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].

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More Favourites of 2015: Old, but new to me

Essentially these are my favourite first-time viewings from this year that don’t fit within the 2014/2015 rule that I set for my main list. Some of them – Leviathan and Nostalgia de la luz – are films that I’ve finally caught up with (several years after everyone else), some – El ángel exterminador and Bodas de sangre – were films (that I should have already seen) watched as background viewing in relation to something else but that ended up capturing my attention, and others – Macario and Eden Valley – were part of retrospectives (the Focus on Mexico at EIFF and the ‘For Ever Amber‘ film and photography retro that took place at the Tyneside Cinema and Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle respectively (if the photography exhibition from the latter travels elsewhere, I highly recommend it – I visited it several times)). As ever, I also have quite a large pile of DVDs that I want to catch up with, and in terms of reissues of older films these include several of Second Run’s releases from the past year, El mundo sigue / Life Goes On (Fernando Fernán Gómez, 1965) [reissued in Spain for its 50th Anniversary], more of the Carlos Saura films (honest), plus – inspired by having almost physically walked straight into him while he was shooting his new film on Northumberland Street in Newcastle – I’ve also picked up several Ken Loach films (including Black Jack, Looks and Smiles and Fatherland) that I’ve not seen before.
But here are some of my older favourites watched during 2015…

Macario_2

(1) Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960)
[Review] I didn’t know anything about this one before seeing it at the Edinburgh Film Festival back in June but it ended up being my favourite screening of the festival. A cinematic version of magic realism, Gavaldón’s 18th century-set film manages to be fable-like but also surprisingly modern and funny. Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is beautiful and the image of a sea of candles representing the whole of humanity is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

Taking of Pelham

(2) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
Another of the retrospective screenings at EIFF and my other main favourite from the festival. An obvious influence on many subsequent films (as well as being the source of Tarantino’s colourful pseudonyms in Reservoir Dogs) and genuinely edge-of-seat stuff in several key sequences. In Robert Shaw the film has a villain who is utterly committed to his cause and who has a cynical and clear-eyed view on how the authorities will respond. A few dead bodies along the way really doesn’t bother him, which creates a real sense of jeopardy for the nameless hostages – and the fact that we don’t know the real names of anyone on the train (hostage or hostage-taker) means that it’s difficult to gauge who will survive. It’s surprisingly funny (perhaps that should be expected with Walter Matthau in the lead role but it’s too violent to be a straightforward comedy) not least because of how humour is repeatedly used to undercut tension (when the action / standoff gets too nerve-wracking) or undermine pomposity (basically any scenes involving the Mayor). But it’s also used to show up some of Zachary Garber’s (Matthau) more boorish behaviour (as in the reveal that the Japanese visitors understand English perfectly – Garber has the grace to look embarrassed at that point). And Matthau is just perfect.

the-exterminating-angel

(3) El ángel exterminador / The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
Yes, I should have seen this before now. I will make an effort to fill in some of the other gaps (or, more accurately, yawning chasms) in my Buñuel viewings in the coming year.

Bodas de sangre

(4) Bodas de sangre / Blood Wedding (Carlos Saura, 1981)
I watched this (without taking notes, which is why I didn’t write it up as part of the Carlos Saura Challenge) because I thought that I would manage to see La Novia (Paula Ortiz, 2015) in Gijón and they’re based on the same Lorca play. Short version: I didn’t see Ortiz’s film. Longer version: I was very taken with Saura’s interpretation, which picks up several of his long-running themes – such as a theatrical ‘reality’ and the idea of performing the self (the sequence from which the above image is taken is a fascinating one because the lines between Gades-the-person, Gades-the-performer, and the role he plays within the production blur before our eyes as he breaks the fourth wall while looking in the mirror applying his performance make-up) – and combines them with Antonio Gades’s choreography to tell Lorca’s story through dance. One that I will revisit as part of CSC – and hopefully I’ll manage to re-kickstart the challenge because I let it go in 2015.

Leviathan

(5) Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2013)
It was starting to get embarrassing that I hadn’t seen this – and I’m sorry that I haven’t managed to see it in a cinema because it is visually astounding. I had been put off by a trailer that gave me the impression that I’d end up with motion sickness, but that wasn’t as pronounced within the film itself (although that’s possibly because I watched it on a small screen). It’s not often that you can say that a film contains sights that you’ve never seen before, but that is the case here – some of it just seems…primordial. I was frequently left wondering “How in the hell did they film that?”. I don’t have my copy to hand, so can’t take a screenshot of my favourite sequences but the birds at night is one standout, as are several of the underwater images.

 

Avant petalos grillados_06

Honourable mentions (alphabetical, * = short): Avant pétalos grillados* (Velasco Broca, 2007) [review] (viewable for free online – no subs but there are only a couple of spoken lines right at the start), The Belovs (Victor Kossakovsky, 1992) [available as VOD at Doc Alliance], Branka* (Mikel Zatarian, 2013) (I wrote about it briefly in this post) [viewable online for free at Márgenes], The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978), Eden Valley (Amber Production Team, 1994) [available to buy on DVD from Amber Films], The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943), Nostalgia de la luz / Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010).

My 20 Favourite Films of 2015

Twelve months, five notebooks and approximately 312 films later (141 features and 171 shorts, according to what I’ve written in those five notebooks), this is how I saw 2015. On the old site my end-of-year lists focussed exclusively on Spanish cinema, but given that my intention with this new incarnation is to write about a more diverse range of cinema(s) it seems appropriate for my first end-of-year post here to reflect that. So this is my top 20 based on my viewings (in whatever format) throughout 2015. However, I have stuck to my previous rule that in order to be included, the film has to be from either this year or the previous one (2015 or 2014 in this instance) because it’s still the case that some titles take a while to arrive in the UK, but I want the list to be ‘new’ titles – I might post a separate list (old, but new to me) for films that don’t fit that criteria, if I have time (UPDATE: now online). I have already submitted Top 10s to #12filmsaflickering (you can see my ballot paper in a tweet by the poll’s organiser) and desistfilm (not online yet UPDATE: now online), but the former was restricted to UK releases only and the latter could include retrospective screenings – so my selection here is different. Apart from several titles seen in Gijón – and I’m conscious that having experienced them recently may have elevated some of them in my deliberations just because they are fresh in my mind – the list skews towards the first two thirds of the year because (apart from Gijón) I’ve not been to the cinema much in the last few months.
I went to fewer film festivals this year (just four – D’A Festival in Barcelona, Edinburgh, Berwick, and Gijón) but I was away for more days overall than last year and two of the festivals were outside the UK, so I feel like I still saw a broader range of films than if I had simply stuck to films with a UK theatrical release. I also reviewed a lot of films via screeners/streaming for festivals that I couldn’t travel to, which isn’t ideal but it’s another way of broadening my viewing habits. That said, there are a pile of ‘significant’ films that I’ve not managed to see yet. Some of them I already have copies of but I just didn’t have the time this month to try and catch up with them – and it seems a bit false to try and shoehorn in new films right at the end of the year. But films that I’d like to catch up with over the coming months include (in alphabetical order): 45 Years (dir. Andrew Haigh), Amour Fou (dir. Jessica Hausner), Best of Enemies (dir. Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon), Black Coal, Thin Ice (dir. Diao Yinan), Carol (dir. Todd Haynes), Girlhood (dir. Céline Sciamma), Güeros (dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios), Jauja (dir. Lisandro Alonso), Magical Girl (dir. Carlos Vermut), Maidan (dir. Sergei Loznitsa), Negociador / Negotiator (dir. Borja Cobeaga), Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold), and Shaun the Sheep (dir. Mark Burton and Richard Starzak). The two films [there are others on my radar, but these are the two that I’m impatient to see] from 2015 that I would most like to see in a cinema in 2016 are La academia de las musas / The Academy of Muses (dir. Jose Luis Guerin) (which I’m hoping will at least make it to UK festivals) and Son of Saul (László Nemes) (which has a UK distributor).

But anyway, on to the films that I have seen this year…

Risttuules

(1) Risttuules / In the Crosswind (dir. Martti Helde)
As I’ve said above, I’m wary of placing the films that I’ve seen most recently in end of year lists, but I think that even if I’d seen this film last January it would still be my film of the year – it is a genuine tour-de-force of a directorial debut and a film that continues to resonate in my mind more than a month after I saw it. It falls into that category of film where I would be cautious of rewatching it (on DVD, at least) because I wouldn’t want to diminish the out-of-nowhere impact that it had on me the first time. I wrote about it briefly in this report for desistfilm.

Transatlantique_11

(2) Transatlantique (dir. Félix Dufour-Laperrière)
a.k.a. the film that took me to Gijón. I initially encountered the film in the EIFF catalogue but wasn’t there on the day that it screened. So I first watched this black and white, dialogue-free documentary / essay film about a transatlantic voyage on the small screen of my laptop back in June, and then had the opportunity to see its dreamy poeticism writ large across the big screen last month in Spain. It is cinema as experience – you are placed inside a defined space and a self-contained world – and an exploration of the sublime. I don’t imagine that it will travel beyond festivals, so take any opportunity to see it that presents itself.

01_Crumbs

(3) Crumbs (dir. Miguel Llansó)
[Review & interview] My favourite of the films I saw in Barcelona back in April. An inventive epic-adventure-meets-sci-fi-romance and a bittersweet tale of self-acceptance. I would like to revisit the film, not least because I don’t like the review that I wrote at the time (it’s overly descriptive and concentrates on plot at the expense of expanding upon the visual style) but realistically I don’t often have the time to do that. But it is now available to buy or stream from the Indiepix Films website (click here) – I think that the DVD is region 1, but the streaming and permanent download options are available worldwide.

Queen of Earth_poster

(4) Queen of Earth (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
[Review] The last film that I saw in Barcelona – and as I predicted, a downward spiral into delusion and madness (and an examination of fraught female friendship) was indeed perfect Friday night viewing. I’m hopeful that it will get some kind of UK release in 2016 because the director’s Listen Up, Philip had a release this year and Elisabeth Moss is known here (both she and Katherine Waterston are excellent) – this kind of film should be catnip to independent cinemas, if only they could tear themselves away from programming multiplex fare.

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(5) Slow West (dir. John Maclean)
The first of the films on this list to have had a UK theatrical release in 2015. I went in not knowing much about it other than it being a western and that Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn were in it (the presence of the latter in particular is swiftly becoming a sign that a film will be worth seeing). I came out quietly impressed and the film has stuck with me as the year progressed – I instinctively placed it in pole position for #12filmsaflickering. It manages to use a familiar genre and its symbols in a way that feels fresh – I particularly liked a sequence where Cody Smit-McPhee’s character walks through an ash cloud, turning phantasmal as he goes, and another scene where the forest suddenly comes alive before our eyes…but there are any number of small details that could be singled out. And the coat worn by Mendelsohn’s character looks worthy of its own spin-off prequel (certainly its acquisition would be a tale and a half).

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(6) The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
A surprisingly funny film and one of such dense and rich imagery that it builds up its own texture, not unlike the velveteen of the butterflies that preoccupy the two protagonists (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna). It’s not really a ‘daytime’ film and I had the rather odd experience of having to fit in a screening during my lunch break – but I’m glad that I did because something of its unique atmosphere would probably have been lost if I’d just watched it on VOD, away from the cocoon of a cinema.
The environment in which you first watch a given film inescapably shapes your perception of it – for example, a comedy watched in a full auditorium is a different experience to watching it at home on your own. In general, I would prefer to see a film for the first time in the form it was intended to be seen – on a big screen, with an audience. This brings me back to independent cinemas programming multiplex fare, and the knock-on effect that this has on the opportunities to see smaller films. The programming at my local “independent” has become progressively less diverse over the last few years but it has been particularly noticeable in the last 18 months because they are now regularly assigning their main screen (they have three, plus a gallery space) to films that also have saturation coverage at the multiplex that is ten minutes walk away (they are currently showing the new Star Wars film). The upshot of this is that the kinds of films that used to be their bread and butter are being pushed into the margins – either in the form of single screenings at random times of day (hence my lunchtime jaunt – incidentally, that 11:30am weekday screening in their 2nd-biggest screen was at least 75% full, so I wasn’t the only person who wanted to see it in the right setting) or the gallery screen (full disclosure: I’ve still not seen a film in this screen – I’m sure the sound system is top notch but a 33-seater is not a “cinema” in the form that I want to experience it, and I’m not paying £10 to do so either [the gallery screenings are after 5pm and therefore the full ticket price]). There have been multiple instances this year where films I’d like to have seen (Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini is one that springs to mind) were only shown on a “proper” screen once or twice in total and at times that fell during normal working hours, meaning that I couldn’t go. This only looks set to continue, which is very disappointing because it means that I’m more likely to see a film like Strickland’s on the BFI Player than in a cinema. End of rant.

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(7) Il gesto delle mani / Hand Gestures (dir. Francesco Clerici)
[Review] I’ve written about this recently, so I don’t have much to add. I do a fair amount of arts and crafts so I’m always interested in seeing artistic processes up close. I like that there’s no voiceover or intertitles explaining what we’re seeing – I became as absorbed in the process as the artisans onscreen were in their craft.

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(8) National Gallery (dir. Frederick Wiseman)
I took a day trip to Edinburgh in order to see this (at the point when I booked my train tickets there was no sign of it coming to Newcastle – but it did belatedly arrive two weeks after my trip) because I knew that the artworks would merit being seen on as large a screen as possible. As with Hand Gestures, part of the pleasure to be taken from this film is simply in observing people who excel at their craft. This is a multifaceted exploration of the National Gallery as an institution and how it interprets a remit to give the public the appropriate tools with which to understand art. I particularly liked the demonstrations of how the level of knowledge and passion embodied by the resident experts and specialists opens up their respective subjects to a range of audiences, but also the behind-the-scenes glimpses at conservation and restoration, and the craftsmanship involved in all aspects of the place (e.g. the person who makes the frames). An enthralling documentary – the three hours fly by.

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(9) Life May Be (dir. Mark Cousins and Mania Akbari)
This was on the festival circuit last year, but I missed a chance to see it in Edinburgh – luckily it had a VOD release in 2015 (it is available to rent or buy on GooglePlay and iTunes). I mentioned it on here earlier in the year but said that I wanted to watch some of Akbari’s other films before I wrote about it – I haven’t got any further than buying a couple so far, but hopefully it’s a film I’ll return to in 2016. The film is a conversation between the two directors in the form of exchanged video essays / letters and touches on exile, censorship, cultural ideals, gender and bodies. It made my brain fizz.

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(10) Aferim! (dir. Radu Jude)
Another of the films that I saw in Gijón. Rather inexplicably this picaresque Western has recently gone straight-to-DVD in the UK – so if you’re in the UK, it is worth tracking down (just wait for the price to drop because it’s unusually expensive). As I said in one of my dispatches from Gijón, ‘it just feels as if you’re in the hands of a director who has something to say and knows how he wants to say it’ – it’s a shame that UK audiences won’t get the chance to see it on the big screen.

Top 20 of 2015_11 to 20

(11) P’tit Quinquin (dir. Bruno Dumont)
[Review] The first of Dumont’s films that I’ve seen (and I’m told that it’s atypical of his work, so I may continue swerving the rest), this was probably the most left-of-field film I saw this year – a mishmash of the darkly funny and deeply unsettling, headed by two innately likeable social misfits (played by Bernard Pruvost and Alane Delhaye). Part of what’s unsettling is that these two personable leads espouse views that tend towards the casually racist (Dumont’s depiction of those attitudes is a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface), but also through how it generates humour from the behaviour of a non-professional cast, many of whom have learning difficulties – I occasionally wondered whether I was laughing at the outlandish Capitaine Van der Weyden or the uncontrollable tics of Bernard Pruvost, and the idea that it was the latter made me uncomfortable. It is incredibly funny (see it for the corpsing priests!) but in a way that also throws into relief the sadness of stunted lives and the limited opportunities of those living in the locale. And if you’ve seen it, you already have that song playing in your head.

(12) Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
The first film that I saw in the cinema in 2015 and one that still keeps creeping around my brain like its Louise Bourgeois-inspired spider. A narrative loop or a nightmarish dream? Either way, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character(s) has ‘woman problems’ in every sense of the term. It’s the kind of film where you’ll pick up on more details each time you watch it – having watched it only once so far, I’m left with more questions than answers because certain things from earlier in the film have to be rethought in light of what happens later. The penultimate shot is one of my favourites of the year.

(13) Obra (dir. Gregorio Graziosi)
[Review] Seen in Barcelona. This has a coincidental visual connection with Enemy insofar as both use architecture – in terms of detail and on a larger scale – to suggest the containment (or hemming-in) of their protagonists. Obra has received mixed reviews elsewhere – its chilly stylishness gets mentioned as a negative, but I think that slightly clinical, geometrical framing is a commentary on the life of the lead character. It’s not a film that sparks passions (it holds the viewer at one remove, as does its protagonist (Irandhir Santos)) but it has stuck with me (I didn’t have to think much about including it in this list) and the opening credit sequence is my favourite of the year. I’ve not seen any sign of it appearing in the UK (or anywhere else for that matter – I don’t know whether the D’A Festival was the end of its festival run?).

(14) Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
I don’t think I’ve ever had two films by the same director on the same end of year list. As pure cinematic spectacle this takes some beating, and Villeneuve directs the hell out of the material – having just got rid of heartburn that I’d been stuck with almost continually for more than a month, the tension during the bridge scene reignited it. The cinematography and soundtrack (the latter was partly responsible for my heartburn) have been rightfully singled out for praise but what I also liked is that during the action sequences a sense of spatial relations is sustained (and the bridge sequence is a case in point) – you know where people are in relation to each other, and by extension you know which way the camera is facing despite rapid cutting. It cannot be overstated how rare that is in modern action sequences. The trailer seemed to make more of Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro – to hide the fact that the protagonist (Emily Blunt) is female? – and the film doesn’t go in quite the direction I was expecting (I think I thought it was going to be more of a Platoon-style two-sided battle for the soul of Blunt’s character), and it tails off towards the end. I also know people who find its depiction of Mexico offensive – and I can’t really argue with that, but I also can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. When this gets a DVD release, I’m hoping to also watch Incendies and Prisoners (and rewatch Enemy) and then write something about Villeneuve’s recent output (his earlier films are unavailable in the UK).

(15) Noite sem distância / Night Without Distance (dir. Lois Patiño)
[Review] When you really like a directorial debut, you (or I, at least) approach the director’s next film with a certain sense of trepidation – can they fulfil the promise that you think they’ve demonstrated? Patiño’s Costa da morte / Coast of Death was my favourite film last year by quite a margin and I avoided reading about his three new shorts/installations (the other two are Estratos de la Imagen / Strata of the Image and Sombra Abierta / Open Shadow) prior to seeing this one in relation to Curtocircuito. This is a very different beast to Costa da morte, although it continues the director’s exploration of the Galician landscape. What could have been a gimmick (the image has been flipped into the negative) actually confers a phantasmal layer over proceedings and gives a sense of historical repetition – I would be intrigued to see whether this appears differently on a big screen (I watched it on my laptop).

(16) Hard to be a God (dir. Alexei German)
It’s weird that I should have so many black and white films on my list this year (five, by my count), but maybe people using colour need to up their game because the b&w ones are among the most visually imaginative I’ve seen in 2015. This film should have been in my #12filmsaflickering list because it had a UK release, but because I saw it in Barcelona (it was on limited release in Spain and at that point it didn’t have a UK distributor, so it seemed likely to be my only opportunity to see it on a big screen) it was in amongst festival films in my record of what I’ve watched, and so I overlooked it when I was making that list. Watching a three hour Russian epic with only Spanish subtitles was problematic – there were whole scenes where I didn’t know what was going on, or at least didn’t understand the subtleties because I usually picked up the gist of what was transpiring via the onscreen action – but visually it is something else. The cinema where I saw it – the Zumzeig Cinema, about 30 minutes walk from Plaça de Catalunya (there’s probably a simple metro route but I prefer to get lost above ground, so I went everywhere on foot) – is also admirably diverse in its programming and I hope that I get the chance to go back there sometime in the future.

(17) Dead Slow Ahead (dir. Mauro Herce)
[Review] Another film that I’ve reviewed very recently, so I don’t currently have much to add. I originally watched it on Festival Scope because I didn’t think that it was going to be in Gijón (it was a late addition to the programme) and then got the chance to see it on the big screen on my last night in Spain – something that underlined what a difference it can make to see a film in the cinema because it was a much more immersive experience.

(18) Fidelio, Alice’s Journey (dir. Lucie Borleteau)
[Review] Earlier this year, UK distributor Soda Pictures used 50 members of the public (who had to apply) to choose its next release. I was one of the 50 (I can’t say that it was a particularly satisfying experience) and this was one of the 10 films under consideration – it didn’t ‘win’, but it was my favourite (I was fairly out of sync with the tastes of the group, at least insofar as Soda’s calculation of the final rankings), so I was pleased when it got picked up by New Wave Films for a UK release. There aren’t many films directed by women on this list – that’s a result of what I’ve managed to see this year. Although the gender of a director isn’t really a criteria by which I chose my viewings (any more than I would vote for a politician simply because they were in possession of a uterus – the ideas are the thing!), I prioritise seeing ‘smaller’ films (i.e. the ones that don’t get saturation distribution) and films directed by women almost invariably fall into that category. So in theory I should manage to see a decent number of films by women in a given year, but 2015 didn’t work out like that. What I liked about Borleteau’s directorial debut was that her protagonist (played by Ariane Labed) is positioned as the desiring subject rather than the desired object: that’s fairly rare in onscreen representations. I’ll be interested to see what Borleteau gets up to next, but in the meantime this should get a UK DVD release soon.

(19) Hitchcock / Truffaut (dir. Kent Jones)
This documentary has been picked up by Dogwoof in the UK, so it will be getting a theatrical release in 2016 (it is also already listed for pre-order in their DVD store – here). It is a celebration of cinephilia – that of Hitchcock and Truffaut, and also that of the directors influenced by the 1964 book – and the book itself rendered into audiovisual form. It has made me want to reread the book (it’s probably more than 10 years since I last looked at it) and work my way through Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre – there are still so many of his films that I haven’t seen.

(20) Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Are there many film series that manage to improve as they go along (especially when they’ve gone off the boil along the way)? At times wilfully daft – and with a bit of a meh villain – but with action sequences to set your pulse racing, and the sense that you were watching a precision-made piece of filmmaking, this was one of my most enjoyable trips to the cinema this year. And Rebecca Fergusson came out of nowhere to waltz off with the film.

 

Honourable mentions (alphabetical, * = short): Abdul & Hamza (dir. Marko Grba Singh) [review], Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo del Toro) [review], Cuenta con nosotros* (dir. Pablo Vara) [festival report], Hacked Circuit* (dir. Deborah Stratman) [festival report], Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen), Jet Lag (dir. Eloy Domínguez Serén), Krisha (dir. Trey Edward Shults) [festival report], Llévate mis amores / All of Me (dir. Arturo González Villaseñor) [review], El movimiento / The Movement (dir. Benjamín Naishtat), Ni Dios ni Santa María / Neither God Nor Santa María* (dir. Samuel M Delgado and Helena Girón) [review], ReMine: El último movimiento obrero / ReMine: The Last Working Class Movement (dir. Marcos M. Merino), Retratos de identificaçao / Identification Photos (dir. Anita Leandro), Scrapbook* (dir. Mike Hoolboom), Sueñan los androides / Androids Dream (dir. Ion de Sosa) [review], World of Tomorrow* (dir. Don Hertzfeldt).