My 2019

The covers of the various books I read in 2019
The books I read in 2019, in the order I read them

Books –

My Twitter bio used to say ‘Lives vicariously through books and films’, and I think that I have pursued escapism through books this year (films, not so much). I finally hit my ’52 books in a year’ target! I am currently reading book no.59, but I’m unlikely to finish it before the year is over. I started a new job back in May, and was doing a fair amount of background reading in the first half of the year (I applied in January and was interviewed in March, so the application process was quite elongated) – I usually only include books read ‘for fun’ or my own curiosity, but there is work-related reading in my tally this year (nothing ‘how to…’ but more thematic or topically relevant non-fiction), mainly because it was done in my own time and to answer my own questions, so it ‘counts’.

New job aside, 2019 can be characterised as ‘ugh’. We’re ending on a low. I wasn’t as shocked by the election result as I was in 2015, but I was still surprised and dismayed by the scale of the defeat. The Windrush scandal alone should have seen them turfed out on their arses…and that is the tip of the iceberg of what they have done in the last nine years. Now with a sizeable majority, they have a free rein. I don’t remember exactly what was going on at the time, but my reading a combination of ten John Sandford and Robert Crais books back-to-back over the course of two weeks or so in August is illustrative of a desire to block out the news (my literary crime sprees occur when I’m low or need distraction).

I usually list my standouts for the year in alphabetical order, but this year my favourite was far out ahead of everything else, so I’m going to list them in order of preference. My overall top 5 were:

  • West – Carys Davies
  • Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
  • The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy
  • Sarah Jane – James Sallis

Honourable mentions: An Honourable Man – Paul Vidich, Four Words for Friend – Marek Kohn, and The Equestrienne – Uršula Kovalyk. I’m aware that these selections are weighted towards the second half of the year, but I believe that has more to do with the first half of the year’s reading including the aforementioned background reading (and a focus on work), rather than them simply being fresher in my mind. My crime spree hit a reset button and I got on to a good run of fiction in the last few months of the year. I wouldn’t ordinarily read so many books by the same authors in one year, never mind back-to-back (even the best writers get a bit same-y or the stories run into each other, especially with recurring characters), but I was attempting to catch up on certain long running series by Sandford and Crais.

2020: I still have another series of Sandford’s to catch up with, and also Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, of which I’ve got at least four to read. I’ll keep on with the short stories and novellas – and I didn’t read as much in translation this year, so I’ll put more effort into that again. In the first half of the year I managed to read non-fiction during my morning commute and I want to re-start that (it tailed off after the summer and I either got sucked into reading the news or stared out the window instead). I still haven’t got back into longer books (I’m talking 400+ pages), but maybe this will be the year when I finally read John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.

Other reading –

Online articles that I’ve found interesting or thought provoking in one way or another (usual disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with them, but think that they are worth reading). I’m going to list them in chronological order because a number of them relate to situations that developed over the course of the year (UK politics/social issues, mainly). Where I don’t know the date, I’ve positioned them where they occur in my bookmarks (on the basis that I must have read them at that point in time). You will also notice that they are not evenly distributed throughout the year – the large gaps are where I was deliberately spending less time online, and the clusters in certain months are where I felt the need to pay attention (noticeably in relation to the General Election). There’s not much film writing included, which is indicative of my general levels of interest but also I’ve found that without Twitter I encounter less of that subject matter. Articles from The Guardian are mainly from their Long Reads series – I subscribe to the RSS feed of certain sections of the paper and those of specific journalists (part of a strategy to avoid the clickbaity provocations of the main page). The London Review of Books (LRB) has a new website and has removed the paywall until mid-January, so I’d advise you to fill your boots over there.

Films –

Posters of films watched in 2019

I was in half a mind to just have an image from the film(s) I want to talk about, but having displayed everything that I’ve read, I thought that I may as well display the entirety of what I’ve watched as well. It’s an odd assortment. Four more titles than last year but still very few in terms of my older habits. All but two of them are documentaries or documentary series – I have had zero interest in watching fiction recently.

My favourite thing that I’ve watched this year is the combination of Bertrand Tavernier’s 3 hour documentary on French cinema and his subsequent 6 part TV series that continued on the same subject (if you look closer, you’ll see that the second poster puts the title into the plural). The TV series (the French DVD set has optional English subtitles) covers the same time frame (he again stops at the point when he began making films himself) but different films and filmmakers to the documentary film – even with what must be more than 8 hours, it feels like he barely scratches the surface of his enthusiasms. As with Scorsese’s documentaries on Italian and American cinemas, you’re getting a personal view of the films rather than a straightforward history, but that’s what I find so engaging – not just that you’re getting a knowledgeable person’s recommendations, but that you’re getting introductions to titles that don’t necessarily feature in the sanctified canon. [If someone could make an equivalent for Spanish cinema, that’d be grand].

My knowledge of French cinema is fairly basic (certainly in comparison to Spanish cinema) or feels un-informed, essentially confined to what was covered in either an Introduction to Film Studies module, or a semester-long undergraduate module which concentrated on the 1980s (Besson, Beineix, Carax – and the cinéma du look) onwards. That said, French films had decent distribution during my teenage years and into my twenties, so I did watch a lot of French films – and developed a love of Claude Chabrol and Lino Ventura – both at the cinema and via Lovefilm, and initially my PhD was going to include French cinema, so I had subscriptions to French film magazines and was paying attention to what was being made at that point. But in terms of what French cinema means to French people, my understanding was limited (although the film magazines were interesting in that regard in terms of what was popular and who got coverage – that’s why I still have subscriptions to Spanish film mags; if I had to rely on information filtering through to UK/US publications, I wouldn’t know anything or anyone).

After watching Tavernier’s films, I have discovered that where Pathé and Gaumont have in recent years restored older films for French home viewing, a fair few have optional English subtitles – I now have a small pile of imported films by Duvivier, Clouzot, Lautner, Grangier, Grémillon, Becker, and others. In 2020 I’ll be looking to rekindle my interest in cinema via these treasures. I have given up on contemporary cinema at the moment – at least in terms of going to the cinema – but alongside the French imports (of old films) I am hoping to start watching some of the (recent) Spanish films that I’ve imported in the last couple of years (although I think I’ve said that in each of the equivalent posts in the last two years). So 2020 may be a year of French and Spanish cinema for me…and more documentaries, no doubt. Hasta pronto.

IX Festival Márgenes: free to view online, 20th Nov – 8th Dec 2019

A collection of posters for films in this year's Festival Márgenes

I completely missed Festival Márgenes last year. I don’t remember exactly how that happened – it either took place earlier than previous years (I have a vague recollection of finding out after it was over), or it coincided with me having norovirus (which I have pretty successfully blocked from my memory, but it occurred at the same time of the year). Either way, I missed something that has been an annual event on the blog since 2014 – and I have always previously found something to spark my interest, that I might not have otherwise encountered.

The festival focuses on films without theatrical distribution (a lot of the films are documentaries and there are usually quite a few medium-length films included), made on the margins (or outside) of existing film industries in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Ibero-America (Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin American countries). You can find an extended explanation / mission statement for the festival, here. I would characterise them as being interested in the world as it is and as it might be, openly seeking innovative forms of representation and expression, and shining a light on lives off the cinematic beaten track. A lot of the films that I’ve previously watched via Festival Márgenes feel personal to the filmmaker, like this is something that they have wanted or needed – or felt compelled – to explore and share in a visual format. Personal and collective histories have been a recurrent theme in those earlier films (although it could simply be that those were the ones that caught my attention because I’m interested in the interweaving of history and memory).

The festival’s programme is divided into several sections and takes place both online and in cinemas in Madrid. The online part – free to view, and taking place between 20th November and 8th December – focuses on the ‘Sección oficial‘. The festival summarises the selection as ‘Catorce películas de siete nacionalidades distintas que comparten un espíritu de profunda libertad y búsqueda incesante abordado desde preceptos muy dispares’ (Fourteen films of seven different nationalities, sharing a spirit of profound freedom and relentless searching approached via very disparate precepts). The films included are (links take you to the relevant streaming page – you need to register with the site to get started once the festival is live):

The films sometimes have restrictions as to which countries they can be viewed in, and they won’t necessarily have English subtitles (some have in the past). The answer re: subtitles will become apparent once the festival begins. If you speak any Spanish at all, it’s worth taking a chance anyway (and the non-Spanish language films usually have Castilian subtitles) – it doesn’t cost you anything, so you have nothing to lose, and you’ll watch something that’s unlikely to make it to a screen near you. I will be intending to at least catch the films by Xurxo Chirro (who I have previously interviewed in relation to his film Vikingland (2011)) and Affonso Uchoa.

 

Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister, 1942)

Listen to Britain09

Mubi currently have Listen to Britain in their collection (here), as part of a strand of films recommended by Paul Schrader. I reviewed the documentary short for Eye for Film back in 2016 (when it screened at the AV Festival).

If you don’t have a Mubi subscription, you can watch the 20 minute film for free on the BFI Player.

7th Festival Márgenes: free to view online, 2nd-23rd December 2017

I’ve written about each edition of Festival Márgenes since 2014, usually in the form of an overview but sometimes going into a bit of detail about films I’ve particularly liked (click on the year for the relevant post: 2014, 2015, 2016). The festival focuses on films without distribution, made on the margins (or outside) of existing film industries in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Ibero-America (Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin American countries). Standouts from previous editions include África 815 (Pilar Monsell, 2014), El gran vuelo (Carolina Astudillo, 2014), La sombra (Javier Olivera, 2015), No Cow on the Ice (Eloy Domínguez Serén, 2015), and Pasaia bitartean (Irati Gorostidi, 2016).

The films included in the 2017 edition (links take you to the relevant streaming page – you need to register with the site to get started):

The Luis Ospina retrospective includes 20 films (shorts and features), also free to view. No indication is given about subtitles, but generally those films not in Spanish have (Castillian) Spanish subtitles and often a lot of the Spanish-language films have English subtitles – but as I’ve said in relation to previous editions, they’re all free to view, so it won’t cost you anything to just click on one and see if subtitles appear.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I’m intending to watch the films by Gabriel Azorín, María Cañas, and Luis Macías as a starting point. But my experience of Festival Márgenes is that they always have a really strong line-up – I usually only manage to watch a handful of films from a given edition but I’ve never watched a dud – so although some of the films might not be your kind of thing, you should be able to find something interesting that you would not otherwise get the chance to see.

Watched in November…and things to see in December

One of those months. I watched Chavela (Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, 2017) – a documentary about the life and travails of singer Chavela Vargas (who often features on the soundtracks of Almodóvar’s films) – on Filmin.

I want to direct your attention to two online film festivals taking place during December: ArteKino and Márgenes. ArteKino is a Europe-wide initiative (it runs in 45 countries) to support contemporary European arthouse (their term) films by offering a wider audience the chance to view them (film distribution being what it is these days). 10 films – all with subtitles available in French, German, Spanish, and English – are free to view between 1st-17th December. You can see the full line-up here. The selection includes Scarred Hearts (Radu Jude, 2016), one of the few films I’ve seen this year that I can wholeheartedly recommend – catch that one here.

I’ve written about Festival Márgenes for the past few years (last year’s post is here) and will likely write another overview post at some point later in the month. The 7th Festival Márgenes will also make films free to view – in this case, films from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Ibero-America (Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin American countries), with an emphasis on documentaries and experimental formats. I think the online stage is either due to start tomorrow or on the 10th (it usually runs in the last three weeks of the year) but their website is currently down for maintenance The online stage runs 2nd-23rd December – the official selection can be found on this page(which is loading for me, but I’ve had that window open in my browser for the past week to remind myself about it – so I’m not sure that it will load for other people just now). There is also an online retrospective of the films of Luis Ospina. I don’t know whether all of the films listed will be available online in all geographic locations (there are sometimes restrictions around certain titles) and I have no idea about the subtitle situation. I only ever manage to watch a couple of films in this festival each year, but always find something interesting and worth seeking out – this year I will be aiming to watch (based on what I’ve read about them previously) Expo Lío ’92 (María Cañas, 2017), Los mutantes (Gabriel Azorín, 2016), and 25 Cines/Seg (Luis Macías, 2017). If I have time, I will write an overview in a similar form to previous years – but if not, I still wanted to highlight the festival to anyone who appreciates experimental film-making.

Watched in October

History and politics mainly, with a dash of Busby Berkeley and Álex de la Iglesia thrown in for good measure (Herederos de la bestia is a talking heads / oral history documentary about the making – and the impact/legacy within Spanish cinema – of the latter’s much-loved second feature, El día de la bestia / The Day of the Beast (1995)).

 

Watched in September

Plus Piazza Vittorio (Abel Ferrara, 2017) (which doesn’t seem to have a poster), via Festival Scope’s Venice Sala Web – having pointed out the selection in last month’s post, I then only managed to watch one film there myself. I also missed all of Mubi’s Argentine cinema season, apart from La mujer de los perrosDog Lady (Laura Citarella & Verónica Llinás, 2015). I’ve not really been in a film-watching mood.

I am intending to watch Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s documentary series, The Vietnam War, which is available on the BBC iPlayer during October if you’re in the UK (the first episode is here) – David Thomson reviewed the series in the London Review of Books (note: the version being shown in the UK is the 10-hour international cut, rather than the 18-hour version being shown in the US).

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.