It’s been a tough year, hasn’t it? Massacres of children in Gaza and Pakistan, CIA torture apologists and racial unrest across America as the civil rights dream falters and fumbles, Ukraine and UKIP more closer to home – and I’m not sure which one of the last duo is more terrifying. Normally a critic would make some spurious attempt to link these wider events into the cultural narrative of the cinema, cherry-picking examples of ‘dark’ movies to make the claim of art reflecting life, but I’m not gonna fall down that rabbit hole as for every troubling piece that seems to have touched a cultural nerve (Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, The Rover, Leviathan, Under The Skin, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Nymphomaniac) there is an equal volume of joyous, optimistic and brightly colored triumphant adventures (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Frank, The Lego Movie, Lucy, X-Men Days Of Future Past, Interstellar and the usual glut of animated incidentals) to balance out the light with the dark. My overall impression is of a rather average year with some odd pearls glittering among the swine, my biggest regret the unconscious emphasis on American fare as you will see from the compilations. Now it’s not as if I deliberately attempt to be a pretentious film critic (that just comes naturally) and actively seek out only European art house fare or an obscure directors most avant-garde offering or anything, but in putting this together the heavy bias of North American material is glaring this year, a symptom of my lack of international film festival coverage perhaps. I do deeply regret not seeing Leviathan or Force Majeure yet but by the same token I find the works of, say, Nuri Bilge Ceylon (Winter Sleep has topped numerous polls) rather tedious, and other celebrated fare such as the new Godard and Ida were admirable but a little self-consciously art-house and obtuse, almost working to a formula as well defined and enshrined as any cookie-cutter Hollywood product.
Still we managed to power through Sundance London and the LFF as usual but I was hoping for some foreign viewing, but as always the rather chaotic day job presented the usual scheduling difficulties. We also made an intergalactic effort with the BFI’s SF season which enabled me to meet some key Kubrick collaborators, and as usual we gunned down a few older classics, including The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Paths Of Glory, An Autumn Afternoon as well as Night of The Hunter and Belle Et La Bete under the waning winter slush of the Gothic season. I didn’t devote as much time to my Fritz Lang series as I’d liked but we did consider some classic material, from The Big Heat to the indigenous expressionism of Metropolis, this will continue in 2015 as there are a few more noirs I’m desperate to cover. I’m deeply disappointed that Snowpiercer never got a cinema release here and will pick up the Blu-Ray now it has thawed to a reasonable price, TV wise I’ve also covered enormous ground, finally finishing the long trek through Buffy Seasons 3 to 6 consequentially alongside all five seasons of Angel – that was quite a feat. Then there was season 2 of the amusingly schlocky Bates Motel, Fargo was freezing fun (I particularly enjoyed the expansive time period that the season meandered through) while Menagerie favorite Boardwalk Empire faltered a little before pulling it out of the bag with a season closer that saw a beloved character bow out in appropriate grace. The most genre fun was probably Penny Dreadful and the increasingly bonkers American Horror Story, the last season of which has more dutch angles than a Flemish cubist convention. Finally though the highlight was the Mammon that was True Detective, sure some of the final plot contortions were a little ridiculous but overall this was the small screens greatest capture, and yes I will once again reference that astounding sequence. But we’re here for the movies aren’t we, so as always here are the guys and gals top picks over at Sound On Sight (my meek contribution is at No.12), as usual my top ten is in no specific order and are my personal favorites as opposed to the most acclaimed, evolutionary or envelope-pushing works, so let’s kick off with what was surprisingly the updated Sight & Sound top film of the year as well;
The Menagerie Films Of 2014
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014) – Whilst we all know the premise of the film isn’t entirely original with both the Truffaut Antoine Doniel cycle and the UK documentary series 7 Up utilizing the same device Richard Linklater’s wonderful, affectionate ode to growth and maturation is brilliant on an emotional and character level, and that’s why critics and passing civilians have taken the film to heart. Here’s a nice long appreciation of the films patient production model, quite how Linklater made such an affecting film with so little of narrative nourishment is a testament to his laid back skill, in this film made of little moments which aggregate into a soliloquy on aging and the fleeting transparency of time.
The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2013) – There’s always one isn’t there, one film released so far back in the dimly conceived mists of time that we can barely conceive it was released in the same lunar cycle. Scorsese coaxed (or is that coked?) in the year with this exuberant, unapologetic lancing of the American dream, a savage sermon against the perils and pernicious plague of excess of the past thirty years. The DNA chain through his greatest films reveals men wallowing in a labyrinthine moral and psychic abyss, from Travis Bickle to Jake La Motta, from Rupert Pupkin to Henry Hill, now Jordan Belfort joins the tribe of testosterone tussled anti-heroes who achieve some redemption when they confront the error of their ways. The film has the energy and chutzpah of a man half Scorsese’s age, proof positive that as that great generation of Movie Brats slowly creep toward retirement (as I write this in November Marty’s just turned 72) they have a savage bite in them yet.
Guardians Of The Galaxy (James Gunn, USA, 2014) – It’s been a reasonable year on the blockbuster front, despite gargantuan reservations I still rather enjoyed Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Godzilla and Edge Of Tomorrow AKA Live, Die, Repeat AKA The Cruiser Carks It, but the most entertaining time I had under the tent-pole tarpaulin was the Marvelous Guardians Of The Galaxy. It’s fun to see a superstar in the making and I think Chris Pratt will go out of this world, I loved the Howard Hawksian motley camaraderie of characters on a desperate mission translated through Jack Kirby storyboards, and James Gunn’s loose CGI sprinkling of subversive humor and staging gave the film a refreshing little bite. Sheer, state of the art formulaic franchise entertainment, ideal escapism to evade your woes for a couple of hours.
The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine, 2014) – It doesn’t happen often but every few years a film comes along and turns a supposedly stale and degraded art form upside down, leading the very language of the form into fresh waters, bruising a lasting legacy in the mind. I still shudder a little when recalling The Tribe, its shattering trio of outré scenes aside it is a remarkable testament to the fluidity of screen communication and artistic economics. The visual aesthetic of distancing, static long takes are intimately married to its aural audacity – no score, no dialogue, just simple and searing diagetic dread. I loved the commentators who have likened it to silent cinema, the emotions and drama blazing across the screen despite the absence of dialogue, subtitles, or overt language, as scandalous as Scum and as brutal as Kubrick’s stylised droogs, The Tribe must be this years mute masterpiece.
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, USA, 2013) – The absolute highlight of a reasonable quality Sundance London Film Festival Blue Ruin exceeded my azure expectations, a taut and tense neo-noir with it’s crosshairs on one of America’s less attractive obsessions – firearms and fury.The sense of mystery that is preserved is superb as you wonder what could have driven this itinerant Radaghast to such desperate measures, with the gallows black humor oozing from every sweaty pore. I expect we’ll be seeing more of debut director Saulnier and his moon eyed leading man, with a final Coenesque perfect payoff coda this film is vengeance laced perfection.
Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013) – In keeping with this years theme of SF assimilating other genres – in this case the Rom-Com – this gently moving film starts with a warm heart of gold in the algorithm, before it severs the cerebellum in the single singularity. Quite how Jonze and his crew managed to take an absurd, almost comical premise and made you care for everyman Twombly (Phoenix in his quietest performance for years) romantic inclinations still scuppers my cynical CPU. With it’s pastel palette Hoyte van Hoytema is certainly building his reputation as one of the worlds leading cinematographers to watch after coming to international attention with Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and a small, modest Chris Nolan film which seems to have soared to success in cinemas. Like Interstellar the film is SF as speculation, holding a digitized mirror to current social experiences and developments, and musing in those areas of the place of our species interrelationships with technology, with economics, with love and loss. Oh, and this might be the oddest and funniest observation of the year.
Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA, 2014) – It’s actually been quite a year for fans of the great American assimilated auteur, we’ve had new films from Scorsese, Jonze, Anderson, Aronofsky, Nolan and Fincher, and casting my eyes forward there is a potential bounty for the imminent year ahead. Any film which provokes such debate on the nature of current sexual politics is the mark of a period defining film, but I don’t think that should shadow just what a beautifully crafted and deliciously executed piece of pure, unadulterated cinema that Gone Girl represents. Being an apathetic pussy or limp dick I think you’ll bring your own thoughts to this movie, and forge your own beliefs on whom might be wright or wrong. Vaguely related but Richard Kelly almost atones for his mediocre cinematic output since Donnie Darko here, a reasonably argued comparison piece between Gone Girl and none other than Eyes Wide Shut. This comparison between Finch and the portly master of suspense is tasty, while The Dissolve makes a case for itself as one of the top dozen film sites here. Me? Well, upon further reflection the more I admire how the film manipulates structure, how it feints and parries the viewers expectations it demands a third revision, alongside another muted acknowledgement of the mischievous perversion of the untrustworthy narrator, all echoed with Trent’s pulversing score.
Nightcrawler – (Dan Gilroy, USA, 2014) – I love it when something scuttles out of the depths of the dark and confronts you, as someone who quietly prides themselves on their horizon scanning for new great movies this nebulous little nasty took me completely by surprise – and I love that. Criticizing media ethics is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but Dan Gilroy’s nocturnal odyssey heightens the stakes to an overarching screech at modern society, all in thrall to Gyllenhaal’s slithering performance as the next breed of Wall Street impresarios. Like Lou Bloom I’m also being a selfish bastard as I think this was my best review of the year thus the film has lingered in the Menagerie memory, it was a bastard to write but when the words suddenly fell into place I thought I came closest to straddling that gulf between the impression in the mind and the words on-screen. This is a nasty, immediate and ugly mirror of modern media society, with a conclusion that would have Australian oligarchs beaming with pride.
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2014)- Is it all a big metaphor for the collapse of film? What a surprise, the Nolan man-crush continues, cinematically speaking with his most ambitious and on occasion most frustrating film to date. That ecclesiastical soundtrack high in the mix has been on heavy rotation here at Menagerie towers, and certain moments – the messages playing out over McConaughey’s face during that scene, the fraught docking maneuver, the queries that arise during that stage of the odyssey – well, yes it’s flawed but it unquestionably has some marvelous moments. A second viewing diminishes some of the problems with the picture, overall it’s a film that has generated debate and discussions (see some of the robot design evolution here), and it’s just goddamn inspiring to see a film maker genuinely attempting to wrestle and evolve the blockbuster form. Maybe it’s my advancing age but any film with such optimism and genuine celebration of progress emanating from our earthly plane is welcome around this quiet quadrant of alpha centuri, plot worm-holes and all. Anecdotally I’ve been charting the film’s trajectory and it really seems to have resonated with a younger generation (as opposed to my jaded peers who have trotted out the scientific snark and sneered at the sentimentality), virally spreading beyond its confines to inspire and influence viewers around science, physics and astronomy – how many films can genuinely boast that reaction?
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014) – If you that assume that jazz was all dark berets, moodily mouthed Gitanes and nocturnal turtleneck posturing then think again. This electric debut from the disgustingly talented debut writer-director Damien Chazelle has it all – an involving storyline, immensely powerful performances, ecstatic sequences that revel in the joys of performance of motion in this detailed aria on the painful pursuit of perfection. The editing is phenomenal and it’s riveting to see Miles Teller hold his own against J.K Simmons ferocious Oscar-winning performance (yup, I’m calling it here), sure it might stretch credulity at one point which feels like a slight misstep, but then a thundering final act blasts over the screen with a stunning encore which leaves you pirouetting out into the night.
Honorable mentions to the Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Fruitvale Station (fuck me was that a prescient film), White God, Foxcatcher, White Bird In A Blizzard, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Most Wanted Man, Black Coal, Thin Ice and for pure cinephile celebration Peter Strickland has once again made the most meta 2014 film with his sensuous The Duke Of Burgundy. In terms of genre fare moments John Dies At The End was hilariously bizarre, Sin City 2 was unfairly maligned and The Raid 2 was bone-shatteringly brilliant, although I must admit that a small screen revisit does highlight some of the films more evident flaws – great set pieces, but too many longueurs between the lacerations. Ah I hear you scream, but where is Scarlett Johannson’s carnivorous cenopod? Well, while it has materialized on many ‘best of 2014’ lists and had its UK release this year do remember that Under The Skin was acquired in Toronto, so it has already featured in last year’s extravaganza. I didn’t really embark on any small screen seasons other than a passing glimpse at some of the controversial Kim-Ki-Duk’s earlier pictures, and I’m quite surprised to see a lack of any truly memorable documentaries in my coverage this year, The Case Against Eight was good but not great enough to make the cut, and although the Cannon Films autopsy was fun it didn’t warrant more than a passing fist-bump of appreciation. I will however nominate Tim’s Vermeer, Particle Fever and Future Shock as non-fiction fields worth exploring.
As befitting a turbulent and ominous year the films which have sorely stuck in my cranium are similarly challenging and risqué fare,
Christiane F (Ulrich Edel, Germany, 1981) – I was turned on to this film by the wonderful House Of Psychotic Women that I covered here, maybe it’s the preponderance of CGI saturated vision quests these days but the stark vérité of this rather harrowing little tale really stuck in my arm. Based on the real life memoirs of the titular character its a fascinating snapshot of 1970’s Berlin, all drab fashions and brick brutalist architecture, and a wonderful score by Bowie at his absolute peak as far as I’m concerned. Given that we sadly lost the street-poet Lou Reed this year I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to a dangerous walk on the wild side.
The Visitor – (Giulio Paradisi, Italy, 1979) So I have finally seen The Visitor, and that was what it is. That cryptic arrangement is my feeble attempt to ape the film under discussion, a long-lost cult curio which the Alamo Drafthouse recently resurrected with a Blu-Ray transfer, one of those insane coalitions of every popular film of the time that the Italians loved to throw into a celluloid stew and see what bubble to the surface. Lance Henrikson, Franco Nero, Glenn Ford, Shelly Winters and John Huston star in this Jodorowski styled melange of The Exorcist, Lifeforce, The Lady From Shanghai, The Omen, CE3K and Eraserhead, together it makes precisely zero sense but operates on a level of individual sequences, an aperitif of the era which yields a few distinctive flavors. I detected a Moorcock influence from his Dancers At The End Of Time series, then the camera is seized by what one assumes is an epileptic toddler as the narrative bizarrely shifts to footage of a basketball game, it veers wildly between tones and technique and I enjoyed it throughly. It might be an ideal double bill / companion piece with Candy which has a similarly pharmaceutical enhanced feel, a crazy cast and nonsensical plotlines = glorious cult insanity.
Ne Te Retourne Pas (Marina de Van, France, 2009) – The sacrifices I make for you people, and the thanks I get. Honestly, you think I haven’t got better things to do? Two hours of staring at Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci was a real chore let me tell you, in this dark French psychological thriller from the underappreciated Marina de Van of Dans Ma Peu body-horror fame. The doppelgänger plot is pure bourgeois dread, as a successful middle-aged professional & homemaker slowly begins to suffer strange interludes where objects appear to move around her families elegant Parisian apartment, before her cognitive condition degenerates with more disturbing alterations to her physical form. To say any more would be to venture into spoiler territory, but this is a discretely crafted little chiller which keeps you guessing of its internal or external malignant source,
Body Double (Brian De Palma, USA, 1984) – If you’re surprised to see a De Palma film on my best list of the films of the year list then think just how surprised I was when ten minutes into the picture on a Film4 screening I slowly realised I’d never seen this film before. I think I’ve always conflated Body Double with De Palma’s similar Hitchcockian ‘homage’ Dressed To Kill, so from a purely academic standpoint this was quite an experience for the Menagerie as we don’t stumble across missing texts that often. Brian is a director distinguished with some great, dare I see it meta sequences in his films that refer and refract the very operation of cinema itself, his wider texts failing to gel into a coherent whole just like his protégé Tarantino. In this film there’s lots of prowling POV, gliding steadicam and feints of sexual jealousy, and some terrific period interiors and design which remind you of just how gorged and execrated the 1980’s were. I quite surprised myself as someone who usually has little time for De Palma and his tedious hysterics, but something about this pierced the spot as something new and a historic piece of a jigsaw puzzle finally being completed, plus it coincided with remembering some perfectly delightful trivia that it’s also Patrick Bateman’s favourite film in American Psycho. This film couldn’t be more eighties if our designer stubble, Ray-Ban aviator sporting anti-hero didn’t get into a brutal gunfight down at the docks with some Miami based Colombian coke-fiends after witnessing an impromptu breakdance battle down at the new Space Invaders Arcade (takes a breath……..), before Frankie Goes To Hollwood turn up for a musical interlude number – and then they fucking do. It’s hilariously, completely and blatantly derivative of Rear Window, Dial M For Murder and Vertigo which is fucking rich from De Palma given he’s already molested that ground with 1977’s Obsession, while the chain of events and indiscretions in the films last half hour is utterly ridiculous and absurd. I loved it.
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldritch, USA, 1955) – From its opening corrupted title sequence this is a seminal film of the 1950’s and one of the absolute key film noirs, I watched this on a double bill with a 1940’s Lang and the differences were as stark as the jagged chiaroscuro lighting. Aldritch unshackled his camera from the chains of the studio to provoke a nebulous reality to this dark drama, and the fluid visual work makes the film feel much more modern that a lot of its peers. I’ve seen it before a few times but the sheer craft was a revelation, with troubling little surreal inserts and cantilevered compositions marking a new evolution of this most murky of sub-genres. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) isn’t quite the noble crushed Bogart or Dana Andrews of earlier noir, in fact he’s quite the brutal bastard anti-hero, while the women are all playing an angle and manipulating their marks, with a nuclear paranoia pulsing in the films radioactive core. Kiss Me Deadly creeps like a troubling claustrophobic dream, I’ll slug any cinephile who wouldn’t include this dark little dame in their top dozen noirs of all time list, not least for the influence on the likes of Lost Highway and Repo Man which honor the film in their own quiet way. Any film with the muted threat ‘Stay away from the windows Mike, someone might blow you a….kiss’ is aces in my book.
Films To See In 2015
Inherent Vice (P.T. Anderson, USA, 2014) – No surprises here of course, except that PTA turned up to personally introduce the charity screening at the Prince Of Wales cinema back in November – why no, I’m not in the least absolutely furious that I missed that opportunity. After the very serious and sour tones of his last two movies it should be fascinating to see PTA groove back to Boogie Nights territory, and it’s interesting to consider that this is the first time that any of Thomas Pynchon’s books have been adapted for the screen, large or small, by anyone, ever. Early word is exceptionally good so I reckon this could be an instant cult classic, with that The Big Lebowski meets The Long Goodbye Californian burned-out vibe another addition to PTA’s west coast fascination.
Black Hat – (Michael Mann, USA, 2015) – Yes, of I concede that this could go either way. Shudderingly ugly Chris Hemsworth as the worlds most talented superhacker? Hmm. A seventy-one year old director uploading his vision of modern cyber-crime in a realm of technological advance exponentially advancing to render any event ancient in six months? Ahh, just as an example I wrote that sentence a month ago and already there has been a rather significant cyber-crime hasn’t there? If however you are contingent of the exhaustive research and fidelity that Mann amasses during his perfectionist preproduction process then I’m certain he would have consulted the worlds leading futurists, scholars and think-tanks on the shady subject of cyber-espionage, and on a rather more testosterone flavored kick is there anyone better at crafting a shoot-out or action beat? Of course the film has taken on a whole new dimension in Tinsel Town every since the crippling Sony Hack, should be interesting to assess the films reaction in the shadow of terrified executives suddenly spending millions on IT defenses – more on that below. I’m an enormous Mann fan so any new film of his is an event around these parts, this hits in February so not long to wait.
Knight Of Cups (Terence Malick, USA, 2015) – After a traditionally slow gestation period Terence Malick’s Knight Of Cups was finally announced for a Berlin 2015 festival premiere, and maybe I’ll be there to see it – I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin. In his old age Terry is becoming positively prolific with two other films on the horizon, this trailer is quite odd I thought as it looks like a Malick film with a modern setting which is not his usual spiritual playground. Nevertheless it is a further hymn from the American alcehmist and is therefore unmissable, even if his last effort was slightly disappointing.
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2015) – ‘I really wanted to make a 1980’s John Carpenter film like Starman. I love the way those films look.’ said Mr. Nichols, and there was much rejoicing. Filming commenced in back in April but the movie isn’t scheduled until November of next year, I have absolutely no further details than that nor shall I be seeking any until a trailer ambles along. Alongside the likes of Sean Durkin and J.C. Chandor I consider Mr. Nichols as one of the most promising of American directors of that recent generation, and anyone who references obscure Carpenter and makes his own skillful and intelligent movies is obviously a friend of the Menagerie. The picture has a cast – presumably Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst are the star crossed lovers fleeing another collaboration with Nichol’s frequent muse Michael Shannon, so maybe a more muted SF piece can fight back again the more feeble franchises.
Ruling the roost for first viewing of 2015 is Birdman which opens on New Years day, fortunately the rest of the year has plenty of other treasures to explore. The American auteurs maintain their vice like grip on my cinema consciousness as we have a new Scorsese, potentially his penultimate film before retirement which is a gloomy proposition as he continues his late career peak. There’s also a new Spielberg who is directing a Coen brothers script which could be quite the clandestine combination and I’m slightly terrified that Gasper Noe is back with a film called Love, the subject matter of which promises more fluid dispersal than the most splatter heavy slasher. Closer to home there’s High Rise as domestic favorite Ben Wheatley translates the brilliant J.G. Ballard’s better known urban nightmares, Tomorrowland looks like a mystery worth solving (is it based on a book, a YA novel or comic or anything? I know nothing about this project and intend to keep it that way) while Del Toro gets back to his spooky roots with Crimson Peak. Speaking of genre not only is an absolutely incandescent Max back with an exciting looking film (and proof that the art of the movie trailer isn’t necessarily dead as everyone went fucking nuts about that teaser) but It Follows seems to be the sleeper horror hit before Ultron finally takes on The Avengers. I don’t care for the look of Jurassic World but I’ll see go see it, who knows it might be tasty and Ahnoldt is back in what is shaping up to be the worst entry in an increasingly rusty franchise. Jupiter Ascending looks increasingly lame following some juvenile trailers and a mysteriously axed release date (usually a sign that something is significantly rotten in Denmark) and toward the end of the year some trifling space opera franchise gets a new iteration, with Mission Impossible 5 facing an impossible box office mission by opening a mere week later – that’s braver than any high-altitude heist.
So we finally cast our gaze to the future. As always a glut of sequels infested movie theaters in 2014, including A Haunted House 2, 300: Rise Of An Empire, Paranormal Activity 4, Captain America 2, The Expendables 3, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Dolphin Tale 2, Rio 2, Sin City 2 and Dumb & Dumber 2, How To Train Your Dragon 2, The Hobbit 3, and the third The Hunger Games film which I simply couldn’t face. Milking franchise cows for three, four or more installments of product has been an established film business since the dawn of technology when the likes of Biograph, Pathe and Mack Sennet supplied a hungry audience with a constant tsunami of two-reelers. But mere repetition and formula isn’t the whole picture as illustrated in this article, the gulf between the two arcs of the industry is becoming more hideously apparent, as spineless executives seek to ‘cross-pollenate franchise possibilities’ or ‘fully exploit the cultural profile of intellectual properties to vertically penetrate the four segment demographic’ – parts of this commentary from Universal’s CEO honestly made me want to retch. I didn’t take a genius to predict that both I, Frankenstein and Dracula Untold would curdle at the box-office without a single molecule of horror in them, the latter just about breaking even with a $212 take on a $70 million budget when you factor in P&A and the exhibitors cut of the gross. Wider issues aside there also wasn’t much sympathy around these parts for the Sony hacking scandal (even if the world continues to turn into a simulacra of a William Gibson novel) with the genius ideas of a Men In Black and 21 Jump Street fustercluck being brought to screens – is there a single original thought left in Hollywood? The powerpoints alone are the funniest thing the studio has produced in the 21st century.
The disintegration of the middle ground is unnerving and remind me of the 1950’s, when the studios desperately fought the new threat television with widescreen, 3-D and other theatre gimmicks. The difference in this decade is stubble but no less desperate , as maybe this proliferation of franchised programming is the frantic industry reaction to the so called rise of Serious Television© and the arc of long form seasons and character development to fully explore potent tales and themes. It’s only with TV that we seem to consume those ‘water-cooler’ events such as that gory episode of Game Of Thrones or that intoxicating finale of Breaking Bad, but from a pure storytelling perspective did The Hobbit need to three movies? Does The Stand need to be four movies? Was the last Hunger Games novel deserving of being split into two films? It’s pure economics of plateauing theatre attendance and the new kids nipping at the dinosaur studio’s heels, Showcase, Netflix and Amazon seem much more likely to take risks and commission material that would have Time Warner or 20th Century Fox executives reaching for their psychiatrists emergency speed-dial. The way I look at it is that quality always seems to rise to the top, of course I cast my net wide but I never struggle to find ten pictures that are exemplars of the form, so these claims of TV ‘beating’ movies is rather absurd – it’s on a par with claiming an apple is a better fruit than a banana. In any case the film industry has always defied expectation and prediction as a recent article has just blown apart insiders predictions, as William Goldman said in Hollywood ‘nobody knows anything‘;
Not that I’m in any way jealous you understand, but the continual drip feed of Cannes announcements, invitations to glittering screenings and exclusive press conferences from certain mailgroups I was recruited to during last year’s Toronto expedition has inspired me to delve your more into arthouse waters back home in sun blushed blighty – doesn’t sound like I’m missing much anyway, right? Any film which is judged as being worse that last years Diana bio-pic which was intergalactically terrible in every possible manner, well, I suspect that a film even more catastrophic would actually suck all the spirited qualities of all the films screening around it on the croisette, like some ravenous celluloid neutron star. But I digress gentle reader, as wishing to milk the dying embers of my career break I naturally turned to the BFI schedule to see what was on offer, and was immediately struck by an opportunity to boost my pretentious credentials with a screening of the newly restored An Autumn Afternoon, serene sensai’s Yasujirō Ozu’s final movie. You may recall that we have broken bread with the great man before with the masterpiece Tokyo Story a few years back, as an enormous fan of Japanese cinema I have seen maybe a dozen of his films on the small screen, but like a stuck record I must always make the case that seeing these films on the big screen as intended is quite a different experience, minus the potential distractions of smartphones, political canvassing callers, or any of the other accruements of modern life.
So in terms of context Yasujirō Ozu is one of the most lauded and appreciated film directors of all time, working almost exclusively for the Shochiku studio between 1927 and 1963 alongside Kenji Mizoguchi and the more Western leaning Akira Kurosawa he is a central strut to any claim of Japan being one of the most accomplished cinema nations of all time. Where the latter was more enamoured with Westerns, with male camaraderie and a moral code operating in socially ambigious frameworks Ozu’s films are more micro level mediations on the individual, gentle fables on family, blood and the ties that bind. Shūhei Hirayama (Ozu favourite Chishu Ryu who appeared in a staggering 52 of his 54 films) is a gentle, soon to retire widower with three children; his 32-year-old married son, Kōichi (Keiji Sada), and his two younger siblings who still reside in the family home – 24-year-old daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) and a 21-year-old son Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami). Kōichi has moved out to live with his spirited wife Akiko (Mariko Okada) and begun his career in the new economic evolution of post war Japan, leaving Hirayama and Kazuo to be looked after by Michiko, the traditional female role being to adopt the domestic duties at this period. Hirayama frequently meets with his school friends for quietly wistful sake soaked reunions where they collectively ruminate on their lives, the activities of their children and what fortunes and hurdles may lie ahead.
What a wonderful, gentle, moving mediation on time’s inexperable march, the bittersweet shift from one generations priorities to the next as the shadows lengthen, as the inevitable creeps up on us all. This is not a stark, existential, Nordic querying on the purpose of life in the severe strain of a Bela Tarr or Bergman however, An Autumn Afternoon as its title suggests is a fading consideration of aging as the seasons move their celestial cycle, brimming with affection and humour as the pathos wrinkles and warps in an auburn glow. It is quite amusing to see just how much booze was consumed in this movie, as legend has it Ozu was a presdigious drinker himself whom would wade through carafe’s of sake during the scripting stage with his screenwriters. I kid you not, if you applied the legendary Withnail & I drinking game to this picture you’d be in hospital before the credits rolled. Almost every scene has the salarymen throwing back the scotch, sake or beer whilst gently ribbing each other and ruminating on their changing lives and loves, I’d forgotten just how amusing Ozu can be when the mood takes him, as it invests his humour as a sharp antidote to any descent into melodrama . In terms of an historical document it’s also quite fascinbating to watch a film with an increasing ‘Westernised’ society following the American occupation still cleaving to its ancient patriarchal structures, with arranged marriage being the cultural norm regardless of class of creed. I’m aware that broadly speaking Japan is still something of a culture in which women are expected to commit to domestic servility at the expense of their career aspirations following marriage, so to see it presented without prejudice or social comment in favour or against back in 1962 marks this as an important social document. There are even some sly observations of the American occupation and the corporate arising of the salaryman culture and the idolisation of commodities, as Koichi’s unconsulted purchase of some expensive second hand golf clubs become a symbol of bourgeois achievement and advancement, another example of a shift in attitude and ideology as one generation eclipses the previous.
Of course we have to touch upon Ozu’s almost unique filming methods, the low centred camera which concentrates material in untraditional spatial schematics (compare and contrast with the usual American & European establishing shot / two shot / reverse shot methodology), the slowly creeping establishing march through exterior space to the intimate interiors of his characters homes and domiciles, the idiosyncratic pillow shot, and most unusually the total violaton of the eye line match (also known as crossing the line) even in this, his last picture after a half century career. This unusual technique, so striking and jarring for Westerners weaned on a diet of Hollywood classical narrative model places the viewer as a sponge in the centre of the scene as two characters converse with each other, instead of the eye line match convention which deflects the passive viewer into a spectator mode, an observer rather than a participant in the films emotional and thematic nucleus. Techniques such as this unconsciously broach identification with the characters and their quiet, still but slowly evolving lives, stimulating unmelodramatic queries on our own lives, through poised and realistic performances from Ryu, Sada, and the rest of Ozu’s perfect troupe. Having seen this before on DVD it was as always a revelation on the big screen, a quiet, gentle, tender comedy with a resigned but not dismally melancholic acceptance of times inexorable passing, Ozu’s final incontrovertible masterpiece;
It was a gloriously eerie Sunday afternoon as the wispy tendrils of the NFI’s Gothic season continued on London’s South Bank, as I nervously navigated the fog choked streets of ye ole London town to catch a ghoulish double bill of old-school undead. One thing I can’t fault the BFI for is value for money, as when scheduling a double bill of these two ghoulish classics they only charged for a single ticket, so this was a nice opportunity to up the ante on my murky coverage especially since I’ve long waited to see the second film of the schedule on the big screen for reasons I’ll touch upon below. As I’ve mentioned before prior to 1968 the idea of a screen zombie was a very different beast from the shambling brain ravenous hordes of recent decades, as the mythological concept of the zombie was originally founded within the religious practices of indigenous African and Haitian cultures, adorned with somnambulist slaves and glazed-eyed automatons under the puppet master instruction of some voodoo sorcerer for his own nefarious plots. On screen these elements are infused with a pungent ‘fear of the other’ related to immigration and racial suspicions, a tangent which you’d think would still be still ripe for a contemporary plunder given the pathetic prejudices of certain ignorant quarters of the population whipped into frenzy by the right-wing press. Yet we still seem to frame the zombie as our ultimate metaphor for mindless consumerism, a symbol of our spiritual malaise caused by the ubiquitous importance of reckless corporate domination in the physical sphere, our souls and incorporeal searching smothered by the omnipotent pulse of capitalism. it’s either that or a symbol of the braying, mindless, violent mob, a political metaphor of our ferocious partisan political divides and tabloid beguiling, as it can be no mistake that the only way to overcome our differences and win the social argument is to shoot your opponent in the head / intellect. Since the zombie trope is still exhausted in popular culture infecting as it has mainstream TV series, numerous films lurching into direct to DVD coffins year after year after year, computer games (Dead Rising 3 looks tasty) and comic books (not to mention world-wide flash-mobs and genre affectionate gatherings) it was pleasing to return to the polluted source, to divine the origin of this horrific successful virus of movie monster archetypes, and perform a grim autopsy of its sweltering and sweaty Caribbean genesis.
Well, actually this won’t be a detailed excavation as I don’t have a huge amount to say about these films, what was most instructive of the session was a chance to see how film grammar evolves over time, to analyse how movies are constructed from a pacing and performance position and how a tale is presented to an audience through a similarly brisk expiration period – both films run an approximate 70 minute run-time – or to put that in a slightly more succinct way one film was made in 1932, the other in 1943, so lets compare and contrast. White Zombie was a very clunky piece of work which I had seen before, as a horror completest any Karloff picture is an immediate must-see, but while his hilarious performance is worth the price of admission the story around it is less than compelling. The movies were still in the final birth pangs of the transition to sound in the early 1930’s so like Dracula and the early Universal films they have that exaggerated acting style more attuned to theatrical playing to the gods, the main heroine does nothing but hurl her hand wrist up to her mouth, take a major step back and gaze to the heavens every time some bad news is inflicted upon her precious psyche, and the intonation and stilted movements around the enclosed sets is teeth grindingly thudding in places. The plot is straightforward – a newly engaged couple travel to the West Indies be wed under the wing of their mentor, but he is under the spell of the wicked wizard (Karloff) who has some weird plans which are never fully explained – so it moves sluggishly through its paces with only a few early genre machinations to really make its mark. There are some innovations unusual for the period, particularly the use of split screen to denote a time-aligned plot being driven across parraell actions, and it also retains the silent movie motif of moody double exposures, Karloff eyes superimposed over the fey heroine to signal his malevolent hold over the unfortunate creature, it’s a great old movie mode of communication without dialogue, the collusion of images making meaning, essentially what separates cinema from the other art forms. For genre fans what a treat Karloff is, no-one manages such…..elongated…….and……..ponderously………….pregnant……line deliveries, its camper than a John Waters XXX loyalty card but he’s just so much darn fun, despite chomping through the scenes in a fashion which is positively ludicrous. The final set-piece is quite hilarious to digest when compared to contemporary explosive antics, this is the 1932 equivalent of Ahnoldt facing off against a silver morphing cyber-assassin with state-of the art special effects;
In contrast I Walked With A Zombie is now considered something of a classic, and simply from some of its stitched on enhancements – character development moments, a dreamy voice-over contextual apparatus, a circular narrative structure which returns to its inception by way of an eeriely crafted promenade across a spooky West Indies – a grimm fairy tale with adulteress flirting of the dead. Why I really wanted to see this at the flicks was to immerse myself in its greatest and most pungent quality, as what this film has in spades is atmosphere, that evocative quality so lacking in todays abyss of remakes, re-imaginings and hollow updates, almost every frame of this film is drenched with a melancholic dread and uncertainty of those infinite spaces between the stars.
Director Jacques Tourneur was a master of craft (see also Cat People) through the careful deployment of sound effects and score (an ominous rhythmic distant drumming perforates the film) and slanting lighting patterns which cast the film as moody shadow-play, the madness and lunacy of this old slaving family now cursed with its past sins haunting the present. This atmosphere is enhanced by the ambiguity of the uncanny, there is no definite villain as such operating the events from behind the scenes, so the supernatural elements are distorted and transparent, and perhaps more tangible than any spiritual slumber from beyond the grave. The film and the lineage bleeds through to the Hammer cycle and the Italians emphasis on mood and picture, sound and severity, so in its quiet way it’s as influential as chillers such as The Uninvited or The Innocents before events turned more visceral in the late 1960’s. So this was an instructive double bill and another genre classic is finally ticked off the list, before next week when I have an investigation up in Scotland with some pagan miscreants….
Let’s solemnly pad this out with some comments on the full top 30 list of Sight & Sounds films of the year, alas it’s not on-line but here’s a reminder of the top ten. Unsurprisingly some of the highly acclaimed art-house auteur angles such as Norte, The End Of History, The Great Beauty and Lawrence Anyways naturally made the cut, as usual I was aware of these and would have caught them at TiFF or the LFF but the opportunity didn’t quite gel with my other priorities. We UK critics can be a parochial bunch as electing Wheatley’s A Field In England seems a little too partisan – it was an interesting film but hardly the best of the year – and in the critic specific breakdown (always a cinephile highlight to trawl through) the highly amusing super-troll Armond White managed to offend everyone by not just championing Man Of Steel but also Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, what a bait-click seeking maverick eh? I’m mostly furious with myself as despite making close to a hundred visits to the cinema this year I still missed Basterds, A Touch Of Sin and Stray Dogs which are perhaps more in my wheel house than four-hour long Proustian fables, and I guess I have to see Blue Jasmine now as part of the inevitable Oscar nomination crush come January. So lets close with another fine montage of the years alleged best from David Ehrlich, and his top 25 film countdown of 2013;