Films enjoyed and noted in 2016

Student activism in GUEROS

Student activism in GUEROS

I’m against the idea of ‘Best Of’ lists, no matter how they are compiled. I just want to remind myself of the films I saw in 2016 and which ones I enjoyed most and hope to remember or return to in the future. This year I saw over 100 films in a variety of cinemas and probably as many on DVD or recorded from TV. This year, for the first time, I also watched a few films online, mostly for work purposes. Wherever possible, I prefer to see a film on a cinema screen. In my selection below, I’ve chosen just from films on release in the UK in 2016 and I’ve excluded festival screenings and archive films unless they made it into (re-) distribution this year.

So, in no particular order, here are eleven titles that represent one person’s UK perspective on global cinema in 2016:

Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015) This was the surprise arthouse hit of 2016, perhaps helped in the UK by the success of the crime serial Trapped on BBC4. Though quite different as a narrative, the TV serial (watched by perhaps a million viewers) may have piqued interest in Icelandic stories.

Court (India 2014) An astonishing début feature that offers a satire about the Bombay court system explored through the lives of a judge and two barristers engaged in the kind of case that clutters up the courts for no good reason.

Güeros (Mexico 2014) Actually released in the UK in November 2015 but still making its way round community cinemas in early 2016, this beautifully shot (black & white, Academy ratio) film is both nostalgic for 20th century ‘New Wave’ cinema and at the same time ‘modern’ in its feel for aspects of Mexican film culture.

Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015) Although too ‘sweet’ for some critical tastes, this film by Naomi Kawase seemed to me to tell its simple story very well  and it delighted those audiences perceptive enough to pick it out.

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan 2015) This film probably gave me more pleasure than any other I saw in 2016. Kore-eda Hirokazu consistently scores for me and I always try to see his films. Two of the excellent performances in Sweet Bean above came from actors associated with Kore-eda.

The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switzerland 2015) This was the film which impressed me most at the Glasgow Film Festival early in 2016 and again on its UK release a few weeks later. The detailed presentation of social and political history is important, but especially so when presented with such creativity.

Hell or High Water (US 2016) I enjoyed this film immensely and I include it here simply because it represents a return to a form of genre filmmaking for adult audiences that has been missing for far too long in American cinema.

Les innocentes (France-Poland 2015) This film, about a community of nuns attacked and assaulted by soldiers and then supported in recovery by a French doctor, had a powerful emotional effect on me. In a strange way it seemed to link to the smaller community of women in Our Little Sister, whose problems were less traumatic and life-threatening. In both cases I wanted to know more about the communities. Anne Fontaine is a remarkable director.

A United Kingdom (UK-US-Czech Republic 2016), L’avenir (Things to Come, France 2016) and Arrival (US 2016) are films released in the UK in last three months. I found all three to be riveting viewing and I intend to write about them at some stage. They each raised different ideas in their storytelling and their use of ideas.

The eleven titles here include four directed by women and since I didn’t make my selection on gender criteria that is a hopeful sign that more films by women are getting into distribution. There are two films by Japanese directors, two by Brits and two by French directors (both women). I don’t see many American films these days and the two American films listed here were directed by a Canadian and a Scot. I’m disappointed there are no Chinese films and only one Indian film. Partly this reflects the quality/appeal of the commercial releases available from these territories and partly the lack of theatrical releases for independent films from South Asia and East Asia in the UK. I did consider putting Raman Raghav 2.0 (India 2016) on the list and I did enjoy aspects of the latest Rajnikanth film, Kabali (India 2016) but mainstream Hindi films didn’t really attract me.

Films on release that could have been included on the list include Dheepan, The Measure of a Man and Julieta. I surprised myself by not including I, Daniel Blake. It is an important film and it has ignited a debate and attracted audiences beyond Ken Loach’s usual supporters. In many ways it is a fine example of film craft and it has moved audiences profoundly. But I was still disappointed that it didn’t argue for a coherent organised resistance to what is happening in the UK. I hope the social media campaign promoting it will generate something substantial. (However, like all Loach’s films, it has been seen by more people in France than in the UK.)

In 2016 I still managed to find the major foreign language films on release, but the number of cinemas showing them continues to shrink. Films released by Curzon Artificial Eye rarely turn up at Picturehouse in Bradford and I’m now even more reliant on trips to HOME in Manchester. Over the Christmas period, foreign language cinema seems to have disappeared completely – on cinema screens and TV. I fear the situation will only get worse in 2017. One slight cause for hope is that the Odeon circuit seems to have expanded its releases of mainstream Chinese and Polish films as well as generally offering more diversity than the other multiplex chains.

Ten Titles that Shook the World of Film

soviet-directors

Welcome to 2017 in which we celebrate the centenary of the Great October Revolution. One film that both recorded and dramatised that shock was Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the historic event, Oktyabr (Ten Days That Shook the World 1928).

Other key films from the Soviet Montage Movement include

The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon 1929) directed by Grigori Kozintsev and  Leonid Trauberg. A powerful dramatisation of the historic Paris Commune of 1871: a forerunner for the October Revolution.

Mother (Mat 1926)  directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Set during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and based on the 1906 novel ‘The Mother’ by Maxim Gorky.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie dinastii Romanovykh 1927) a seminal compilation documentary written and directed by Esfir Shub recording the years from the 300th anniversary of the Romanov imperial reign to its demise in 1917.

The Girl with a Hatbox (Devushka s korobkoy 1927) directed by Boris Barnet and starring Anna Sten. The film satirises the ‘Nepmen’, entrepreneurs who were allowed to conduct commercial business during the New Economic Policy of the 1920s.

Bed and Sofa (Tretya meshchanskaya 1927) directed by Abram Room and finding comedy in the strains experienced as the Socialist Republics were transformed.

Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom 1929) directed by Dziga Vertov and both celebrating and analysing Soviet Construction.

Old and New (Staroye i novoye 1929) directed by Sergei Eisenstein and the transformation of a village under collectivisation.

Earth (Zemlya 1930) directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko and set during the collectivisation programme with resistance from the rich Kulaks [wealthy peasants].

Enthusiasm (Entuziazm / Simfoniya Donbassa 1931) directed by Dziga Vertov. A film celebrating Socialist Construction in the Don Valley of the Ukraine. Needs to be seen and heard with its original soundtrack rather than with live music.

Favourites from 2016

The outstanding film - Our Little Sister</i

The outstanding film – Our Little Sister

This was not the greatest year for new releases but there were some fine and powerful dramas and documentaries. One positive aspect was that nearly half the films that I saw at a cinema were on 35mm. Less positive was for D-Cinema; only 4 or 5 DCPs were in 4K; this despite distributors bragging on a many occasions that the source was a ‘4K restoration’.

New releases:

Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary (Japan 2015).

This was a sheer delight: one of the best films of the decade.

Dheepan (France 2015).

A fine and socially conscious drama, combining realism and imagination.

Son of Saul / Saul fia (Hungary 2015).

Rarely have I experienced such intense drama: a European Holocaust film with real substance.

Taxi / Taxi Teheran (Iran 2015).

Simple, actual, funny and fascinating.

Victoria (Germany 2015).

Impressive use of digital technology and the style completely fitted the drama.

Documentary:

The Pearl Button / El botón de náca (Chile, France, Spain, Switzerland 2015).

Visually superb and politically sharp.

Performances:

I enjoyed Amy Adams in the fine science fiction film Arrival (Canada, USA 2016). And Nellie’s cross-gender performance as Marvin in Paterson (USA 2016) certainly deserved the Palm Dog: unfortunately posthumously.

A fine restoration in 35mm:

Kean / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lover / Kean ou Désordre et Génie, France 1924

Restored by the Cinémathèque française with tinting restored by Náradni filmavŷ archiv.

rr_03b_kean

An impressive preservation of a film print:

By the Gosfilmofond of a nitrate print of Ramona (USA 1927) and screened at the George Eastman Nitrate Weekend.

Two great discoveries of the Year:

A Japanese Tragedy  / Nihon no higeki (1953)

At the Sheffield Showrooms, a rare Japanese film drama.

Laughter in Hell, USA 1933.

Effectively a pre-code movie and the most intense and brutal chain-gang film that I have seen.

Special commendations:

For the Parkway Cinema in Barnsley for screening The Hateful Eight (USA 2015) from a 70mm print in the full 2.76:1 ratio.

The Cinémathèque française deserve a further commendation: a friend told me that they declined to licence a theatrical screening of a title sourcing digital video.

The worst film:

London Has Fallen (UK, USA, Bulgaria 2016).

In my defence there was a dearth of interesting titles that week.

Bells Are Ringing (US 1960)

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday (in that red dress – see below)

Our Christmas Day treat this year involved putting up the screen and projector and downloading Bells Are Ringing. It was only later that I realised the coincidence that we had been watching the last classic MGM musical produced by the ‘Freed unit’, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli. In the next few weeks La La Land, the ‘new Hollywood musical’ is expected to arrive in the UK. I wonder if it will kickstart a revival or even do enough to sit alongside the Freed triumphs? Bells Are Ringing comes from the same three creative talents as The Band Wagon (1953), possibly my favourite musical. Bells Are Ringing isn’t such an instant ‘wow’ but it does have several things going for it, beginning with a terrific central performance by the fabulous Judy Holliday in her last film before a tragic early death from breast cancer just five years later.

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

I fear Ms Holliday will not be known by modern audiences. She was first a stage performer before getting her big break in the Hepburn-Tracey comedy Adam’s Rib (1949). This was followed by her Oscar-winning performance in Born Yesterday (1950), two notable films with Jack Lemmon and a handful of other film projects before this, her last appearance. On stage she had a hit run for Born Yesterday on Broadway and won a Tony as best actress in a musical for the stage version of Bells Are Ringing in 1957. In 1952 Holliday had appeared before one of the Senate Committees during the anti-Communist hysteria. She avoided ‘naming names’ and is said to have charmed her interrogators with a ‘dumb blonde’ routine. This was part of her star persona but in reality she was one of the most intelligent and cultured performers in American theatre and film. She escaped an official blacklisting and during the 1950s was an ‘A’ star for Columbia, but there is a suggestion that she didn’t appear on TV as much as might be expected for such a talented performer – a comedian who could sing and dance and had the potential to develop into a fine ‘serious’ actor. Some critics have suggested that she wasn’t ‘beautiful enough’ to be a big star in Hollywood, but she was vivacious and attractive and someone who audiences could relate to very easily.

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

The ‘bells’ in this romantic comedy musical are not primarily wedding bells. Ella (Judy Holliday) works for ‘Susanswerphone’, a telephone messaging service housed in a run-down building, the last one standing in an area of re-development. The central plotline involves her attempts to solve her clients’ personal problems, notably the stalling career of playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). She does this while trying to hide her identity with predictable results. Two subplots involve an attempt by a new client to use the answering service to run an illegal betting system and a comic police surveillance of the business based on a misapprehension. The betting scam introduces gangsters to the mix and this strand reminded me of Guys and Dolls. The stage origins of the narrative are clear in the limited number of sets (all studio-based) and one of these, a complex street sequence, proved to be a striking attempt to re-create the realism of ‘Hollywood New York’ while retaining the control offered by a studio set. Otherwise, locations such as glamorous New York apartments and park settings are reminiscent of earlier MGM musicals (with a cinema marquee for Gigi reminding us of the legacy).

The songs had music by Jule Styne (with arrangements by Andre Previn) and lyrics by Comden and Green – who had started their careers in a revue troupe with Judy Holliday in 1938. While many of them are enjoyable but forgettable, at least two have subsequently become standards and I recognised ‘Just In Time’ and ‘The Party’s Over’. 1960 is an odd point in time, certainly in popular music but also in stage musicals and in Hollywood. Rock ‘n roll had softened dangerously by 1960 and stage musicals wouldn’t receive the ‘shock’ of West Side Story until 1957 – which followed Bells Are Ringing into film production. Bells Are Ringing feels like the end of something rather than a beginning. It was the end for MGM’s Freed Unit and it came towards the end of Vincente Minnelli’s career as a director of musicals (the last was On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever in 1970 with Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand). I didn’t have time to study Minnelli’s use of mise en scène, but the colour schemes are certainly bold with strong primary colours. The gowns are promoted in the trailer below and some are certainly extraordinary. There is a strong echo of The Band Wagon and, as one commentator noted, the performance of one song, ‘The Midas Touch’ could easily have featured in the earlier film. Just as in The Band Wagon, Minnelli’s film seems to seek to undermine ‘artistic pretension’. When Ella is invited to a cocktail party she wears an extravagant red dress given to her by one of her clients. She is then teased by her friends who correctly relate it to the opera La Traviata. Because the dress is not in the current fashion she then tears off much of the ‘fancywork’ on the frock and reveals a simpler and more attractive dress – which is also suits her much better.

Some comments on Judy Holliday’s performance suggest that she was depressed and conscious of being overweight during the filming. All I can say is that she made the film for me (ably assisted by Dean Martin). Bells Are Ringing is otherwise a conventional MGM musical, perhaps a little below the best 1950s output of the studio. All the same, La La Land will have to be very good to displace the Freed musicals in my preferences. I think the BBC should be required to show a season of them every Christmas.