's good, it's frequently astonishing though.

22 – Juggernaut (Richard Lester, 1974) – Cinema Museum, 16mm
An odd hybrid of a star-packed disaster movie and grubby British realism, Richard Lester's Juggernaut is a film that creates a genuine sense of nail-biting tension in the scenes where Richard Harris and his crew are attempting to disarm the bombs, but what's remarkable about this film is how Lester's supremely efficient direction sustains a perfect balance of humour and tension. Everyone in the cast is on good form, but the film is surprisingly stolen by Roy Kinnear as the ship's entertainment manager, who is hilariously determined to keep the party going even as the passengers contemplate their impending deaths. It's also a remarkable production, clearly shot on a real liner in rough seas, and the stunt involving the bomb crew parachuting onto the ship during a storm is remarkable. It's a tremendous piece of entertainment.

21 – The House of the Angel (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1953) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
The title on the film's censor card is The End of Innocence, and this is the story of a 14-year-old girl who has been raised by her mother in an environment of utmost purity, but whose desire and curiosity is piqued by the nudity of the religious artworks that surround her, and even passages from the bible. The House of the Angel is a witty, pointed sendup of religious and political hypocrisy, but it is also the sad tale of a young woman trapped into a miserable life, thanks to an upbringing that has failed to prepare her for the advances of her father's friend. The pensive Elsa Daniel is a wonderfully engaging lead, and this is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, full of imaginative angles and richly atmospheric lighting. There are a number of standout scenes, but the one where Ana has a sexual awakening while watching Rudolph Valentino is so good.

20 – Simon and Laura (Muriel Box, 1955) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
Peter Finch and Kay Kendall are the celebrity couple on the verge of divorce who are forced to play at being happily married for a BBC TV series, and this film feels sharp and prescient in its portrait of the relationship between television and the audience, and the manipulations behind 'reality' TV. It's easy to see that it originated on stage, but it's played with great spirit by the actors and the script is often hilarious, with insults rapidly being traded back-and-forth between the two leads. Box makes a lot of the behind-the-scenes aspect with her depiction of the flimsy studio sets and glimpses of other productions occurring in the background, and the film becomes a pure farce as the Christmas episode degenerates into chaos. Of course, this discord only increases the programme's popularity, and Simon and Laura is often direct in its critique of the low standards of the small screen, at a time when this new invention was threatening cinema's popularity.

19 – Roxie Hart (William A. Wellman, 1942) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
"This picture is dedicated to all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique.” The story of Roxie Hart gets revised a bit here to appease the Hays Code, but Nunnally Johnson's 1942 adaptation of Chicago is still a remarkably cynical film about a bunch of amoral characters desperate to maximise their time in the spotlight by any means necessary – even the judge keeps positioning himself to get in all the courtroom photos. It's a perfect role for Ginger Rogers, and I love the physicality of this performance, as she rehearses under Billy Flynn's direction or keeps finding ways to flash her legs at the jury. She's consistently hilarious, and she also headbutts people and performs a nifty tap dance on the prison steps! Wellman's blocking is tight and the film really moves, getting the job done in under 75 minutes. Adolphe Menjou, Lynne Overman, George Chandler and Iris Adrian are having so much fun in their roles, and the film is full of great throwaway lines: "We haven't had a good juicy murder story in this town since the Democrats got hold of the country"; “Fred was always a man who was sensitive to a well-turned ankle”; "Honey, I keep tellin' ya, this county wouldn't hang Lucrezia Borgia."

18 – The Signal Tower (Clarence Brown, 1924) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
We're lucky to have this film at all. There were no known 35mm prints in existence before this restoration, which was drawn primarily from a 16mm print saved by a British train enthusiast. It's an excellent film too, offering a great sleazy role for Wallace Beery as a womanising signal tower operator who starts work in a new town and immediately sets his sights on his colleague's wife, played by Virginia Valli. Clarence Brown's direction is very slick and accomplished and the film looks terrific, with some particularly great train shots and some nicely staged domestic scenes, including an amusing subplot involving Dot Farley's unrequited crush on Beery. Brown also gives us two spectacular train crashes and he builds suspense brilliantly towards the climax, as Rockliffe Fellowes strives to stop a runaway train in a raging storm while Beery moves in on Valli. I also appreciated the gimmicky intertitles, which have an illustrated train signal that moves from the go to stop lights as the tension grows.

17 – L'Auberge rouge (Jean Epstein, 1923) – Cinema Lumière, Bologna, 35mm
Writing about his first film as a solo director, Jean Epstein wrote: "I sought to make a film based not on scrupulous staging, but on a thorough psychological study of the characters… My drama will not be ‘external,’ seeking to seduce the eye, but solely ‘internal’; its aim will be above all to capture the hearts of the spectators.” He achieved it impressively, with his roving camera getting close to the actors and generating an intensity that builds to a fever pitch during the superbly shot and edited murder sequence. Lots of bold and expressive camerawork in this, but I particularly liked the way he played with subjective point of view; there's a brilliant shot where the innkeeper points across the room and the camera follows the line of his finger. The whole film is built from close-ups, superimpositions, tracking shots and sharp cuts – a dazzling display of filmmaking technique – and Epstein skilfully develops and sustains a sense of tension as we get towards the reveal of the murderer's identity.

16 – Oliver Twist (Frank Lloyd, 1922) – Cinema Museum, 16mm
This adaptation of Dickens' novel was thought lost for many years before a print was discovered in Yugoslavia in the 1970s. How lucky we are to have it, because it's a fine production with some excellent performances in the key roles. Oliver Twist was a star vehicle for eight-year-old Jackie Coogan, and his talent is undeniable. He's a wonderfully expressive actor, sympathetic without being cloying, and he gamely submits to endless scenes of Oliver being yanked, thrown and shaken. A wizened and gap-toothed Lon Chaney offers a typically impressive physical transformation as Fagin, and George Siegmann is a suitably intimidating Bill Sikes. At 75 minutes, this inevitably plays as a brisk highlights reel of the plot, but it's well-paced and very smartly directed. 

15 – The Million Ryo Pot (Sadao Yamanaka, 1935) – ICA, Digital
The earliest of Sadao Yamanaka's three surviving films is an inventive and hilarious film about an ugly old pot that contains the map to a million-ryo fortune, but is repeatedly dismissed as worthless as it gets handed from one character to the next. The way Yamanaka lays out this narrative and introduces each member of the ensemble is effortless, and his direction throughout the film is masterful. His compositions are always striking, and he finds so much humour in the visuals and in the comic timing of his editing – one running gag has characters vehemently stating they won't do a certain thing, only to cut directly to them doing that thing, and no matter how obvious and telegraphed it may seem, it always works. Denjirō Ōkōchi gives a terrific physical performance as the one-armed, one-eyed swordsman who works at the archery club where a lot of the funniest moments occur, and I loved Kunitarō Sawamura as the man who uses his search for the pot as an excuse to escape from his wife. The scene where these two men are forced to fight in the dojo is so funny. 

14 – Aloha, Bobby and Rose (Floyd Mutrux, 1975) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
In the early 1970s, Variety listed five new directors to watch: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Terrence Malick… and Floyd Mutrux. I’d never heard of him or Aloha, Bobby and Rose, but it was one of my favourite discoveries of this year.  It's inspired by Godard's Breathless, but whereas that film was all jazzy energy and jump-cuts, this has a more languid, meandering quality. The first third of the film invites us to just hang out with Paul Le Mat and Dianne Hull as they fall in love on their first date, but when things go disastrously wrong for them, they do so abruptly and shockingly. It's a movie full of unexpected turns – notably an impromptu trip to Mexico with a hilarious Tim McIntire – and it's a completely engrossing and entertaining experience right up to the foregone bleak conclusion. Sensational cinematography from the great William Fraker makes this a fascinating time capsule of mid-70s California, and the way Mutrux uses radio hits of the era to accompany his actors as they drive around LA made me wonder if Tarantino had this film in mind when he made Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

13 – The Stranger and The Fog (Bahram Beyzai, 1974) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Digital
Over the past few years, Il Cinema Ritrovato has been showcasing a number of extraordinary films from 1970s Iran, and today we had another revelation to support the view that this decade was an incredibly fertile one in that country's cinema. The Stranger and The Fog is set in a remote coastline community, which is interrupted by the arrival of an unconscious, bleeding stranger in a boat. He is treated with suspicion, but gradually takes steps to integrate himself into the village, taking up with the widow of a long-missing fishermen. However, he lives in constant fear that his ambiguous past will catch up with him. The Stranger and the Fog is about rituals, symbols and mysteries, and the general inscrutability of the film can be frustrating, but I was just mesmerised by it. Beyzai's compositions are out of this world - at times I thought of Kurosawa and Żuławski – and the film is full of strange and fascinating sequences.

12 – Hell in the City (Renato Castellani, 1959) – Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, 35mm
A barnstorming turn from Anna Magnani is the driving force of this excellent women in prison drama. She's riveting and hilarious as the hardened con who rules the roost, while Giulietta Masina is just as impressive as the tremulous, wide-eyed new arrival who has to learn how to survive inside. Both actresses are perfectly cast and they play off each other superbly, although it was interesting to learn in the introduction that they didn't get along at all on set and Magnani bullied Masina during the shoot, which perhaps added something to their onscreen dynamic. Castellani shows a flair for widescreen framing and he creates a vibrant atmosphere inside the prison. There's also an unexpectedly sweet subplot involving a young inmate who falls in love with a man she sees outside every day, with the film's characters being divided between those who can escape this hell and restart their lives and those doomed to endlessly return.

11 – Service for Ladies (Alexander Korda, 1932) – BFI Southbank, 35mm Nitrate
The first nitrate film screening in the UK for more than a decade was also the oldest print ever presented to a UK audience. It's one of the magical things about cinema – how a forgotten quota film can captivate and delight hundreds of people 91 years after it was made. Service for Ladies is a lively farce about a caddish head waiter at a fancy hotel who follows the object of his affection on holiday and gets mistaken for a prince travelling incognito. Written on the fly against a tight schedule, it's a smooth and elegantly crafted comedy about snobbery, hypocrisy and "the unbridgeable gap of social class." The screenplay by Lajos Bíró and Eliot Crawshay-Williams is packed with witty lines, delivered by a perfect cast, and Korda gets plenty of laughs from clever bits of blocking or well-timed reaction shots.

10 – Squirrels to the Nuts (Peter Bogdanovich, 2014) – Prince Charles Cinema, Digital
I have barely any memory of Peter Bogdanovich's disappointing 2014 film She's Funny That Way, but I'm keen to revisit it now to try and understand just how badly the producers mangled the director's original vision. Seeing his cut of Squirrels to the Nuts – miraculously found on a tape on eBay – was a revelation, and a much more fitting send-off for this great director. It's a classically constructed farce full of slamming bedroom doors, people hiding in bathrooms, misunderstandings and slapstick, and there are some marvellous comic set-pieces that display Bogdanovich's keen sense of staging and cutting. The cast is a treat, particularly Jennifer Aniston as an incredibly hostile therapist and a hilariously louche Rhys Ifans, and the presence of so many past Bogdanovich collaborators in the cast gives it the feel of a valedictory picture. It’s extremely charming and genuinely funny, and I had a blast experiencing it with an audience. I'm so glad this film was found when Bogdanovich was still alive to see it, and I hope it goes on to have a life beyond its few cinema screenings.

9 – Le Brasier Ardent (Ivan Mosjoukine, 1923) – Cinema Lumière, Bologna, 35mm
I've loved watching Ivan Mosjoukine every time I've seen him on screen, but I also learned this year that he was a phenomenal talent behind the camera too. Le Brasier Ardent knocked my socks off in the opening minute, with an extraordinarily visceral, surreal and unsettling nightmare sequence. This is a visually thrilling film throughout, both through Mosjoukine's superb framing and montage, and through the incredibly imaginative production design: Nathalie Lissenko's bedroom has breakfast routine gadgetry to rival Wallace and Gromit, while the building that harbours the "Find Anything Agency" is full of unexpected twists. This is also where we meet Mosjoukine's Detective Z, pulling off a fake nose to reveal that he's the gormless-looking character we've been watching for the past few minutes, a reveal that drew widespread gasps among the audience. I was consistently delighted by this witty, gorgeous and madly inventive film.

8 – Lovefilm (István Szabó, 1970) – Close-Up, Digital
One of the most beautifully edited films I've ever seen. As a man takes a train ride across Europe to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart and first love, his head is filled with memories and dreams, and Szabó creates a breathtaking montage from them. The childhood scenes are set in Budapest during the Second World War, while their later encounters take place against the backdrop of the 1956 revolution, which ultimately separated them. This is a profoundly moving memory piece, with so many moments in the film having the specificity of real lived experiences, especially the scenes featuring the child actors, both of whom are wonderful. Szabó jumbles all of these moments in time and plays with the malleability of memory (at one point, Jancsi realises his recurring dream of Kata has solidified into a memory as true as any of his real experiences), but his film always maintains an emotional clarity, with the repetition of certain images generating an accumulative power that I found overwhelming. There is tragedy and trauma here along with the moments of joy and love. It's an incredibly rich and poignant film.

7 – Oh... Rosalinda! (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1955) – BFI Southbank, 35mm
The Archers’ adaptation of Die Fledermaus is an absurd farce involving characters who represent the four nations occupying post-war Austria. The Austrian end is represented by Anton Walbrook, who opens the film by talking directly to the audience, letting us know that he can get us pretty much anything on the black market. It's a great role for Walbrook, and it's fun to watch him cut loose with a more overtly comic performance – his drunken dancing early in the film is a particular treat. Everyone plays things big and broad here, but the real star of the movie is Hein Heckroth, whose production design embraces theatrical artifice, with the painted flat backdrops often evoking a pop-up book. It’s a sumptuous film to look at, and I loved some of the witty touches, like the distorted images and the way Powell and Pressburger created a sense of double vision to show how drunk Dennis Price is when he returns from the party. It’s Powell and Pressburger at their most frivolous and eccentric, and seeing Oh... Rosalinda! for the first time on a dye transfer Technicolor print was a sensational big screen experience.

6 – The Plot Against Harry (Michael Roemer, 1971) – Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, 35mm
Michael Roemer shot this film in 1969 and premiered it in 1971, but because the distributor felt it wouldn't find an audience, it didn't receive an official cinema release until 1989. It plays like the eccentric Jewish cousin to Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with a wonderfully weary lead performance from Martin Priest as the gangster Harry Plotnick, who is trying to get his life and business back on track after being released from jail. The narrative is essentially a loose series of things just happening to Harry as tries to do deals and mend broken family ties, while simultaneously trying to avoid the stress that might afflict his enlarged heart, and it eventually meanders to a nicely ironic conclusion. The Plot Against Harry has a dry, oddball sense of humour and a brilliant cast; I particularly enjoyed Henry Nemo as Harry's nervous driver and Ben Lang as his permanently smiling brother-in-law. Best of all is the way the film emerges us into so many aspects of Harry's personal and business worlds. It's a great New York picture.

5 – Dedication of the Great Buddha (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1952) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
Before seeing this film in Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Teinosuke Kinugasa strand, I noticed Donald Richie’s note in the programme that suggested Dedication of the Great Buddha did “no credit to its director,” but I was bowled over by it, and I thought it was by far the best of the extremely rare Kinugasa films that I saw this summer. Kinugasa effectively portrays the epic challenge of the task at hand, building a 16-metre Buddha statue in 8th century Japan, which is beset by sabotage, superstition and misfortune. The compositions and lighting are constantly breathtaking, the way Kinugasa creates a sense of scale is truly impressive, and the riveting casting sequences are comparable to Andrei Rublev or the oil derrick scenes in There Will be Blood. Dedication of the Great Buddha is a stunning piece of filmmaking that held me transfixed, and I was very moved by the end of this arduous journey: "My life...for this."

4 – We Live Again (Rouben Mamoulian, 1934) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
This was a big year for Rouben Mamoulian fans, with a nitrate screening of Blood and Sand at the BFI and a blu-ray release for Love Me Tonight alongside an enormously popular retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato, which won him a host of new admirers. My favourite discovery from this selection was one of his least-popular films. An adaptation of Tolstoy's Resurrection, We Live Again stars Fredric March as the idealistic cadet who has his socialist ideas squeezed out of him by the military and upper class living, and Anna Sten as the peasant girl he loves. It's a passionate tale of love, loss, guilt and redemption that goes to some unexpected and sincerely moving places, and it has a wonderful lead performance from March: the close-up on his face as he gazes at a picture of his younger self and wonders what has happened to him is a marvellous piece of acting. Mamoulian's direction is sensitive and intelligent, with occasional bursts of symbolic torrential rain. Gregg Toland shot it beautifully, and you can hear the contribution from Preston Sturges in some of the dialogue. The ending definitely wasn't what I was anticipating, and I was deeply affected by it.

3 – The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh, 1972) – BFI Southbank, Digital
Reminiscent of The Wages of fear and Sorcerer, Tewfik Saleh’s film generates an overwhelming sense of tension as it tells the story of three Palestinian refugees and their smuggler crossing the desert into Kuwait. I felt I could feel the oppressive heat as the unforgiving sun beats down on these men – this is one of e of the sweatiest films I've ever seen – and every moment when they have to hide inside the truck’s metal container, knowing they risk being boiled alive inside it, is agonising. Saleh’s direction is exceptional, creating a series of of brilliant shots (the truck parked next to the air-conditioning units; the drips of sweat hissing on hot metal; the brutal closing image) and utilising some exceptional sound design. I was really taken by the bold editing choices, and the way flashbacks were folded into the narrative to add context to each man's desperation. The climactic drive through hell is genuinely hard to sit through. It's an extraordinary film.

2 – Dreams of the City (Mohammad Malas, 1984) – Cinema Jolly, Bologna, 35mm
Based on the director’s own experiences, Dreams of the City details the political turmoil of 1950s Syria through the eyes of Dib, a young boy who has moved to Damascus with his younger brother and widowed mother. I need to read more about what exactly was occurring in Syria at this time, but it doesn't really matter how well-versed you are in this era, because what Malas has captured here feels incredibly authentic, personal and human. I felt every moment of physical and verbal abuse dished out by Dib's monstrous grandfather, and the relationship between Dib and his heartbroken mother is so tenderly played – there are a couple of scenes where each tries to lift the other’s spirits, and they both moved me deeply. What's most resonant in this beautiful film is the depiction of life in Damascus in the 50s; it's an incredibly involving and evocative recreation of a lost city. Dreams of the City is a masterpiece.

1 – Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, 1975) – BFI Southbank, 70mm
Dersu Uzala was the one major Kurosawa film I had never seen. I had always avoided it as I waited for the opportunity to see it on the big screen, and it was worth waiting for. In February, as part of the BFI’s Akira Kurosawa season, Dersu Uzala was presented on what is the only exiting English-language 70mm print in the world – a print that was apparently rescued by a private collector when it was on the verge of being junked – and it was an overwhelming experience. Kurosawa’s use of the landscape is incredible, notably during an extraordinary sequence in which Captain Arsenyev (Yury Solomin) and Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk) have to build a shelter to survive a raging blizzard. You can almost feel the crisp winter chill or the warmth of the sun emanating from the screen and the seasons change over the course of the film. At its heart, this is a simple and deeply touching story of friendship. The mutual affection and respect that grows between Captain Arsenyev and Dersu Uzala is so pure, and their joyous reunion at the start of Part II (“Capitan!”) drew ecstatic cheers and applause from the audience at our screening. Having attempted suicide in 1971, Kurosawa was emerging from the lowest point of his career when he made Dersuz Uzala, and he must have seen something of himself in Dersu – an ageing man losing his powers and his raison d'être – but the film that emerged from his personal crisis is one of his most spiritual, empathetic and profound works. It's one of the greatest films I've ever seen, and this was one of the most magical cinema experiences I've ever had.