Watched in May

All watched at home on either DVD or VOD.

In relation to documentaries, I have discovered that PBS has a documentary strand called Independent Lens (it’s a bit like the BBC’s Storyville strand insofar as the films don’t appear to be specifically made for the channel), which puts films online for a limited time period after they’ve been broadcast – and they’re viewable outside of the U.S. One note of caution: they edit the films to fit a specific time slot – so although The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is 90 minutes, the version I watched was only an hour long. Still worth keeping an eye on though.

Also: where Doc Alliance has become a subscription service (you used to be able to rent individual films but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore – a subscription gets you access to everything on the site), they seem to have expanded their collection. I watched Deborah Stratman’s Illinois Parables on there but they also have films like The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, 2015) and Toponymy (Jonathan Perel, 2015) – and in many cases you have the option of paying to download a permanent copy of the film. I haven’t fully explored their catalogue yet, but if you’re into documentaries, I’d recommend taking a look.

Ramón Lluís Bande’s Equí y n’otru tiempu (2015) is available on subtitled DVD directly from the production company – here. Between 1937 and 1952, armed resistance to Franco continued in the Asturian mountains with many of the resistance fighters dying within that landscape. Bande’s film ‘proposes a cinematographic shift from the document to the monument, by filming in the present the places in which the major figures of the Asturian Guerrilla Group were killed’ (taken from the publicity material). I’m intending to watch his subsequent film – El nome de los árboles (2015) – which is available as VOD on Filmin. The 2nd film forms a diptych with the 1st, this time switching to oral history as the witness testimonies of those events need to be captured before they disappear from living memory.

The Carlos Saura Challenge: I had a fit of enthusiasm, rewatched a couple of the films and watched two others for the first time. I’ve re-written the nine posts that were part of the original run of the challenge on the old blog, and also written a completely new one for an early film that wasn’t available then…and then I thought “You’re still not even a third of the way through his filmography!” and got a bit disheartened. I had seen it as a possible way of kickstarting getting back into the habit of writing again, although – given that I’ve always struggled with momentum on this particular project – maybe that’s not a good strategy. I don’t want to give up but was thinking that simply watching the films would have to be my way of completing it because writing about them as well ends up making it into (what feels like) an epic endeavour but also something of a chore.

However, having mulled it over, I think I’ve found a way of breaking it down into stages of a more manageable size. I’m going to divide his filmography into three almost-equal periods: 1962-1979; 1980-1999; 2000-2017. I am aware that the first period might be better to end in 1981 (which is when he ended his run of thirteen films with Elías Querejeta) but 1979 represents his last film (of eight) with Geraldine Chaplin – and I’m not actually arguing that these are ‘phases’ in his career (the break with Querejeta is a dividing line in that respect); I just want to divide the time span up, and grouping by decade seems easiest. I need to write about Elisa, vida mía / Elisa, My Love and Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes but that then leaves me only one film away from completing the first period (Mamá cumple 100 años / Mama Turns 100 is the one I haven’t watched yet). So I’m intending to have a fortnight dedicated to Saura’s 1962-1979 films probably in early July (I’ve got other things going on this month), with a post on each of the thirteen films from those years. I will then move on to watching and writing about sixteen of the seventeen films (one is completely unavailable) from 1980-1999 (the films aren’t equally shared between the periods, but there’s not much I can do about that) with the intention of posting that collection over two weeks towards the end of the year – but there’s obviously a strong chance that it’ll be early next year instead. I won’t give an ETA on the last period until I know how long the middle one takes (only nine films in the last collection at the moment – Saura’s still making films – so that should feel easy-peasy in comparison). Dividing the thirty-nine (and counting!) films into smaller collections feels more do-able.

Watched in April

Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro was my first trip to the cinema this year – so far I haven’t seen details of any DVD/VOD release, so it’s worth catching if it plays near you. As someone who was not overly familiar with James Baldwin’s writing (I’ll be looking to correct that), I found it riveting and sadly all-too-relevant viewing.

I’m still not watching films all that regularly. I’ve had two weeks of annual leave this month and thought that I’d watch a lot during that time (specifically some of the half dozen or so Spanish DVDs that I’ve bought in the last few months), but didn’t. However, feeling that I ‘have to’ watch stuff is part of what I’m trying to get away from, so I’m watching things as and when they take my fancy rather than setting myself a schedule.

For those who like ghost stories – Bertrand Bonello’s macabre short, Sarah Winchester, Opéra Fantôme / Sarah Winchester, Ghost Opera (2016), is currently on Mubi UK but I’ve found that it is also available in its entirety (with subtitles) on YouTube courtesy of Opéra National de Paris (who commissioned the film).

I watched Sumie García’s Relato familiar / Familiar Story (2017) and Marko Grba Singh‘s Stars of Gaomeigu (2017) [no poster available for the latter] on Festival Scope as part of the selection from Visions du Réel 2017 – the films (all are shorts or mid-lengthers) are free to view until 14th May. It’s worth checking the public (as opposed to professional) Festival Scope site fairly regularly as they have different collections available throughout each month (related to recent film festivals).

Watched in March

A quiet month for me, cinematically speaking. In the end I didn’t watch any of the FICUNAM films I mentioned last month – Sol negro (only 45 minutes long, so mid-length rather than a feature) was part of a collection of films from FICCI (Cartagena International Film Festival). Festival Scope currently has a selection of (free to view) documentaries from Cinéma du réel (available until 16th April). UPDATE (June 2017): Sol negro has been added to the Doc Alliance platform.

The only other thing I watched was a mini documentary series, Czech Film Avant-Garde (Libor Nemeškal, 2017) – subtitled and uploaded to YouTube by its writer/director. The individual episodes are each around 10 minutes.

If you subscribe to Mubi in the UK, I recommend Silence (Pat Collins, 2012). It was one of the first films that I reviewed for Eye for Film: ‘In the absence of a ‘proper’ narrative, Silence is difficult to define – like silence itself, it exists in the interstices, in this case between fiction and documentary, as a film about the search for an absence that is shaped by incontrovertible presence. But the film is well worth the effort of tuning into its wavelength.’

Reprint: Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980)

I’ve recently had cause to consider Iván Zulueta’s underground classic on two occasions – someone emailed me to ask whether I had any information on the availability of the film (this is the subtitled version I directed them towards), and I happened to spot that it will be screening in Manchester at ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival in April as part of their focus on films from the Transition. These two things led me to read over what I’d written about Arrebato on the old blog – it was one of my favourites of the films I wrote about there – and as a result I thought that I’d briefly suspend my break from blogging in order to revisit it here within my Reprint series.
The original post (my 200th on the old blog) was written in December 2014 as my contribution to Shadowplay‘s annual event – The Late Show: Late Movie Blogathon – which focuses on films from the twilight of people’s careers. What follows below is a revised version of that piece.

Iván Zulueta’s career as a filmmaker was short – he made only two feature films – but if he is little-known outside of Spain, his influence is nonetheless far-reaching within subsequent generations of Spanish filmmakers. He had spent time in London and New York during the 1960s and 70s, and was strongly influenced by both the Carnaby Street vibe and psychedelia of the former and the underground filmmaking (specifically Warhol) and grubby aesthetic of the latter. His first feature – Un, dos, tres, al escondite inglés (1970) – was a pop musical about a group of music fans attempting to boycott a song contest (one that sounds similar to Eurovision), and is often described as taking inspiration from Richard Lester’s films with The Beatles. He made a multitude of abstract and experimental Super 8 films during the 1960s and 70s: a large proportion of them were either confiscated or lost, but several can be found online (they are all dialogue free – Frank Stein (1972), Masaje (1972), Aquarium (1975), En la ciudad (1976-77), A Malgam A (1976), and Leo es pardo (1976)). From the 1970s onwards he was also a film poster designer for a range of Spanish directors including José Luis Borau (his mentor), Manuel Gutiérrez Aragon, Luis Buñuel (Zulueta’s poster for Viridiana (1961) – a film the Franco regime declared didn’t exist – can be seen on the wall of José’s apartment in Arrebato) and Pedro Almodóvar (including one of my favourites, Entre tinieblas / Dark Habits), and also for the San Sebastián Film Festival (Zulueta’s father had been the Festival Director between 1957 and 1960). Zulueta made two further shorts – some ten years after Arrebato – but when he died in 2009 (at the age of 66), he had spent years in the wilderness in thrall to heroin addiction and a self-imposed exile in San Sebastián (his home city).
Given the emphasis placed on his visual focus by those interviewed in tribute programmes made after his death (almost everyone describes him as incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of art and design, but someone who never read books), it is perhaps appropriate that my first experience of watching Arrebato was a copy with no subtitles and murky sound (one of El País‘s collection of DVDs): I clung to the images like a life raft.
To summarise the plot: In the present (Madrid in the late 1970s), film director José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela) returns home to find that his actress ex-girlfriend Ana (Cecilia Roth) – a heroin addict like himself – has returned to his apartment after several weeks of absence. In between arguing with Ana and sliding into a drugged oblivion, José starts listening to a recording – and eventually watching a film – sent by an old acquaintance, Pedro (Will More), a younger man who is obsessed with shooting film. A lot of the film plays out in flashback as the recording causes José to remember his first strange encounter with Pedro, and also their second meeting a year ago (when Ana was also present). In the last section of the film, José goes to Pedro’s apartment to try to solve the mystery contained within the recording and accompanying film.
I can usually get by without subtitles but here I think I would have struggled even with clearer sound because the script is full of gnomic utterances, and More’s delivery is deliberately strange (Pedro’s voice is usually exaggeratedly deep, but rises when he becomes excited or ‘enraptured’ and increasingly childlike) with large parts of the film conveyed via his voiceover. The desire to lose yourself in something (or someone) is a common enough impulse but in Arrebato this ecstasy is tinged with horror, suggesting that both cinema and drugs (the chosen routes into the sublime) are vampiric forces. The film is full of moments of beguiling but unsettling beauty (cinema as enchantment) in conjunction with a building sense of claustrophobia. The latter is generated via the film’s limited locations (José’s apartment during the course of that one night, the country house where he first meets Pedro, or the bedroom of Pedro’s Madrid apartment), the action frequently taking place in the shadows (faces usually illuminated by the flickering lights of projectors), and aurally through certain repetitive elements on the soundtrack (a recurring theme features the sound of children’s toys in an uneasy lullaby, but there’s also the insistent clicking of the timer on Pedro’s camera).
The film’s title refers to a state of being that the central trio – or at least the two men – are seeking. As Pedro explains it, what they are pursuing is that sense of being enraptured in something that we have as a child, when we could spend hours focussed on one thing and in our own little world. That an object is involved is important because for Pedro this state relies upon the act of looking, but all three of them also use drugs as their gateway into rapture. Zulueta described these symbolic items as “an object that condenses a whole series of things that have shaped you” [I’m assuming that this quote comes from one of the documentaries on the subtitled DVD – I didn’t note the source in the original post]. Pedro tests the (rare) people he meets by trying to find a) their special object, and b) how susceptible they are to being enraptured.

José’s object is an album of collectible stickers depicting scenes from King Solomon’s Mines (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950) (from Zulueta’s own childhood collection), for Ana it is a Betty Boop doll, but for Pedro it is (or will be) his own Super 8 films. His sharing of his film collection during José’s first visit becomes a performance of grimaces and pained squeals as he hasn’t managed to capture the precise (but ephemeral) thing he is after. By José’s second visit – between which times José has sent the younger man a timer for his camera so that he can record his time-lapse images with more precision – Pedro has accomplished his filmmaking intentions as far as he can at home, and in the aftermath of the visit will set out into the world to capture new images. Much like José and Ana he will slide into a world of sex and drugs (the latter eventually curtailing the former), but Pedro’s dissatisfaction with those experiences leads him back into his cinematic obsession with an even greater intensity. At the point at which he sends the recording and film to José, he has come to believe that his Super 8 camera has taken on a life of its own, and is vampirically taking his life force from him while simultaneously allowing him to reach an ever-heightened state of rapture.
Even during my somewhat incomprehensible first viewing, the charisma and chemistry of the central trio was plain to see. Eusebio Poncela – already associated with nonconformist roles at this point – was the most experienced of the three, with a certain amount of blurring between life and art given his participation in the movida (a cultural phenomena in post-dictatorship Madrid; some of its key figures, including Zulueta, appear in Pedro’s Super 8 film of a party). Despite José’s uncertain disintegration (the vampire film he has just directed is turning into a disaster, his relationship with Ana is mutually-destructive, and he’s in a downward spiral with drugs), Poncela’s stillness is the calm centre around which the more volatile other two circulate. In the reunion documentary (included on the subtitled DVD – filmed in 1998 and therefore doesn’t feature Zulueta, who was in self-exile at that point) both Poncela and Will More state that their character is Zulueta’s alter-ego – more likely the two represent different aspects of the director. More was also part of the same social crowd and had appeared in one of Zulueta’s Super 8 short films; the role of Pedro was written specifically for him. By turns childlike and sinister, More’s performance is unsettling with deliberately exaggerated vocal tics and gestures, and a breathily insinuating style of delivery on the recording. More so than José or Ana, Pedro is someone on the margins by inclination rather than social circumstances (in terms of class and money he seems comfortably off, and unlike the other two he doesn’t work). Arrebato would be More’s only significant role – he accompanied Zulueta into heroin addiction and cuts a ravaged figure in recent footage.

Although the film is undoubtedly ‘about’ the men, Cecilia Roth is nonetheless equally memorable in what was her first substantial film role. She says during the reunion documentary that as the youngest member of the team (she was 23 at the time of filming, whereas her co-stars and director were in their 30s) she was worried about playing a character older than herself – a woman “with a past” as she describes it, whereas she feels that Arrebato was “the beginning of my own past”. Roth (like Poncela) obviously went on to significant roles with Almodóvar, but arguably she has never been as incandescent as she is in the sequence in Arrebato where she dresses as Betty Boop and sings along to the record player. It is an overt and conscious performance by Ana – she stands in front of the projector screen, with the light of the projector acting as a spotlight – and an attempt to win José back (although undercut, as I noticed on my second viewing, by the fact that the song she sings is the one that plays in the scene where he introduces her to heroin). She is so alive that she jolts the camera into movement – in the only travelling shot of the film, and possessing a dynamism that is otherwise only seen in Pedro’s films, the camera follows her as she dances towards José (the original post has a clip of the sequence at this point – I no longer have the file and haven’t been able to replicate it because VLC isn’t working for me). It’s a genuine ‘a star is born’ kind of sequence, in someways at odds with the rest of the film but perhaps all the more effective for that.

Arrebato‘s reputation as a film maudit was established from the outset. It was turned down by both Berlin and Cannes on the basis of its pro-drugs attitude (although that is arguably a matter of perception given that those onscreen are devoured by their addictions) and it had a limited release in Spain, sinking more or less without a trace. In the documentary Iván Z (Andrés Duque, 2003)* – a series of conversations with Zulueta, who by then was on methadone and attempting to reenter the film business (without success) – he says that he was burnt out after Arrebato but had known while he was making it that it would likely be his only chance. He is animated when discussing cinema (and his admiration for David Lynch) and very candid about his addictions, but falters when talking about his then-current situation (he was back living with his mother in the house he was born in and likens it to The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962) – the sensation of being stuck in the same place but not knowing how to get out). A sense of loss accumulates in the recurring assertions of his former colleagues that he was a genuinely exceptional talent, and a unique figure in Spanish cinema, who could have had an international career.
The influence of his second feature film however has had a far greater reach than one might suppose for a film that never had a proper theatrical release (and belies the ‘cult’ label that is often attached to it). Pedro Almodóvar is the most obvious (and possibly facile) example. He was a near contemporary (his voice appears in Arrebato – he dubbed Helena Fernán Gómez) and his 1980s films share certain aspects of Zulueta’s aesthetic style (and indeed most of Arrebato‘s cast). But there’s a freshness to Arrebato that survives, and its influence lives on more than thirty years later. My first viewing of the film was just a couple of weeks before I saw El Futuro (Luis López Carrasco, 2013) at the Bradford International Film Festival in April 2014, and it’s a clear point of reference for the latter (confirmed by the director in this interview).


Arguably Arrebato‘s current reputation within Spain means that it is now part of the acknowledged pantheon of Spanish cinema; in 2016, when the film magazine Caimán cuadernos de cine surveyed 350 film writers (critics, journalists, festival programmers, film historians, academics – no filmmakers were asked) to create a top 100 Spanish films, Arrebato occupied 5th place (ahead of it were Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961), El espíritu de la colmena / The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973), El verdugo / The Executioner (Luis García Berlanga, 1963), and Plácido (Luis García Berlanga, 1961)). Writing in 2002, and arguing that the film deserved better than to be fetishised with the label ‘cult’, critic Ángel Fernández-Santos summarised Zulueta’s film thus:

Arrebato is a dark instance of pessimism. It is intricate cinema, unfathomable at some points of its crooked and tumultuous journey. And it is, above all, cinema in a raw state, disturbing, painful and great, that situates us with rare elegance in front of a vigorous and devastating image of the dissolution of conscience and the search for death. The film was conceived and built – in a long and bumpy creative process – by a complex and refined filmmaker, a one-off, gifted as few are to perceive and express feelings of desolation and despair. [my translation – the original is here]

So not exactly a laugh riot, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it stayed with me for the seven months between my first viewing and when I tracked down a subtitled version in order to write about it for Shadowplay’s blogathon (the fact that I kept thinking about it was part of the reason I decided to write about it in that context). My second viewing – with the luxury of subtitles to clarify some things (but not everything) – elevated it further in my consideration, and underlined the sense that Zulueta’s subsequent disappearance was a loss for cinema. Arrebato is a haunting film, one that gets under your skin. If you get the opportunity to see it, whether on DVD or at a festival screening, take it.

* Iván Z is also included on the subtitled DVD, but can be found on YouTube with subtitles – I particularly recommend it because aside from showing Zulueta talking lucidly about himself, rather than his being filtered through other people, it also features examples of his paintings, illustrations and film posters (some of them are stunning).

Watched in February

watched_feb

Plus, Mining Poems or Odes (Callum Rice, 2016) [a short film – free to view on Vimeo].

I’ve decided that I should continue watching films for the Carlos Saura Challenge even if I’m not currently writing (this may mean that I end up reshaping the project, but I’ll cross that bridge later – better to persevere in some form than give it up), hence my watching his two most recent films.

If you’re interested in Spanish language films, Festival Scope is currently showing a selection of films from FICUNAM 2017 (all free to view until 13th March) – expect at least a couple to appear in my equivalent post next month.

Intermission

intermission

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m taking a break from blogging at the start of 2017. This is partly because there are some courses I’d like to do (and beyond my job I only seem to be able to concentrate on one thing at a time) – the courses are self-paced and involve subjects that are completely new to me, so I’m not sure how long they will take to complete.

But I’ve also lost interest in writing about films. I’ve just written about the personal and political ups and downs of the past year – and I have no doubt that those things have impacted on my general mood – but during 2016 I also packed away (or binned) a lot of research materials, notes, magazines and books relating to my older research interests because I felt that I had definitely come to the end of something in that regard. I need to put the blog to one side for a while in order to think about / do other things and reorient myself.

Setting a time scale only ever creates a rod for my own back, but it’s unlikely that I’ll be back on here before the summer. As I also mentioned in my end of year round-up, I will be reducing the amount of time I spend on Twitter, but I’m not intending to leave the platform altogether (I am also contactable via the details in the sidebar). Hasta luego…

My 2016 in review: films during a wearisome year

2016_posters

This isn’t the normal introduction to my end of year cinematic round-up posts. I decided that to only write about films at the end of this particular year would represent an omission of some sort because my 2016 contained comparatively little cinema. I don’t subscribe to the current ‘worst year ever!!!’ hyperbole (on a personal level, this year falls way short of the nightmare that 2013 was for me) but it has been a wearisome and dispiriting twelve months, and something of a grind to get through. What is perhaps different about this year is that I don’t remember a time when so many people of my acquaintance (online and IRL) have collectively been brought low by the unfolding (inter)national dramas (e.g. the campaigns and results of the EU Referendum and US elections, nationalism and the Right on the rise seemingly everywhere, and the disparate voices of the Left finding fault with each other rather than seeking common cause). You would think that a sense of shared experience (or shared horror) would in some way be comforting, but I haven’t really found that to be the case (apart from knowing that if I am part of a social/political minority, it is still a sizeable one).
Social media can be a point of connection, news source, and method of organisation but it also amplifies misery to a sometimes overwhelming degree, wilfully misinforms, and acts as an echo chamber that presents a partial reality. Maybe you can counteract those limitations if you are aware of them, but I’m not sure. Feeling exhausted from the cycles of exaggerated outrage, incoherent anger and despair (and that was just me), I took an extended break from Twitter in the summer and felt better for it; more able to marshal my own thoughts and feel that I was constructively educating myself in subjects that I didn’t know enough about (I recommend this book as a starting point for understanding what’s going on in the UK, and these articles by Will Davies and Gary Younge are the best analysis I read in the aftermath of the referendum result). I didn’t manage to find an alternative source of news that was sufficiently as wide-ranging as Twitter can be, so that’s something I’ll still be looking for in 2017.
Several people in my Twitter timeline – in both June and November – said that they had woken up to find that their country wasn’t what they thought it was. But as those articles by Davies and Younge make clear, this wasn’t an overnight change (and for some people there wasn’t a change at all; they already knew what was there from lived experience) – the political fallout that we are living through was years (if not decades) in the making. The 2015 UK election result was recent evidence that a significant number of people are willing to ignore the damage done to the vulnerable in our society by a petty-minded and intellectually-stunted political class, just so long as it doesn’t impinge on their own standard of living. If a positive can be found in the events of this year, it is that injustice and inequality were made visible in a way that forced more people to look at and acknowledge what is happening…although a lot commentators have failed to change their respective scripts, and so are now overtly out of sync with what we’re watching. The challenge ahead will be to keep looking and not avert your eyes.
At an individual level, my year began with rumours of job cuts where I work. Sure enough, job cuts were eventually announced in May. I kept my job (my team was reduced and our morale generally depleted) but it doesn’t feel particularly secure, and I can only see further cuts on the horizon.
I stopped writing for other places in May. Partly because I wanted to concentrate on training opportunities that might improve my employment prospects, but also because in all honesty I could no longer see the point in continuing to write unpaid anywhere other than my own blog. The impetus for writing elsewhere was that my original blog only covered Spanish cinema and I wanted to explore a broader spectrum of films – I can now do that here. But it also comes down to how I should spend my time and money. If you can’t offset travel / accommodation costs for film festivals against being paid for what you write, you are effectively paying to work (and in my case doing so either in my ‘free’ time or on annual leave from my actual job – holidays that involve deadlines aren’t a proper break, and the resulting fatigue feels like a one-way ticket to mediocrity in all forms of work). Having used up my existing savings in relation to festivals in 2014 and 2015 – and taking into account the level of precarity that exists in relation to my job – I can’t sensibly afford to do that anymore. I attended the AV Festival in my home city in March, but apart from that my only film festival experience of 2016 was a daytrip to Leeds to catch Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas when it screened at LIFF in November. I’d like to go to at least one festival in 2017, but it will be in the capacity of leisure if I do so (and probably a daytrip).
All of this – the personal and the political – brought my mood down, and in turn (probably) led to a certain lack of enthusiasm for cinemagoing…although it should be noted that other factors include my continuing frustration with the programming at my local independent cinema and a couple of negative encounters with obnoxious audience members in the first part of the year. At the point of writing this (23rd Dec), I’ve seen 105 films this year (34 of which were shorts – short films are what I’ve most missed from not attending festivals) and only 9 of them in a cinema. In contrast, I saw 312 films (141 features and 171 shorts) in 2015 – that’s quite a drop off, and an indication of my general disinclination to watch or write about film in the second half of this year. On the upside, I’ve read a lot more books and have generally found other things to occupy my time and keep my brain active (mainly involving maths and computers, which is not something I thought I’d ever write)! I’m intending to take a substantial break from blogging at the start of 2017 because there are some more courses I’d like to do, but I also need to think through what I want to do here, and watch some films just for the sake of enjoyment. There are a lot of films I’d like to catch up with – the most obvious 2016 misses at the moment are Son of Saul and I, Daniel Blake (I didn’t feel up to watching them when they were on release) – and it’s quite a nice task to create a rental list using everyone’s end of year round-ups.
But anyway (finally), on to my favourite films of the year – divided into ‘new’ (films from 2015 or 2016 and watched for the first time this year) and ‘old’ (anything pre-2015). I haven’t done a top 10 because it felt a bit like making up the numbers – so I’ve got eight in the first category and five in the latter, with some additional honourable mentions. For the new films I’m generally allowing other people’s words to stand in for my own (I haven’t written any notes while watching films this year) by linking to pieces written by people whose writing I admire and articles that gave me insight into the film in question.

New:

2016_fire-at-sea1. Fuocoammare / Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)
A timely film about the humanitarian disaster on Europe’s doorstep in the waters around the island of Lampedusa, 150 miles south of Sicily. The film initially follows 12 year old Samuele (probably the most affable presence I’ve seen onscreen this year) around the island as he makes slingshots and listens to seafaring tales from his father. I was bracing myself for some kind of manufactured ‘meet-cute’ between the boy and rescued migrants but, as Rosi makes clear in this interview, part of the point being made is that these groups of people share the geographic space but occupy completely different worlds – so although a doctor acts as a bridge between the two communities, they do not overlap. The film roots itself in the island and then circles outwards, first with overheard distress calls, short sequences of rescue boats and helicopters scouring the sea, rescued people being checked over when they’re brought onto land, but getting ever closer to the deaths on the waters. When we finally reach the inevitable tragedy (one example of many – on the day I’m writing, the number of people who have drowned trying to reach Europe in 2016 has passed 5,000) it is difficult to watch but necessary to witness. If a film can be described as ‘humane’, that is what Rosi has compassionately created.
Olaf Möller at Film Comment
Michael Pattison at Indiewire

2016_academy-of-muses2. L’ accademia della muse / The Academy of Muses (José Luis Guerin, 2015)
As far as I know, Guerin’s surprisingly funny ‘pedagogic experience’ hasn’t screened in the UK at all – I was keeping an eye out for it appearing at a festival, but to no avail. I finally watched it on Filmin a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll now be keeping my fingers crossed for a DVD with optional English subs to be released (certainly I’d want subs before I attempt to write about it in any depth) – although in some ways it felt appropriate to be watching a film that plays with language and meaning without the benefit of my mother tongue.
Cristina Álvarez López at Fandor
Antonio M. Arenas’s interview with Guerin at Magnolia
Nicolás Carrasco at desistfilm

2016_the-club3. The Club (Pablo Larraín, 2016)
I have already made my admiration for Larraín’s work (and Alfredo Castro) clear. Expiation isn’t quite the right word that I’m searching for in relation to this drama because I’m not sure that atonement is pursued (self-interest dictates the actions of those who should be seeking it), but Larraín again exposes the ugly underside of Chilean society to shine a light on historical abuses of power that cannot simply be left in the past – they must be acknowledged because the repercussions reverberate into the present (the film’s gauzy, crepuscular light suggests that time may be running out – or perhaps that the old order are in their dying days). The Club also makes manifest the fact that dogs can make reprehensible people relatable. Larraín uses the relationship between Castro’s Father Vidal and the greyhound to foreground man’s inherent animality, and to highlight the absence of a certain level of humanity in this specific group of people. The contrast between what they acknowledge in relation to the dog (“Do you forgive me?” “No, motherfucker!”) and their lack of empathy for the abused man/child who appears at their door, is an illustration of their collective mindset and state of denial. A film that I will no doubt return to – but in the meantime, I’m looking forward to Neruda (Pablo Larraín, 2016), due for release in the UK in 2017.
Mónica Delgado at desistfilm
Nick Pinkerton at ArtForum

2016_13th4. 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)
A cogently-argued indictment of institutionalised racism within America’s criminal justice system. The title refers to the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution – which states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” – and DuVernay argues that slavery has effectively been maintained via that loophole of punishment, and turned into a profitable business for private companies. The film is impressively detailed in the breadth and depth of issues that it covers – rather than focus on only a few aspects of a complex set of interconnecting issues, DuVernay instead skilfully weaves everything together (prisons, courts, sentencing, legislation, government, private influence and vested interests) to create a multi-faceted overview, and tightly argued case, that alternately makes your blood boil or run cold.
Ashley Clark’s interview with DuVernay in Film Comment

2016_arrival5. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
The only film in this selection that I saw in the cinema – two of Villeneuve’s films were in my list last year, so I made an effort to see this one on the big screen. I don’t want to post spoilers as it is still in UK cinemas, so I’ll just say that a significant aspect of the last part of the film didn’t work for me but I’m also keen to see it again because (as with other Villeneuve films) where the film ends casts earlier events in a different light (it’s possible that a rewatch could resolve my problem with the film…or unravel the film entirely). It was nice to see a capable and intelligent female lead…and I badly needed a hit of cinematic wonder.
I’d advise against reading the articles below until you’ve seen the film.
David Bordwell on an aspect that I don’t feel able to name before you’ve seen the film
David Cairns at Shadowplay
Margaret Rhodes on how the filmmakers designed the alien alphabet

2016_tempestad6. Tempestad (Tatiana Huezo, 2016)
The VOD platform Festival Scope has two sites: one for film professionals (programmers, reviewers, filmmakers, and so on); the other is open to the general public and is increasingly being used to host selections from recent film festivals (a film can cost a couple of euros to watch, or sometimes it’s free but there are a limited ‘tickets’). I watched Tempestad on the latter when it hosted a number of films from Morelia International Film Festival because I had read about it in Neil Young’s article on Mexican female documentary filmmakers (see below), but also because it tangentially related to a book I had recently read, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez (half price until the end of the year via that link). Martínez’s book is ostensibly about the migrants trying to make it to the US but that necessitates that he looks at violence in Mexico and the complicity between the authorities and the cartels. Huezo’s film comprises of testimony by two Mexican women, Miriam Carbajal (unseen) and Adela Alvarado, who have experienced the personally devastating consequences of that complicity in different ways: Miriam is a former customs official who was thrown into prison (controlled top to bottom by a cartel) when the authorities needed a very public scapegoat for a scandal (which she had nothing to do with); Adela is a circus performer, a nomad without a fixed home due to threats received (from both sides of the law) because of her persistence in searching for her daughter, who disappeared on her way to school a decade earlier. Powerless against the State and its agents, and caught within circumstances almost too nightmarish to comprehend, these two women regain some of their personal agency by telling Huezo their stories in their own words, with dignity and no small amount of courage. Huezo entwines word, image and a multi-layered soundscape into a haunting film.
Neil Young in Sight & Sound on the rise of female documentary makers in Mexico
The film’s website (includes a subtitled trailer)

2016_bella-e-perduta7. Bella e perduta / Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello, 2015)
Marcello’s film walks a line between fable and (unconventional) documentary, with a personable buffalo calf as one of its leads and a folkloric character as another, resulting in what Jonathan Romney has recently described as ‘a UFO of a film—in this case, an Unidentified Folkloric Object’.
Jonathan Romney in Film Comment

2016_baden-baden8. Baden Baden (Rachel Lang, 2016)
MUBI UK screened Lang’s feature debut alongside two of her earlier shorts featuring the same character, Ana (played in all instances by Salomé Richard). It was interesting to watch these close together as they form a kind of speeded up cinematic evolution of both filmmaker and actress. Ana’s sense of purpose (or lack thereof) changes with each film – it’s possible that these are different iterations of the character rather than an intended character arc across several films, but it’s also possible that these changes are a manifestation of Ana’s unformed self (she doesn’t know who she is yet – or what she wants to do with her life). It’s unusual to see a female slacker (several articles reference Frances Ha, but I still haven’t seen that (yes, I know), so can’t make that connection myself), or a female character granted the space to define herself, however unsuccessfully. It’s not actually the type of film I usually have much urge to see but I found this one charming and surprisingly moving – and Salomé Richard is a face to watch for in the future.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical): Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2016) [review], Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016), Mimosas (Oliver Laxe, 2016), O Futebol (Sergio Oksman, 2015) [review], The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, 2016), The Royal Road (Jenni Olsen, 2015) [VOD], Shaun the Sheep (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, 2015), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015).

Old:

I reactivated my subscription to Lovefilm this year and have been more successful than in the past at watching the DVDs when they’re sent to me (rather than leaving them unopened for several weeks) – there are still a lot of older films that aren’t available via streaming, and a rental service has the advantage of reducing my impulse buys when I read about a film, actor, or director and want to watch them/their work. Overall the majority of the films I watched in 2016 were not from recent years – restarting the rental account allowed me to explore the work of filmmakers unfamiliar to me without committing to pricey boxsets.

salvatore-giuliano1. Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1961)
I’m not entirely sure how I came to have a Francesco Rosi mini-season. It was possibly prompted by the re-release of his Tre Fratelli / Three Brothers (1981), which reminded me that I had Salvatore Giuliano and Le mani sulla città / Hands Over the City (1963) sitting unwatched on my shelf. I followed on with Cadaveri Eccellenti / Illustrious Corpses (1975), had to abandon an atrociously-dubbed version of Lucky Luciano (1973), and have yet to watch Cristo se è fermato a Eboli / Christ Stopped at Eboli (1978). My main frustration now is how few of his 20 films are available for home viewing in any format, and how even fewer are available with English subtitles (this seems broadly to be the case with Italian cinema in the UK – Rosi led me down a rabbit hole to Gian Maria Volontè and Elio Petri, and similarly very few of their films are available with subtitles). Salvatore Giuliano is my favourite of Rosi’s films so far and it wasn’t a surprise to find that Martin Scorsese rates it among his favourite films because he was who came to mind while I was watching it. They share an ability (for me, at least) to cause a sense of exhilaration through the sheer élan of their filmmaking – camera movement, editing, and sound are combined so that a visceral thrill comes from the form and style. Likewise both directors are interested in depicting the power dynamics within enclosed groups of men, but Rosi’s films also stand as critical portraits and indictments of aspects of Italian society. There were moments during Salvatore Giuliano where I realised that I was grinning from the enjoyment of watching something so well crafted. Henceforth I will be on a mission to locate more of Rosi’s films.

modern-times2. Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
Cough – my first Chaplin feature – cough. I’m embarrassed that it has taken me so long to watch a Chaplin film in its entirety (I’ve definitely seen some of the shorts and various clips/sequences) but I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting it to be so funny or so…modern. I am in the process of working my way through his features via Lovefilm.

nightcleaners013. Nightcleaners (The Berwick Street Collective, 1975)
My review of the film from the screening at the AV Festival in March.

pather-panchali_014. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
Yet another admission of a chasm in my cinematic experience – I had never seen a Satyajit Ray film. The Apu Trilogy (which consists of Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu) is OOP in the UK but I’ve realised that when Amazon bought out Lovefilm they must have bought their back catalogue (which way back at the dawn of time used to belong to MovieMail when it was a rental business – I used to rent VHS from them through the post!), with the result that you can rent some titles that currently aren’t available to buy – including these three films. It is hard to separate them but I found something especially magical about this one – and I’m a sucker for depictions of sibling relations between brothers and sisters (a dynamic mixture of love and irritation).

snowpiercer5. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013)
“Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.” A dystopian vision of the future in the aftermath of a climate-change experiment gone wrong, with the best and worst of humanity stuck on the same train. Depressingly plausible – as anyone who has travelled on British trains can confirm – but the violence is quite cathartic.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical – links take you to VOD versions where available): Daybreak Express (D.A. Pennebaker, 1953), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973), Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios, 2014), Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto / Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970), Land of Promise (Paul Rotha, 1946) [review], Spare Time (Humphrey Jennings, 1939) [review], Los Sures (Diego Echeverria, 1984), Utopias (Marc Karlin, 1989) [review].

6th Festival Márgenes: free to view online, 11th – 31st December

6th-margenes-festival

I have previously written about the 4th and 5th editions of this Spanish online festival. Specifically dedicated to films – from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Ibero-America (Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin American countries) – whose form, style, or duration mean that they will struggle to access the normal distribution routes or obtain a commercial release, Márgenes initially takes place in key cities in Spain, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay at the start of December, before moving online during the second half of the month. Documentaries and experimental films tend to dominate the selection.
The online side of the festival makes the films free to view. Sometimes there are rights restrictions on specific titles in certain countries – at the moment Generación Artificial and Santa Teresa y otras historias aren’t visible to me, but I don’t know if that’s a rights issue or just a glitch on the website. Films that aren’t in Spanish tend to have Spanish subtitles, but in past years the majority of the Spanish-language films have had English subtitles. The subtitles aren’t listed on the website – I’ve put a * next to the trailer links below where the festival has used a trailer with English subtitles, which is often a good indication of there being subs on the film as well [UPDATE: this hasn’t been a good indicator this time around]. But given that the films are free to view, you aren’t going to lose anything by starting a film to see whether subtitles appear. I never manage to watch everything, but I will update this post to indicate the presence of subtitles on any films I watch [UPDATE: I’ve watched two and looked at a third – I’ve added the subtitle info below].
The previous editions I’ve explored have revealed gems such as África 815 (Pilar Monsell, 2014), El gran vuelo / The Great Flight (Carolina Astudillo, 2014), and La sombra (Javier Olivera, 2015) (the latter was my favourite in last year’s festival). I can recommend No Cow on the Ice (I reviewed it earlier this year) and personally will be aiming to at least catch Pasaia bitartean, Santa Teresa y otras historias (if it’s available), and Las letras (on the basis that I’ve read positive things about them in relation to other film festivals). The festival announced its prizes yesterday – I’ve marked the winners below as well.
This is the line-up of titles in the 2016 official selection (clicking on the title will take you to the streaming page for that film):

> Arreta (Raquel Marques and María Zafra, 2016, Spain – 60 min) *trailer
> Generación Artificial / Artificial Generation (Federico Pintos, 2015, Argentina – 62 min) *trailer
> Historias de dos que soñaron / Tales of Two Who Dreamt (Andrea Bussmann and Nicolás Pereda, 2016, Mexico/Canada – 82 min) *trailer
> CAMIRA PRIZE: Il solengo (Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, 2015, Italy/Argentina – 66 min) trailer
> Inadaptados (Kikol Grau, 2015, Spain – 41 min)
> BEST FILM: Las letras / The Letters (Pablo Chavarría Gutiérrez, 2015, Mexico – 77 min) [with English subtitles] trailer
> SPECIAL MENTION BY THE JURY: No Cow on the Ice (Eloy Domínguez Serén, 2015, Spain – 63 min) *trailer
> Panke (Alejo Franzetti, 2016, Argentina/Germany/Burkina Faso – 46 min) *trailer
> NUMAX EXHIBITION PRIZE: Parábola del retorno (Juan Soto, 2016, Colombia – 41 min) trailer
> Pasaia bitartean (Irati Gorostidi, 2016, Spain – 51 min) [Castilian Spanish subs] *trailer
> Placa Madre / Motherboard (Bruno Varela, 2016, Mexico/Bolivia – 54 min) trailer
> Santa Teresa y otras historias / Saint Teresa and Other Stories (Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, 2015, Dominican Republic/USA/Mexico – 65 min) [no subs] *trailer
> Yo me lo creo (Terrorismo de Autor, 2016, Spain – 40 min) trailer

The Márgenes Festival 2016 also includes a retrospective of the work of Lluís Escartín, titled ‘no tengo nada que decir, prefiero escuchar. 30 años documentando lo invisible‘ [I don’t have anything to say, I prefer to listen: 30 years documenting the invisible], and a cycle dedicated to Chilean director José Luis Torres Leiva, ‘Un lugar en el mundo‘ [A place in the world] – they are likewise free to view online until 31st December.

Montaña en sombra / Mountain in Shadow (Lois Patiño, 2012)

Mountain in shadow from lois patiño on Vimeo.

One of my favourite short films from the last few years has been put up on Vimeo by its director. I saw Lois Patiño’s Montaña en sombra / Mountain in Shadow on the massive IMAX screen at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2014 where it accompanied Patiño’s feature debut, Costa da Morte / Coast of Death – in my 5-star review of the latter, I mention the short in the last paragraph. I feel privileged to have seen it in an ideal viewing environment originally, but it’s also nice to have the opportunity to watch it again (even on a small screen).