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…

a still from Risttuules/In the Crosswind

(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.

a still from essay film Transatlantique

(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.

a still from 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.

the poster for Queen of Earth

(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.

Slow West film poster

(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).

The Duke of Burgundy

(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.

an image from the documentary Hand Gestures

(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.

the poster for Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery

(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.

an image from essay film Life May Be

(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.

an image from Aferim!

(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.

the posters for films 11 to 20 in my top 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).

Festival Report: Gijón, part 2


The second of two reports I’ve written for desistfilm about films I saw in Gijón is now online. This one focuses on the Convergencias films – in essence, I’ve looked at what the films have in common (interesting use of sound / silence and idiosyncratic visuals).

Links to reviews will continue to appear in the other post(s).

UPDATE (29/12/15): the 1-hour recording of El séptimo vicio that centred on Convergencias is now online (here). I am in the first twenty minute section (specifically 04:20-09:21) alongside Félix Dufour-Laperrière and Víctor Paz. The middle section consists of Martín Cuesta, Pablo González-Taboada, Eduardo Guillot, Carlota Moseguí and David Tejero discussing the state of film criticism in Spain, and then the final section is Martín and Víctor.

My Gijón Top 10:

Leaving aside Transatlantique – as I was the reason that that film was there – my top 10 of FICX53:

1. In the Crosswind (Martti Helde, 2014)
2. Aferim! (Radu Jude, 2015)
3. Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce, 2015)
4. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015)
5. Krisha (Trey Edward Shults, 2015)
6. Black (Adil El Arbi and Bilal Fallah, 2015)
7. André’s Eyes (Antonio Borges Correia, 2015)
8. Test (Alexander Kott, 2014)
9. El Movimiento (Benjamín Naishtat, 2015)
10. Communing (Helga Fanderl, 2015)

[UPDATE (09/12/15): I’ve realised that I’ve missed out Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet, 2015) but I don’t want to re-do my list and bump Fanderl out, so please consider it as being part of the second half]. I’ve learnt that if I don’t want to return to work a complete wreck, then I have to pace myself at festivals and to also acknowledge when I’m too tired to give something my full attention (and have an early night instead) – so I know that I didn’t see as many films as I could have done (or as many as I’d put in my original schedule), but I feel like I ended up with the right balance between watching films and exploring the city. With that in mind, I prioritised the first screening of each of the Convergencias films (when people were giving their presentations) and also the experimental films (I’m less likely to get the opportunity to see those elsewhere). Doing that meant that there were some films that I really wanted to see but wasn’t able to because they clashed with those other events (or on one day because I just wasn’t feeling well). Films that were in Gijón that I’d like to catch up with in 2016 include: Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015); Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015) [I’m presuming that this will get UK distribution]; Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaró, 2015); La Novia (Paula Ortiz, 2015) [the two screenings this had both clashed with Convergencias screenings]; Paulina (Santiago Mitre, 2015); Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) [in this case, I know that it has UK distribution next year but I’m now all the more interested since Víctor Paz described it to me as “una obra maestra…y la mejor ópera prima desde Citizen Kane“]; Un monstruo de mil cabezas (Rodrigo Plá, 2015).

Postcard from Gijón: Days 3-4

Version 2


Sunday being a day of rest, it was only appropriate that I should catch up on some sleep (and also write the first of these postcards) – so the first film of the day for me wasn’t until 5pm.

Land of Mine_01
Under Sandet / Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet, 2015) – one of the Official Selection (competition) titles – is a Danish-German co-production that tells a little-known story from the aftermath of World War 2, namely that German soldiers were used to clear mine fields in countries that had been under Nazi occupation during the war. Some two million mines had been laid along Denmark’s western coast (someone apparently thought that it was a possible site for the Allied landings that would in reality occur in Normandy) presenting an obvious danger to the civilian population. 2,600 German troops (most of them teenagers recruited in the dying days of the war) were put to work defusing and removing the mines, having been told that they would only be allowed to go home to Germany once every mine had been recovered. The film gives two points of view: Sargent Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller), an experienced Danish officer who is overtly and openly hostile towards the German forces who occupied his country (the English title obviously has the double meaning of ‘my land’ and ‘minefields’); and the young German soldiers (most notably Louis Hofmann, Emil Belton and Oskar Belton – the latter two play the team’s youngest members, a pair of twins who are barely in their teens) who he must train as a bomb disposal unit. If the treatment of what is an interesting story perhaps leans towards the conventional (the narrative arcs of certain characters is telegraphed from early on and although there are several sequences of high tension in relation to the bombs, that tension cannot be sustained for the duration (that said, I jumped in my seat at least three times)), the acting is great (a lot of it communicated silently through gesture and expression) and the characters are differentiated sufficiently for us to become invested in what happens to them as individuals.

In the Crosswind
The second film screening from the Convergencias selection was Risttuules / In the Crosswind (Martti Helde, 2014) – chosen by David Tejero (you can read his text on the film, here). I think that this will end up being my favourite of the festival (unless something astounding comes along) because it is utterly original in form and visualisation, and emotionally devastating – in contrast to the majority of screenings where people start chatting and filing out during the end credits, in this case you could have heard a pin drop and barely anyone got up from their seat until the credits had ended. This is another film that tells a little-known story in relation to World War 2: Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic states from the early 1940s onwards involved thousands of citizens from Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia being forcibly sent by train to remote outposts in Siberia. Their predicament continued after the war ended and most were unable to return to their homelands until some time after Stalin’s death in 1953.
In the Crosswind tells the story via a series of letters (heard in voiceover – there is no spoken dialogue in the film) based on those written by Erna Tamm (played by Laura Petersen) as if to her husband Heldur (Tarmo Song) after they were separated during the removals. But the most arresting feature are the black and white tableaux vivants through which Helde conveys those moments when time stands still for us at those junctures when our lives are irrevocably changed. People stand stock still, emotion frozen on their faces, captured in moments of rupture and turmoil. The camera moves through a given scene in one continuous take (as far as I recall) – with the sound continuing as if everything were in action – and the staging is ingeniously blocked-out in such as way so that the movement of the camera through the tableaux allows a set up to change without cutting. The best example of this is a sequence where the camera is moving through an interior and passes a series of windows with pillars of wall in between them – the camera keeps slowly moving and each time we see the view out of the window, the (frozen) action has moved on, telling a violent and horrific story. The effect is a bit like looking at individual frames – or still images – taken in succession. It is genuinely unlike anything I’ve seen before and I hope that I can see it again.

My last screening on Sunday was one of the FICXLab (experimental) sessions showing two films by Robert Nelson: Suite California & Stops Passes Part 1: Tijuana to Hollywood via Death Valley (1978) and Suite California & Stops Passes Part 2: San Francisco to Sierra Nevadas & Back Again (1978). I found the combination of sound and image to be quite discombobulating. Part 1 features a spoof of the narcotrafficante ‘genre’ border crossings and there is humour throughout, usually via the juxtaposition of sound and image, but what emerges across both parts is multi-faceted portrait of California. The recourse to historical facts and monuments – giving a kind of historical layer to the presentation of landscape and place – reminded me of James Benning’s Deseret (although in visual terms they are quite different, as is Nelson’s focus on people within the spaces he explores).

The Sky Trembles

Monday started with The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, 2015), another discombobulating film and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. It starts as a ‘making-of’-style documentary, showing Spanish director Oliver Laxe making his new film, Las Mimosas, in Morocco. The press kit probably has the best synopsis of what happens: ‘Shooting against the staggering beauty of the Moroccan landscape, from the rugged terrain of the Atlas Mountains to the stark and surreal emptiness of the Moroccan Sahara, with its encroaching sands and abandoned film sets, a director abandons his film set descending into a hallucinatory, perilous adventure of cruelty, madness and malevolence. A Paul Bowles story combined with observational footage forms a multi-layered excavation into the illusion of cinema itself’. My response to a film immediately after seeing it is usually a reaction – that is to say emotional rather than intellectual – and I only really start to form a coherent opinion when I begin writing. In this case, I think that I need to watch it again because my response feels like it’s stuck in reaction to the visuals (very beautiful and eerily strange) rather than engaging with what is going on at a deeper level. One to return to at a later date.

Next up was my chosen film for Convergencias – Transatlantique (Félix Dufour-Laperrière, 2014). This was the first time that I’ve introduced a film at a festival (or anywhere else other than a university) and led the subsequent Q&A, but my nerves were mainly about doing it in Spanish and making myself comprehensible to the audience (Félix spoke in French, which was then translated into Spanish by a translator). The original text that I had to submit as a proposal was almost 1,000 words but this then had to be edited and rewritten into a 200 word version for the festival catalogue:

‘Part meditative travelogue and part wordless maritime reverie, Transatlantique unfolds in the spaces of a cargo ship undergoing a transatlantic voyage between Antwerp and Montreal. The black and white cinematography registers the inkiest of blacks and blinding whiteness in the Atlantic’s unruly seascapes and, as the swaying motion of the ship causes a chiaroscuro dance on its surfaces, a complexly layered soundscape combines the sounds of the crew with audible elements of the ship and the encompassing sounds of the sea and wind in an evocative and transportive symphony.
This essay film is part of the trend for immersive documentaries, but its singularity resides in its relationship with the new silent cinema and the manner in which the film only offers a narrative in the sense that it begins in one place and ends in another; it is a stream of consciousness representation of the journey and the lives of those onboard rendered in an elegant and idiosyncratic visual form. It is fitting that a film exploring a ship at sea – an in-between space and no-man’s land in the interstices between national borders – uses the universal language of cinema at its most elemental to communicate with the audience.’

It was great to see the film on the big screen as my original viewing was on a computer (as I’ve said previously, I wasn’t able to see it in Edinburgh). Seeing it on that scale made certain things visible. David Cairns wrote about the film during EIFF and he mentioned ‘a breathtaking shot of the sea, blackly luminous’ and wondered whether it was played in negative – watching it for the second time, on a larger scale, and having recently seen Noite sem distancia (Lois Patiño, 2015), it seemed to me that the image was indeed one from elsewhere in the film flipped into negative. Someone asked about it during the Q&A and Félix confirmed that that was the case but that he had also digitally cut part of the image so as to remove the horizon line. I’ll be presenting the film again on Thursday.

Dorsky et al
I returned to the FICXLab screen for the last session on Monday, this time for a programme of shorts by Nathaniel Dorsky, Helga Fanderl, and Jonathan Schwartz. I’ve not seen any of their work before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. The programme was split into two, with Dorsky and Fanderl in the first half and then Schwartz in the second because the work of the first two complement each other whereas Schwartz’s films are quite different. The (silent) films by Dorsky (Prelude (2015) and Intimations (2015)) and Fanderl (Communing (2015)) have images of the natural world, repetition, reflection, and an emphasis on patterns of light and shadow in common (although the treatments are different), while Schwartz’s (a set of miniatures (2015), animals moving to the sound of a drum (2013), 3 1/33 series side a (2005-10), if the war continues (2012), 3 1/33 series side b (2005-10), Happy Birthday (2010)) utilise sound and the duplication of images to create worlds in miniature. My favourite of the evening was Fanderl’s film, although again my reaction was one of sensation rather than thought – but I’d like to see more of her films (which are shot on 16mm Super 8 and edited in camera). I will be writing a report for Desistfilm about the experimental section, so I won’t expand on these films any further for the time being.

To be continued…

FICX53: Convergencias


Back in June I saw the following call for papers/proposals from the Festival Internacional de Cine de Gijón:

‘[Asociación Cultural Convergencias de la Crítica Cinematográfica] and the Gijon International Film Festival will be hosting a second edition of its critics’ strand: CONVERGENCES. This strand intends to become an opportunity for film critics all over Europe – a meeting point of discussion for a diverse and wide-ranging spectrum of cinephilia. In order to realise this in FICXixon, we are organising a call for papers. The aim is to select six films not previously shown in Spain. This strand is conceived as a place for discovery and recognition of directors who have not received the appropriate attention of Spanish programmers and curators. We encourage critics to participate by sending proposals of films to programme at FICXixon. The first edition of this strand was a great success, working as a meeting place for Spanish film critics, that presented the selection to over 1,200 spectators. This year, we would like to open this participation to our European colleagues.’

A critic could participate if they were frequently publishing articles or discussing film on TV or radio. You had to submit a CV and a covering letter as part of the proposal to explain why you were interested in taking part. The film proposal itself had a word limit of 1,000 words in either English or Spanish – within the conditions set out (a film produced between 2014 – 2015, preferably one that had not yet been shown in Spain, and relevant to contemporary trends / delivering fresh ideas for the evolution of film language), you had to make the case for the importance of your chosen film and why it should be included in the festival’s programme. The final choice would be made by the section’s coordinators, Martín Cuesta (Cinema ad hoc) and Víctor Paz (A cuarta parede).
I wasn’t sure that I published frequently enough to qualify because I tend to have bursts of activity when I go to festivals followed by slow periods when I watch more than I write. But I knew that I had various upcoming festivals in September and early October (I didn’t know that I’d get derailed by the brouhaha over at the old blog during August) and I thought that it was worth going for given that they specifically stated that ‘only the quality and depth of the several points developed in the texts will be taken into account, no matter what the previous experience of the film critic is’. That seemed like an admirably open door and to be worth the effort of applying. But what film to choose?
At that point in the year, the only festivals I’d been to were in Barcelona and Edinburgh – obviously anything I’d seen in the former had already been shown in Spain, so that was a dead end. There wasn’t a great deal in Edinburgh that fitted the bill either (incidentally, it can be quite a faff to work out which countries a film has screened in). I was giving this proper thought while I was in Edinburgh, and looking through the festival catalogue there seemed to be two films that might fit the bill – films that were unusual enough that I’d probably be the only person suggesting them but that also sounded like my kind of film (liking the film wasn’t one of the conditions – but I would struggle to argue for a film that I didn’t actually rate). Anyway, I saw one of them but wasn’t bowled over by it. The other one – Transatlantique (Félix Dufour-Laperrière, 2014) – wasn’t screening until after I was leaving Edinburgh but it was in the videotheque so I headed there to watch it, only to be stymied by the fact that there was something noisy going on in the next room and this had been described as a silent film (which isn’t entirely accurate but it’s certainly a quiet film). So I bailed on that plan. In the end I watched it on Festival Scope….and I found it to be a singular and mesmerising film. So I wrote a proposal about it.
All of which is a very longwinded way of saying that I was one of the six critics chosen – Transatlantique is screening at FIXC53 with its director in attendance, and the festival is paying for my flights and accommodation so that I can be there too. I’ll get to meet the other chosen critics and discuss the films with them. I’m really thrilled to be taking part and to be meeting the other participants, and I’m intrigued by the other Convergencias films, none of which I’ve seen before (I’m also really looking forward to seeing Transatlantique on a big screen because it is visually stunning in a way that a computer screen cannot do justice to).
I will return to Transatlantique on here is some form, but I thought that I’d give a brief outline of each of the films in the section. The festival’s press release about the chosen films says that they’re connected through the use of sound in a creative capacity as a narrative element and through an expressive use of silence – I shall find out more when I watch them, but I can already see other potential overlaps in the descriptions below.

André's Eyes

André’s Eyes / Os Olhos de André (António Borges Correia, 2015) – chosen by Jesús Choya.
Synopsis: An experimental docudrama in which the actual family members themselves participate in the recreation of their own story. Set in a small village in the Portuguese countryside, the film follows the struggle of a divorced father to keep his family together after his youngest son is taken away from them and placed in a foster family.

In the Crosswind

In the Crosswinds / Risttuules (Martti Helde, 2014) – chosen by David Tejero.
Synopsis: In a series of black and white tableaux vivants, the film tells the story of an Estonian woman and her young daughter struggling to find their way home after being deported to Siberia by the Soviet occupiers in 1941. The imagery looks fable-like, and the detailed description on the TIFF website says that ‘carving out an uncanny space between motion and stasis, these images evoke a state in which the past seems solid and the present like a dream’.


Krisha (Trey Edward Shults, 2015) – chosen by Carlota Moseguí.
Synopsis (taken from the official website): ‘Following a prolonged battle with addiction and self-destruction, Krisha, the black sheep of the family she abandoned, returns for a holiday celebration. But what begins as a moving testament to the family’s capacity to forgive soon spirals into a deluge of emotional bloodletting, as old wounds are torn open, and resentments are laid bare’. The cast includes several members of the director’s family.

The Road

The Road (Rana Salem, 2015) – chosen by Eduardo Guillot [not on Twitter].
Synopsis: Rana and Guy, a young married couple, live in today’s city of Beirut. Drifting away from reality with no sense of time and space, Rana is trapped in memories and dreams. Guy decides that they must go on a trip. The director says that ‘the film is inspired by my life with my partner, but the characters are not us, even though we’re the actors. The Road is a very personal project, and it takes a look into how it is to be in love and maintain a long relationship in a country where it’s difficult to make long term plans due to its instability’.


Test (Aleksandr Kott, 2014) – chosen by Pablo González-Taboada.
Synopsis: Test is a story about the first nuclear bomb test which was conducted in Semipalatinsk in 1949. Director Aleksandr Kott has said of his dialogue-free film that “…have you noticed that when somebody is really close to you, you don’t need many words to communicate, you communicate with glances, gestures, and actions. Sometimes silent communication means much more than empty conversations. This film is for those who love looking, for those who remember that the cinema is, before all, an image. And when cinema was invented, it was without words.”


Transatlantique (Félix Dufour-Laperrière, 2014) – chosen by me.
Part meditative travelogue and part maritime reverie, Transatlantique is a black and white essay film – without dialogue – exploring the spaces of a cargo ship undergoing a transatlantic voyage. The brothers Félix (director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor), Nicolas (co-cinematographer) and Gabriel Dufour-Laperrière (sound recordist) boarded the Federal Rideau in Antwerp and embarked on a 30-day journey to Montreal. The film is as interested in the architectural spaces of the ship as it is with the sea and its depths, and makes interesting use of sound…but that is all I shall say for the time being.

There is also a Convergencias video presentation by Martín Cuesta – here.