2019 was not that a good a year for new releases and the Sight & Sound ‘top fifty’ left me underwhelmed. However, there were still some fine new releases, of which the following six are my favourites.
Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice – Italy | Switzerland | France | Germany 2018.
A very fine drama combining a sort of magical realism in the countryside with neo-realist style in the city
Out of the Blue – Britain, US 2018.
A fine neo-noir with one of the performances of the year from Patricia Clarkson.
Pain and Glory / Dolor y gloria – Spain, France 2019.
Pedro Almodóvar on top form with this exploration of his own career.
Sean the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – Britain, France, US 2019
One for sheer entertainment value and a title that milked other films without making them clichés.
So Long, My Son / Dijiutianchang – China 2019
One of the pleasures of 2019 have been several films from China and this is an extremely fine drama that covers the recent decades since the return of capitalism.
Transit – Germany, France 2018
A story that reminded me of other films but gave these tropes a wholly distinctive treatment.
The year was improved by some re-issued and /or restored films.
We had Alfred Hitchcock’s finest Hollywood outing on 35mm, Rear Window, 1954. accompanied by the short but brilliant variation on the plot, Accidence, Canada 2018.
There was the classic British gangster film Performance, 1970; also in 35mm and with an interesting presentation.
And the Leeds International Film Festival, among the few 35mm screenings, offered a very fine print of Beau Travail, France 1999.
Screen International reports that Tim Richards, CEO of Vue International has written to BAFTA threatening to withdraw support for the industry body if it doesn’t change its eligibility rules re films ‘made for television’. With the prospect of more possible awards for Roma at the Oscars, Vue could be just the first of the major exhibitors to make this kind of threat.
In the UK, Netflix signed an exclusive deal with Curzon to show Roma only in Curzon cinemas in a controlled manner aligned with the film’s launch on Netflix. In the event, Curzon did later allow a handful of independent cinemas a limited number of showings in the UK and Ireland. Even so, as Screen International expressed it, this ‘Curzon ecology’ represents only 0.9% of the UK and Ireland market. The major cinema chains might expect to see a reasonable amount of extra box office from a film that wins a BAFTA. Roma won four BAFTAs including Best Picture.
Vue International operates 215 cinema sites across Europe (with 1 in Taiwan). These are nearly all multiplexes and Vue offers over 1,900 screens in total. Its main business is in the UK and Ireland with 864 screens on 90 sites. As an operation, its cinema business is similar to its two larger UK rivals, Odeon (AMC) and Cineworld.
Odeon operates 360 sites in Europe with over 2,900 screens. Its parent company AMC is the world’s largest cinema exhibitor with nearly 1,000 sites worldwide and nearly 11,000 screens on offer (the majority in North America).
Cineworld currently operates 9,548 screens across 793 sites in the US, UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Israel.
It’s worth reflecting on a number of other similar issues arising from film exhibition/distribution disputes in the last few years. In October 2018 Vue in the UK also had a dispute with Warner Brothers, distributors of A Star is Born. This was said to be about ‘booking conditions’ and was relatively quickly resolved but even so, Vue would have lost the business of the first couple of weeks of a major release. We’ve also seen similar disputes between Disney and Odeon. In 2016 a different dispute saw Tarantino’s film The Hateful 8 get some exclusive screenings in 70mm as stipulated by the director. As a result Cineworld boycotted the film. (See Keith’s review of the film at an independent in Barnsley.)
The issue that underpins all of these disputes has two separate parts. First, modern film exhibition assumes that any film can be shown in any cinema on its first release (what was once called ‘first run’). This is assumed as part of the concept of the multiplex. This wasn’t always the case. In the UK the ‘duopoly’ of Odeon and ABC assumed up until the 1980s that Hollywood films appeared on one circuit or the other except in places where there wasn’t a local competition. Second, the exhibition sector works on the basis of a set ‘window’ during which a film on a cinema release cannot be shown on any other ‘platform’. This window is being gradually closed. It was once two or three years, now it is commonly 14 weeks or less. Netflix wishes to abolish the window completely and this caused the latest problem with Vue. On BBC Radio 4 last night, Tim Richards implied that they could have screened Roma but to do so would have undermined the concept of the window and he wasn’t prepared to do that.
There is a third issue that relates to the above and we saw this a few years ago, again with Curzon at the centre of the dispute. This is the issue of ‘barring’ which was banned in the UK by the regulatory authorities in the pre-multiplex era but occasionally threatens to re-emerge in the specialised cinema sector. When Curzon opened a cinema in Sheffield, it refused to release a film which it was distributing under its own distribution arm to the long-standing specialised cinema in the city, The Showroom. Curzon is now in a powerful ‘gate-keeping’ position as the major distributor of arthouse films in the UK with the a significant number of West End screens. It also has its own streaming service, allowing it to release both in cinemas and online on the same day – making it a good match for Netflix. Curzon’s actions must have an impact of some kind on both Picturehouses (now part of Cineworld) and Everyman. The latter is the fastest growing of the smaller chains at the moment and seems to have focused mainly on comfort and good rather than programming to drive its commercial offer to middle-class audiences. Picturehouses has its own distribution business but doesn’t seem to have responded to Curzon with a joint theatre-online exhibition offer.
On this blog, Nick has emerged as a Netflix fan, or at least a prolific viewer. I think Rona and Des both use Netflix but I suspect Keith is not interested. I’m trying to resist Netflix as well. Having subscribed to MUBI I now have more films to watch than I can handle. I’m trying to judge whether subscribing online is making me less likely to go to the cinema – or whether the poor local offer of foreign language titles and other specialised films is pushing me towards that Apple TV box winking at me from below the TV.
The number of film screenings in cinemas fell for me this year. I think that was mainly due to the lack of diversity in the local screenings available and the unfortunate timings of some of the festivals I usually try to attend. It’s true that I did spend more time on the streaming site MUBI (although recently I’ve been very disappointed at the range of films on offer) and also on YouTube catching up with classic Hollywood. I’ve also spent time watching Talking Pictures TV, perhaps the best thing that has happened to UK Freeview television in the last few years.
The rise of Netflix and Amazon as general film and TV streaming sites is increasingly problematic for me, though I recognise that my friends are getting to see a wider range of films, especially if their local cinema scene is even worse than mine. However, the recent furore over the (very) limited cinema screenings of Roma and other Netflix productions is very disturbing. The BBC offered us both Mark Kermode and Neil Brand on BBC4 in 2018, focusing on questions of genre and music in film/film musicals. Both series were intelligently produced and presented by an experienced film journalist and practitioner respectively, both whom are passionate and enthusiastic. That must be a plus. BBC1 have just announced that its Film programme (which usually just took the year as the second part of its title) has been axed. Film 2018 coughed its last some time ago in that dishonourable way that schedulers employ – pushing a programme later and later in the schedule until what’s left of its audience have no idea where it is. We are promised something new on both broadcast and online BBC platforms in 2019. Is it too much to hope that BBC executives will learn from Kermode and Brand?
Here is a list of some of the films that I found most interesting and enjoyable this year. If there are titles missing that you expect to be there, it probably means that I haven’t seen them (e.g. those by Ceylan and McQueen). I’ve listed the films in alphabetical order so there are no preferences displayed. The only title we haven’t blogged about on this site is The Hate U Give which I hope to revisit when the DVD appears in 2019. I saw it with Nick and we were both stunned by its impact and therefore in a year when African-American cinema saw a resurgence, it deserves a mention. Happy as Lazzaro should get a UK release in the Spring but I’m not hopeful for Winter Flies – East European films seem to be very hard to sell to UK cinemas.
I saw six of the films here at festivals, but four of them were subsequently released in the UK. All the films in the list were screened at least once in a UK cinema in 2018.
In 2018 I was pleased to be prompted to explore the career of Ida Lupino as actor/writer/producer and director – thanks Glasgow Film Festival. I was also pleased to celebrate Agnès Varda’s career watching Le bonheur (France 1965) and L’Une chante, l’autre pas (France 1977) on DVD as well as Faces Places. On the negative side I didn’t see any standout British or Chinese language films this year. Many British independent films are increasingly difficult to see and Chinese independent films are similarly hard to find. Six out of fifteen the films here are directed by women.
Cold War (Poland-France-UK 2018)
Faces Places (France 2017)
A Fantastic Woman (Chile-Germany-Spain-US 2017)
Happy as Lazzaro (Italy-Germany-Switz-France 2018)
The Hate U Give (US 2018)
Leave No Trace (US 2018)
Lucky (US 2017)
Mukkabaaz (India 2017)
The Rider (US 2017)
Roma (Mexico-US 2018)
Shoplifters (Japan 2018)
Sweet Country (Australia 2017)
Wajib (Palestine-France-UAE-Columbia-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)
Winter Flies (Czech Republic-Slovakia-Slovenia-France-Poland 2018)
Zama (Argentina-Spain-France-Netherlands-Mexico 2017)
I fear for the diversity of films on offer in 2019. I hope I’m wrong but I think finding foreign-language films may become more difficult.
As is fairly well publicised this new title is a production involving Netflix and they control the distribution. Their tendency to offer token or zero theatrical access is also well known and has caused controversy at festivals, notably at the major Cannes event. So Netflix have expanded [only slightly] the theatrical access for this film, presumably so the film is a contender for awards at important festivals.
This release had a screening in the Leeds International Film Festival this autumn. Oddly it was not in Leeds but at the Harrogate Everyman. I do not think this venue has featured in any previous Festivals. And, if it is designed in same manner as its partner in Leeds, then I would question the designation of ‘theatrical’. The festival’s web pages did not shed any light on this unusual programming. A friend told me that he was advised that the reason was that Netflix were insisting that screenings were in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound system. [More on this later]. Apparently the Harrogate multiscreen is the nearest venue with these facilities. I did look up the title’s website, which had a function to check for convenient screenings. After checking seven of the cities or towns listed I found that I could see it in London on Boxing Day. This only started at 8.30 p.m. That would have cost me a return train ticket to London, an overnight hotel and two days away from home, [and my new housemate Dylan]. My colleague Roy Stafford has seen Roma and will be posting a review.
There seem to be several reasons why it is so difficult to see this film theatrically, already voted by the critics as the top title of the year in both Sight & Sound and in ‘The Guardian. One important facet has been set out with commendable clarity by Wendy Cook, General Manager, in the Hyde Park Picture House Members’ Newsletter;
“All the films we play in our cinema have a distributor of some kind. That will range from a large international company like Sony or Twentieth Century Fox to a small team of one or two people focussed on getting their film to the audience. They will understand their audience and the potential scale of that audience combined with the scale of the distribution … like the number of cinemas that the film play in, the marketing, how many screenings etc.
Netflix funded Roma, they are not however a distributor. They are not interested in reaching audiences through cinemas because they have their own platform and they want as many people as possible to engage with that. …
So, this year Netflix have initiated a strategy that gives some of their titles a limited release into Curzon Cinemas and handful of about three venues across Scotland and Wales.
This means is now open to the consideration of the major awards season but it is still not widely available for cinemas like us to book it.”
The cinema is one of a number of independent venues who have written to Netflix questioning the limited availability of this and other titles. [See the report by Screen]. It seems that the ‘window’ for theatrical exhibition is 3 to 6 weeks and exclusive to Curzon Cinemas. Curzon claim they only act as exhibitor and that bookings are through Netflix direct. So vast stretches of Britain and of the exhibition sector miss out. This is not helped by other players in the Industry. Screen International appear to have carried confusing reports on the issue. The Guardian suggested, erroneously, that the title would be available across Britain. The British Film Institute issued a Janus-style statement sympathising with the exhibitors but also praising the ‘availability’ via streaming. If my friend was rightly informed then the insistence by Netflix on certain technical standards for screenings would also be a major limitation.
I have so many objections to this, let me set out the important ones.
The rationale for Netflix’s stance on this has been surmised by some reviewers. Netflix operates a subscription streaming service.
“The company’s primary business is its subscription-based streaming OTT service which offers online streaming of a library of films and television programs, including those produced in-house.” (Wikipedia).
This service can be accessed across a range of products including computers, smart televisions and various mobile phones, Their prime interest is in signing-up more customers. This applies across the board. I went to look at their webpages and you can only access these by ‘signing up’.
The way Netflix organises access leads to restriction of trade, which means that would be customers for their commodities can only purchase via a highly controlled and selective environ. The EEC has already taken Google [and other internet companies] to task for what seem to be parallel restrictions. I am not a fan of the EEC but they would seem more likely to take media companies to task for similar practices than any of the British Parliamentary political parties.
Of course, restrictions of trade in film distribution and exhibition in Britain have been endemic since the Chaplin titles were used in an early form of ‘block booking’. Then as now the main culprits were US companies, as is Netflix, operating here. When the Hollywood studios were taken to task over anti-trust activities the market opened up. But it closed down again when the Reagan administration reversed these rulings. Currently in Britain the major distributors operate a series of restrictions including demanding the main auditorium, minimum bookings and priority over other titles. The latter tend to be independent and foreign language titles. Netflix’ partners in distributing Roma are Curzon who are very experienced in these type of actions.
At an aesthetic level there are questions of what exactly one gets for one’s money.
‘Devices that are compatible with Netflix streaming services include Blu-ray Disc players, tablet computers, mobile phones, smart TVs, digital media players, and video game consoles (including Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii).’
This streaming apparently requires compatibility in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound. And, of course, 4K on TVs and streams is not the same as 4K via a theatrical digital projector using a DCP;
’90 and 300GB of data (roughly two to six times the information of a Blu-ray disc’
And at present Blu-ray is superior to streaming,
‘it’s worth looking at the specifications for Blu-ray and streaming services. On paper, Blu-ray is certainly the quality winner, with the standard supporting video encoded using H.264 at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, delivered at a bit-rate of up to 40Mbit/s.
Compare that to Netflix, which is representative of other streaming services. It also uses the H.264 codec at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, but streams at around 12Mbit/s maximum. That’s a big difference between the two. To get its streaming rate down, Netflix has to throw away more detail in its video stream compared to the Blu-ray version ‘ [See ‘Quora’, ‘What Hi-fi’ and ‘Film-Tech‘ ].
Technical comments on sound suggest that there is an equivalent loss in audio reproductions.
The caveat in this quotation applies to all formats. Currently 35mm would seem to be superior to 4K digital but this depends on the source, the print and the projector. And similar facets would apply to Digital projectors, televisions and streaming equipment. But the mean would suggest that there is a vast difference in vision and sound between seeing something at a cinema and watching it on Netflix.
In a bizarre twist Roma, filmed on a digital format at 6.5K and using Dolby Atmos sound, has also been released [mainly in the USA] on 70mm film.
Several commentators have suggested that
‘this is the way things are going.’
My cinematic hearts ‘sinks into my boots’. Viewing life has got harder with the advent of digital. Titles that are shot processed with digital technologies vary considerably. Films originated on 35mm or 70mm or 70mmIMAX rarely have parallel contrast, definition or complete colour palette in digital projection.
Of course the entire film industry is about making profits from commodities, and surplus value. But Netflix is part of the expanded global system. 137 million subscribers round the world. Valued at a billion dollars for every million subscribers, [note, by the stock markets!]. Most notably leverage [debts] of over 20 billion dollars. [See Wikipedia]. At the level that such companies make deals the feelings and desires of actual audience members are inconsequential. Meanwhile the artists [or auteurs as critic love these days] are in hock to cultural capital. Seemingly as driven for the cultural aspect as the capitalist is for the value aspect. We have British film-makers working in the USA and mostly producing work that lacks the complexity and style of their home-grown products. And there are parallel examples from Europe and Asia. I like a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s films, more so those that come from a culture in which he is [or was] embedded than from one of capitalist media behemoths.
Wendy Cook has seen Roma and thought it,
“a really magnificent and important film”
The Sight & Sound review by Nick Pinkerton praised both the black and white cinematography and the use of the Atmos sound system. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian found it ‘dazzling’ and ‘inspiring’. Common mortals like me will have to take this on trust for the time being.