Reel reel gone: My 2016 in film

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Opening words

At first glance, this article may seem like an attempt to justify a year’s worth of gratuitous film-watching. Well, first glances are often correct. I’ve seen more films this year than in any other, and though I’ve reviewed some of them, my consumption:output budget is deeply in the red. I’ll try harder next year.

But a digest of my film consumption in 2016 will be of use to some. Partly it’s a source of optimism: in a year where so much has gone so wrong for so many, it’s heartening to look at the best of a 140-film sliver of human output and see so much beauty and meaning and noble effort. Most of the films I’ve seen this year have been excellent, some inspirational, and many are new: one in six are from 2015-2016, and there are dozens of films from these years I’d love to see but haven’t yet.

This digest might also prove useful to those who aren’t necessarily movie-mad, but who are interested in movies and are undeterred by films that are foreign or made before their birth. Film for film, this year’s lot are an eclectic, unclassifiable bunch. So if you’re inspired to see any of the movies I’ll go on to mention, you’ll be getting a lot of pleasure from a lot of unexpected sources. Not on the list, but which I recommend nonetheless, are a late-period Woody Allen film, a 2015 black-and-white Colombian adventure movie about epistemology, and some lovely Japanese anime.

But this exercise is also useful for me: going over what kind of stuff I’ve been watching, and my reactions to it, will allow me to confront my own prejudices and predilections and figure out how to be more open next year. This year, most of the movies I saw were from the UK or the US; hopefully, next year the UK:US and world:UK/US ratios will be higher.

So here goes: the inaugural analysis of a year of film-watching.

Top Ten

Not counting the films I’d already seen (and there were some peaches: Citizen Kane, Sweet Smell of Success, My Neighbour Totoro), here are the ten best movies I saw this year. The top two are the top two, but the rest are more-or-less interchangeable:

  1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1943)
  2. Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1965)
  3. Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski, France, 2015)
  4. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1993)
  5. Brooklyn (John Crowley, UK/Ireland, 2015)
  6. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, USA, 1984)
  7. La Maman et la Putain (Jean Eustache, France, 1973)
  8. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1931)
  9. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, USA, 1971)
  10. El Sur (Victor Erice, Spain, 1983)

A brief provenance analysis

(Feel free to skip this section.)

You can see what I mean by homogeneity: nearly half of these films are American, and nine of them are American, British or French. This makes me wonder whether this sort of geographical spread is almost a foregone conclusion: since these ten films are subjectively, not objectively, the greatest, they reflect my sensibilities – which have been shaped to a huge extent by growing up in Britain as a Francophile, my dendrites helplessly fondled by the tentacles of Yankee cultural imperialism. The list’s geographical inhibition may also be explained by this chart of the origins of all the films I’ve seen this year:

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Within these parameters, though, the ten are varied enough to surprise me. For a start, half of them are either very funny or great fun; only Schindler’s List, BrooklynEl Sur and McCabe & Mrs. Miller are serious-minded films, and even Brooklyn has moments of quietly soaring levity. When making best-of lists, maybe “having a great time and feeling exhilarated long afterwards” ought to be a serious factor.

Moreover, no two films (other than Pierrot le Fou and Cosmos) are alike. The four American films are each from a different decade, and encompass a Holocaust drama, a rock concert movie, a silent comedy and a revisionist Western. Notwithstanding a subconscious bias towards heterogeneity in my top ten, this variety wasn’t deliberate – so it might suggest that even if 40% of the films I’ve seen this year are American, it isn’t necessarily a huge limitation.

It’s also good to see that two of the top ten are new films. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that one in six films I saw this year were from 2015-’16. Gone, perhaps, are the days when game-changing masterpieces were also the most popular movies around, but there’s no shortage of great new films being released, and London is an ideal place for under-26s to affordably explore movies new and old, domestic and foreign.

What makes these films great?

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the greatest film I’ve seen this year. I saw it not at the cinema, but on a computer screen, on the film-streaming website MUBI. Note that I caught the restored version, which is crucial: 2012 saw the release of a Scorsese- and Schoonmaker-overseen digital restoration of the 1943 film, which looks absolutely stunning. This isn’t just a light remastering – it’s a noticeable and notable transformation. The result is visually astonishing. I doubt you’ll have seen anything like it.

But the surface pleasure is – well, just a surface pleasure, albeit a considerable one. Where the film shines most is its phenomenal screenplay. The film is formally an epic – it lasts two hours and 40 minutes, and spans the Boer War to World War II – but it feels intimate and deep rather than simply wide, and is frequently very funny. It charts the progress of Clive Wynne-Candy, a gallant, charming soldier (Roger Livesey) who seems increasingly old-fashioned as the world around him changes unremittingly.

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Roger Livesey as Colonel Blimp.
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Roger Livesey as Colonel Blimp. (The film is frequently very funny.)

Much of the plot concerns his friendship with an equally charming German soldier (Anton Walbrook, a star of 1940s British cinema), and his courtship of three women throughout the years, all played by Deborah Kerr. It’s a beautiful conceit, and Kerr does it justice by making all three characters similar but distinct – that is, Wynne-Candy continuously sees her as an ideal, while we see her not as “her” but as “them”. (Luis Buñuel would invert this idea in the ’70s, in the wonderful Cet Obscur Objet du Désir, which has the same woman be played by two different actresses, both vocally dubbed by a third actress.)

Colonel Blimp’s screenplay just plain sounds great: it’s rhythmical, witty, quick yet profound, and given an unforgettable musicality by the three leads, particularly Livesey, whose rough Welsh baritone anchors the film and is a constant delight to hear. It’s hard to overstate how rare these kinds of screenplays are: you can almost tap your feet to them, yet they contain multitudes, revealing volumes about characters, exploring themes so deftly and with such nuance (if not always with subtlety). As with many of Powell & Pressburger’s films, Colonel Blimp is a paean to Britain, celebrating certain traditions (game-hunting, chivalry, fair play) while recognising that the times are a-changing (in gender politics as well as geopolitics), and that obsolescence is merciless. But the film also works as visually and sonically dazzling art, character study, historical epic – and to an extent, historical document. An immensely satisfying watch.

There’s nothing traditional about Pierrot le Fou, a masterpiece of colour and framing and frustrated joy. Jean-Luc Godard wrote and directed it, and for me it’s the peak of his ’60s output (though I haven’t yet quite seen all those films – he directed 18 feature films that decade, and I’m not generally a big Godard fan). His tenth film, it was the third film he’d shot in colour, after Une femme est une femme and Le Mépris, and, as in the former, he uses colour like an abstract expressionist, splashes of colour representing little but their own character, an implicit celebration of difference and distinctiveness. It looks fabulous.

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Jean-Paul Belmondo as Ferdinand/Pierrot.

For nearly two riotous hours, cinematic conventions are demolished: surreal interludes appear and dissolve, the fourth wall is broken, intertextuality is rife (and text itself – letters, words, sentences – are messed with on screen), actors become paint canvases, crimes are casually introduced and left unsolved, the sound track is entirely muted at certain points (because fictional characters need privacy too), characters make completely irrational decisions… I could go on. Sounds kinda infuriating, right? Especially to 21st-century viewers, for whom none of this is particularly new. But the miracle – the reason I love it so much – is that it succeeds in being hugely entertaining against all odds. It was a highly personal work for Godard, yet it’s a universal film. I’m fairly inured to postmodernism and media saturation, as are most people I know, but this film broke through and spoke to me in a way fresher than I’d ever thought possible.

Pierrot le Fou is a criminal-lovers-on-the-run movie, with Ferdinand (the ever-lovable Jean-Paul Belmondo) bursting out of his bourgeois lifestyle to run away with Marianne Renoir (Godard muse Anna Karina). That Marianne is an ex-girlfriend is significant: the break with tradition and the past is not total. (For me, her name brings to mind not Jean Renoir, one of Godard’s influencers, but Jean’s father: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who shares with her a chromatic boldness.)

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Anna Karina & Jean-Paul Belmondo as Marianne & Ferdinand/Pierrot.

Cinephiles will love this film: it was so clearly a lodestone for enfants terribles like Tarantino and Scorsese, but in terms of blatant visual distinctiveness it’s pure auteurismeauteurité as altérité as Americans like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Baz Luhrmann and even Woody Allen would come to define it. The movie’s look is crucial to its charm, but its aestheticisation of violence in particular is a key marker.

Here, a comparison with Tarantino is illustrative. Tarantino would say around 30 years later: ‘I’m not afraid of showing violence. I think it’s very cinematic. I like Godard’s quote… “There is no blood in Pierrot le Fou. There is only the colour red.”’

But the reason this film holds its own against Tarantino’s best is this: despite casually defenestrating formal traditions and the kitchen sink, it never lets hipness subsume heart and humanity. It’s exhilarating and earthy simultaneously. It treats formal and narrative escape as escape from a real emptiness, from the everyday abnegation of our primal desires – and the spaces being escaped from are actually represented in the film. There’s a tedious-looking party very early on, bathed in stultifying red filtered light; there’s the staid home to which Ferdinand returns after the party, pleasant enough but well-stocked with gewgaws. In other words, the narrative is jump-started by real-life neuroses, not by meta film references. (Even the opening credits of Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s most human film, manages to both explicitly echo The Graduate’s opening credits and play on the audience’s memories of ’70s Pam Grier. It proceeds from cinema, not from reality as we experience it.)

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Remind you of any filmmakers?

Not only that, but reality is constantly tugging at Pierrot le Fou’s frames; it isn’t just an unmitigated thrill-ride. One scene sees Marianne wandering aimlessly down a beach repeatedly intoning, ‘What shall I do? I don’t know what to do.’ Boredom seeps in at other points, too. Tarantino and his ilk have no time for such melancholy. Bizarrely, I am reminded of a scene from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, in which Itzhak Stern says of the eponymous list of Jewish employees: ‘The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.’ One imagines Tarantino thinking of his films this way; Godard, by contrast, was always trying to bring the gulf – the abyss – into his movies. (Kenji Fujishima makes some interesting points on the difference between the two filmmakers here, particularly in terms of each’s relationship to their context.)

Incidentally, Schindler’s List was another one of my favourite films this year. You probably all know the story by now: swanky industrialist Oskar Schindler employs Jews in his factory during the Holocaust because they’re cheaper, but he soon comes to appreciate the brutality of the Nazis he associates with, and decides to employ as many Jews as possible in order to save their lives – a financially and politically dangerous move for him. To my eyes, the film remains – nearly a quarter-century later – the most recent Leanian Hollywood epic. It’s such a perfect exemplification of this form that it is a landmark in its own right.

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An effortlessly stylish Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler.

By “Leanian epic” I mean a film very much in the vein of the magisterial epics made by British director David Lean, a man who elevated cinema to a new level by imbuing it with poetry and good old understated Anglo-Saxon emotion, while retaining an engrossing plot and the pace of an adventure movie. (Lawrence of Arabia was without a doubt the greatest thing I saw in 2015; you must catch it in 70mm or 4K if you can.) Lean’s influence on Schindler’s List is unsurprising: Lawrence of Arabia was the film that made Spielberg want to make films.

The hallmarks of a Leanian epic are, in my opinion, as follows: a complex script with strong emotional and instinctual undercurrents; noble individuals against a historical backdrop rife with risk; moral ambiguities and compromises; journeys undertaken literally and figuratively; a duration of around three hours; masterful, almost rhetorical editing; sensitivity and nuance; a stirring soundtrack; a focus on masculinity (not necessarily a good thing, but a hallmark nonetheless); and major studio backing.

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But it’s the emphasis on little details that are incredibly economical yet poetic and painfully evocative. Take the shot of what looks like snow falling outside Schindler’s house – he wipes it off the car. We note that it’s ash. We see the smoke-belching chimney and we realise where the ash is coming from, what it’s made of. But it’s never spelled out explicitly. Compare this spare poetry with shots from Doctor Zhivago: the shot of potted sunflowers, or the broken spectacles on the snowy ground of the battle-scarred forest, which may or may not symbolise a certain character’s death. This kind of cinema is the stuff of magic.

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One of the few elements of colour in this black and white film.

The comparisons with Lean are important because the Leanian epic seems to be a vanished art form. Not that we don’t have historical, quasi-historical or pseudo-historical epics any more – Terrence Malick, Peter Jackson, P.T. Anderson and Andrew Dominik, to name four at random, have given us some amazing ones. But there’s something about the epic template outlined two paragraphs ago that is cinema at its most cinema. The grand themes are enormously grand, but always leave space for the observation of human behaviour and the capturing of human grace.

Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s ultimate love letter to cinema, using all the tricks in his arsenal and yet creating a restrained, nuanced film that hasn’t dated a bit in nearly 25 years, thanks in part to Janusz Kamiński’s decision to film in black and white, and to Steven Zaillian’s philosophical screenplay. It is a historical film, but several of its more specific preoccupations remain timeless. Very early on, we see close-ups of ink jars, writing implements and names of Jews being recorded by the Judenrat in ledgers and documents, people’s identities being affirmed by being recorded. It’s not the last time the film homes in on the recording of names. (‘The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.’) Written names go from being a death sentence to being almost literally a new lease of life. Either way the ink is extraordinarily powerful. In 2016, these sorts of written records – whether on paper or behind a computer screen – are only growing more important.

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What is it about steam trains? Why are they such potent images in historical epics? My guess is that you can see an output, smoke, which means there’s an input, which implies cause and effect – history’s ever-chugging engine. In Lawrence the train is merely a plot device, in Zhivago it conveys epic scale and journeys undertaken, but in Schindler’s List it is grimmer, far grimmer – in a match cut near the beginning (match cuts are another Lean trademark), a flickering candle flame turns monochrome, dies and turns to smoke, which instantly becomes the smoke of a steam train, smoke indistinguishable from the smoke belched from human-incinerator chimneys. The Jews fuelled Hitler’s plans, but they were also literally used as fuel. The film doesn’t dwell on this – it bears witness, then moves on.

A much less bleak, more equivocal journey is at the centre of John Crowley’s Brooklyn. What a film this is. Nothing on the scale of Schindler’s List ever comes close to happening, yet Brooklyn brought me much closer to tears. The story is as simple as its characters’ feelings are complex: Eilis (Saiorse Ronan) leaves her mother and sister (Jane Brennan and Fiona Glascott) behind in Enniscorthy, Ireland to pursue a better life in the US. She falls for and gets engaged to a gallant young Italian-American plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen), but when she returns to Ireland after a death in the family, she develops feelings for an equally charming and wealthier fella, Jim (Domnhall Gleeson). Jim also represents her homesickness, natch.

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Emory Cohen & Saiorse Ronan as Tony & Eilis.

Brooklyn is right up there with Brief Encounter in the restraint with which it explores overwhelming emotions, letting the faces of the actors – principally Ronan and Cohen, and to a lesser extent Glascott and Gleeson – communicate the love, the reservations, the joy, the gratitude, the resentment, the regret, the quandaries. Sure, all films need good acting, but when the dialogue can only express so much, a lot rests on the eyes and the lips. Much easier said than done.

A colourful, sympathetic bunch of supporting characters (played by Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and others) flesh out the plot, but this, together with the film’s generosity of spirit, is de rigueur for these sorts of BBC Films productions. Less usual is Yves Bélanger’s evocative cinematography, which brings out warm homely interiors, nights of nascent romance on urban streets, old-school club nights at local halls, and the melancholy expanse of Ireland’s southeastern coastline – all realistic, yet all somehow suffused with emotion even when there are no characters in the frame. Tasteful use of handheld cam helps. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, Brooklyn is the most graceful…

… with the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. The oldest film on my list, and the only silent one, it’s also the shortest selection, not even 90 minutes long. Its magic cannot be bottled by prose, its marriage of music and visuals producing a cocktail as light as it is potent. Chaplin’s most famous character, the “Little Tramp”, befriends a whimsical millionaire and falls for a blind flower-seller; and while Chaplin can’t resist a little social commentary – the Tramp’s fortunes correlate reliably with the millionaire’s megrims, and the justice system is hardly without its cracks – the emphasis is very much on the romance between the two poor lovers.

The sheer finality of the final scene struck me, and would strike most modern viewers, as unusual: we’re used to narrative and emotional climaxes being followed by codas, sometimes several codas, which often end up helplessly bathetic. Not so here: in one of the most cinematically perfect, supernal 60-second endings I’ve ever seen, the past is reckoned with, the present rendered timeless and the future lain out. (60 flawlessly paced, delicately played seconds – while rewatching the last scene, I counted.)

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Charlie Chaplin & Virginia Cherrill as ‘A Tramp’ and ‘A Blind Girl’.

There is a deathless innocence about City Lights; a sense of before-the-fall benevolence, a genuine feeling that the tatterdemalion and the flower seller are not only meant for each other, but are also the first and the last lovers left alive. Sure, when you think about it, their relationship feels deterministic – yet their fragility and endurance earn our admiration. She is blind to everything and him; he is blind to everything but her. And as they feel their way to each other through their darkness, we are bathed in light.

I move now from the wordless eloquence of City Lights to the spasmodic yet tightly orchestrated glossolalia of Stop Making Sense. Having released their fifth studio LP Speaking In Tongues six months previously, the New York band Talking Heads decided to make a movie out of their three-night December 1983 tenure at the Hollywood Pantages Theater. Since I first saw the film well after I got into the band’s music, I don’t know how non Heads fans would react to it. It may be that non-fans will find it interesting, engaging, danceable, but not necessarily appealing emotionally, and an odd way to spend 90 minutes. To anyone with a passing familiarity with the band’s music, however, there is no better way to spend 90 minutes. This ain’t no exaggeration.

If you’ve heard of Stop Making Sense, it’s probably in the context of “greatest rock/concert movies of all time”, a list it often heads. This is unsurprising: unlike films that were vehicles for, say, Elvis, Prince or the Beatles, there’s no flimsy pretence of a plot, and there’s none of the valedictory showboating of Stop Making Sense’s most frequent competitor in the ‘greatest rock movies’ lists: Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which is a masterpiece only because the music is so good.

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David Byrne being entirely normal.

Rather, Stop Making Sense pulls off a clever sleight of hand: it lets the music speak for itself, while maintaining a musical narrative of sorts, and using cinematic techniques that augment the music, rather than distracting from it by introducing extraneous “cinematic” staples; that is to say, instead of character building, dialogue etc., we get expressionistic lighting, suspenseful tracking shots and a spectacle that gradually increases in magnitude. (Godard fans might also feel a twinge of recognition at frontman David Byrne’s “gunshot dance” early on.)

The film is technically a documentary, but there are no talking heads (insert onomastic joke here). There is, however, a surreal and very funny promotional video on YouTube featuring David Byrne in various disguises interviewing David Byrne disguised as David Byrne. It strikes a very different note to the film, which is exuberant, inviting, generous, and – as more and more musicians come on stage with each song, steadily sculpting a sonic edifice – a sincere paean to creation itself, not some postmodern jape. Stop Making Sense says more about creation than Terrence Mallick’s ponderous The Tree of Life does. If you’re a Talking Heads fan, the film is unmissable. If you’re not a Talking Heads fan, get with it pronto – they’re hard to not like. (Here’s a handy conversion tool I made.)

Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore), which was screened, in an inspired bit of programming by the Barbican, on Valentine’s Day, is a bit of a hard sell. Literally, it seems; the 1973 movie hasn’t enjoyed a DVD release, though you can get it on VHS for a little over £50 on Amazon, where all the reviews give the movie five stars. Its obscurity is a real shame: it’s a unique film with a unique power.

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Jean-Pierre Leaud, Francoise Lebrun & Bernadette Lafont as the three lovers.

My tolerance for long, meandering French films is low: I could barely make it through Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs To Us) and Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating) without stomping out of the cinema in sheer impatience. But La Maman et la Putain, whose plot concerns a ménage à trois and not much else, is even longer, at well over three-and-a-half hours, and is twice as mesmerising. There are several reasons for this, among them Eustache’s ear for dialogue and a hypnotic sense of malaise; early ’70s Paris seems alluringly free, not because of hard-won liberties so much as lack of a plan. The city seems empty, deflated, already dissolving into memories of a socio-political dream – an impression reified by Pierre Lhomme’s monochrome cinematography. Watching this film is not unlike – to borrow a phrase from another film – going on holiday by mistake. It’s an arrestingly saturnine feeling.

But the real ace up Eustache’s sleeve is an actor called upon by various other, less depressive French New Wavers, not least Godard: the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who made his name at 15 as an alienated teen in François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups. That film ends on a freeze-frame of his confused, frustrated face, fagged out from running, an indifferent sea in the background. The actor was never quite the same again. Since that film, Léaud’s charm has tended to lie in his disarming aloofness, his romanticism, his Sartrean authenticity. In La Maman et la Putain it’s no different: though he was 29, his boyish visage, foppish hair and general ingenuousness give the impression that he’s forever wearing clothes that are too big for him. But he doesn’t care, and we love him for being a youth wilfully out of sync with everything including himself. Léaud incarnates the free spirit we could never be; often, he seems to operate outside of narrative itself, like a pixie made melancholy because he’s been consigned to live among humans due to a technicality.

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But of course, Jean-Pierre.
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Ah, Jean-Pierre, you were not meant for this world.

La Maman et la Putain does require some patience: it’s dialogue-heavy, unabashedly Gallic, and post-Brexit I haven’t been able to picture it doing much for anyone who doesn’t identify as part of the #metropolitanliberalelite. But Léaud, Bernadette Lafont (his cohabitant) and Françoise Lebrun (his new lover) put in thoroughly memorable performances, grounding the dialogue in reality while imbuing the characters with the grace, pathos and eccentricity the cinematic medium evinces so easily. The epic runtime is justified shortly after the three-hour mark, when Lebrun, exhausted and damaged, delivers an unbroken ten-minute monologue on sex and love that is as powerful as any monologue I’ve ever seen on screen or stage. It is the climax of a film that has rueful wisdom coursing through its dejected veins.

Around half the length of Eustache’s opus is Victor Erice’s El Sur (The South), Erice’s first film since The Spirit of the Beehive ten years previously, a classic I find overrated. El Sur, about a girl who tries to get to know her enigmatic father, is anchored by three achingly real, spellbinding performances by Sonsoles Aranguren, Icíar Bollaín and Omero Antonutti, as eight-year old Estrella, 15-year-old Estrella and Estrella’s father Agustín respectively.

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Sonsoles Aranguren as eight-year-old Estrella.

It charts the father-daughter relationship with extraordinary empathy, using a gentle voiceover and communicating everything through simple, utterly memorable images: a swinging pendant; a nighttime café in which Agustín furtively writes; a jaunty yet tender paso doble between father and daughter; a seagull-shaped weather-vane adorned with icicles; a wooden box opened, in a style modern viewers will associate with Wes Anderson, to reveal the memorabilia within. The editing, by Pablo González del Amo, is deliberate, patient, gentle, and shapes time with almost effortless elegance: El Sur is a film that often gets from scene to scene by dissolving or using invisible cuts, most famously in a stunningly simple shot when young Estrella (played by Aranguren) cycles away from the camera down a tree-lined avenue, only to return, apparently in the same shot, cycling back towards the camera, but older and now played by Bollaín. No other medium can manipulate time with such poignant grace: this is cinema’s prerogative alone. And El Sur is a timeless classic preoccupied with time.

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A still from the beautiful bicycle scene.

When critics refer to cinematography as “painterly”, they’re generally being charitable, but José Luis Alcaine’s work on El Sur is one of the rare examples where the adjective is earned, and then some. Alcaine imbues every frame with a deeply unusual richness, reminiscent of Rembrandt’s or Vermeer’s interiors. The film’s look is so distinctive, yet so restrained, it’s almost as if the scenes have an aesthetic life of their own – a life we’ve been permitted to see but never fully enter, an untouchable three-dimensional canvas that both yields and withholds. A perfect aesthetic, then, for a film about a father who can never truly be known or understood by his daughter, only loved and admired and pondered.

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This is no Rembrandt: this is a Jose Luis Alcaine shot.

My reviews of Cosmos and McCabe & Mrs. Miller can be found here and here.

The best of the rest

Other films I’ve seen in 2016 to which I’d give a five-star rating:

Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (Deep South cop Rod Steiger has to overcome his racism to work with highly adept black detective Sidney Poitier to resolve a murder. It’s dated very well, and remains remarkably potent);

Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer (a brilliantly written study of an old-school English music-hall performer, played with startling depth, insight, volatility and vulnerability by Laurence Olivier; the generous screenplay has plenty of other great roles too, including one for my acting find of the year, Roger Livesey);

George Cukor’s The Women (worthy of note because this 1939 film does not feature a single male actor; even the animals are female. It’s hardly a profound film, but it’s enormously enjoyable, and a worthwhile historical footnote – though directed by a man, it was written by two women, Anita Loos and Jane Murfin);

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A still from ‘The Women’.

John Baxter’s Love on the Dole (a stirring tale of poverty, compromises and changing values in 1930s Lancashire; perhaps not a five-star film, but an undeservedly obscure one, and one that features no shortage of delightful, admirable characters);

Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (a strikingly shot 1937 film about the friendship between French soldiers from different backgrounds during World War I, and their relationship with a sympathetic German officer played by the legendary Erich von Stroheim);

Éric Rohmer’s Le genou de Claire, or Claire’s Knee (possibly the most straight-up gorgeous movie I’ve seen this year. Filmed by cinematographer extraordinaire Néstor Almendros around Lake Annecy, near the border with Switzerland and Italy, in summertime, it’s a modest comedy of love and foibles, particularly male foibles; it is gentle, ludic, quizzical, slightly perverse, yet observant and mature. Watching it feels like being on a relaxed, edifying holiday);

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The sheer beauty of the location shots in ‘Le genou de Claire’ is not, alas, adequately represented by Google Images.

Horace Ové’s Pressure, which I review here;

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (which features one of cinema’s great child performances, by a 16-year-old Nikolai Burlyayev, who plays a stoic, resourceful 12-year-old who forces his way into the Soviet war effort against the encroaching German army; the film features some of Tarkovsky’s most striking imagery, expressionistic monoliths made all the more memorable by Vadim Yusov’s lush black-and-white photography);

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Nikolai Burlyayev as Ivan.
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Nikolai Burlyayev as Ivan. The 16-year-old possessed an impressive range.
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A memorable shot from a memorable film: ‘Ivan’s Childhood’.

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (a multi-faceted, generations-spanning, fictionalised portrait of the Camorra crime syndicate in Italy, which avoids the potentially trite interlocking-narratives / we-are-all-connected angle, but nonetheless weaves together five separate narratives of people affected in their own way by the syndicate and the gang warfare that it conduces. The very definition of hard-hitting);

Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (a three-hour-plus ensemble piece about the run-up to Project Mercury, the US’s first manned spaceflight; it features some of the most visceral, thrilling flight sequences ever filmed, but is notable mostly for its tone – rather than spotlighting the heroism of seven brave, proud, skilled men from the Air Force, Navy and Marines who become astronauts, Kaufman often pokes fun at them (and at American self-perceptions) while never downplaying their bravery and sacrifices, or the feelings and perspectives of their wives. It’s a rare thing: a patriotic film that acknowledges the absurdity both of America and of so much human endeavour, while finding beauty and majesty in both. The film is served well by its extraordinary editing, courtesy of Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Tom Rolf, Stephen Rotter and Douglas Stewart); and, last but not least:

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (a gripping black comedy that transposes the “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” maxim to the world of theatre, though Hollywood seems just as much of a target; nonetheless, this film is studio Hollywood at its most rambunctious, and though I can’t remember much of it in detail, I do remember the rush I felt when watching it. Bette Davis plays the doyenne of the stage, Anne Baxter her steely usurper, and George Sanders a shrewd theatre critic who ends up winning the day. This was 1950, after all, and that a film about such strong women should ultimately end up ensuring that the male gets the last word makes one reconsider just how feminist Cukor’s The Women, from 11 years earlier, was – maybe the women only ended up on top there because the men were forcibly kept out of the picture).

I hope you found this piece interesting, and that somewhere, sometime, you’ll see some of these movies. They make me so happy to be alive; they make me proud to be human.

All About Eve.gif
Bette Davis as Margo, the doyenne of the stage, in ‘All About Eve’.
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3 thoughts on “Reel reel gone: My 2016 in film

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