Monday, 7 January 2019

A Year in Film Pt. 1


A Viewing List for Twenty Eighteen


I didn't get around to compiling one of these lists for 2017, which is unfortunate, as I saw some great films over the course of that particular year. Some of the obvious highlights included Split (2017) by M. Night Shyamalan, Dragons Forever (1988) by Sammo Hung, Cosmos (2015) by Andrzej Zulawski, The Babadook (2014) by Jennifer Kent, Dogtooth (2009) by Yorgos Lanthimos, Hangmen Also Die! (1943) by Fritz Lang, La Cérémonie (1995) by Claude Chabrol, Big Fish (2003) by Tim Burton, mother! (2017) by Darren Aronofsky, It Follows (2014) by David Robert Mitchell, and perhaps the best of the bunch, Over the Garden Wall (2014) by Patrick McHale. This year I thought I'd renew the tradition, so I've compiled, in chronological order, a four-part list of the forty best films I saw over the course of 2018.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [David Yates, 2009]:

Watched: Jan 06, 2018

For me, this is the most cinematic of all the Harry Potter films and the first to feel relevant beyond its own specific franchise demographic. Whereas previous instalments had the feel of illustrated text - bland and visually generic fantasy affairs concerned mostly with telling a story in the most basic terms - The Half-Blood Prince actually succeeds in translating its themes into images. In this sense, it's not simply an illustration of the story, but something that engages visually with the subtext, ideas and emotions being expressed; not through spoken exposition, but through the iconography (uses of mirror symbolism, imprisonment; a birdcage within a birdcage, etc) as well through the formalist aspects of lighting, colour and composition. The tone is still uneven and often talkative, but there does seem to be a much greater emphasis on the emotional journey of the characters; the sense of loyalty and betrayal. There is also a compelling and ever deepening emotional intensity that works brilliantly, not just from an audience perspective, but more significantly, in bringing together many of the thematic and narrative plot-points that had developed through the previous instalments.


Howl's Moving Castle [Hayao Miyazaki, 2004]:

Watched: Jan 27, 2018

The transient nature of the castle and the backdrop of an encroaching war suggest a subtext of how war itself displaces people. In rejecting the kind of easy spectacle that animation can so ably depict, Howl's Moving Castle instead adopts a relaxed, almost contemplative tone; creating a suggestion of war, not as an excuse for action and adventure, but as something that forces us, as a species, to lose connection to the people and places that define us. It's a rich idea and one that plays beautifully to the film's sensitive depiction of old age (suggested here by the experiences of the heroine, Sophie; old before her time). So few films, especially ones aimed at children, give space to the struggles of those at the end of life, but here the character's attempts to find peace are genuinely heartfelt. The journey of the film, as such, has less to do with the fantastic odyssey these characters take than the emotional journey of Sophie, as she attempts to get back to a state of being (and a sense of self) that existed before the war (and its curse) intruded upon her existence, changing it forever. This adaptation of a novel by the English author Diana Wynne Jones may at first seem an unconventional choice for Miyazaki, but it's nonetheless a film that connects many of the great narrative threads that have run throughout the filmmaker's career.


The Coward [Satyajit Ray, 1965]:

Watched: Jan 28, 2018

Feeling somewhat more European in its influences than Ray's more celebrated works, such as Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The Goddess (1960), to name just three - films in which the influence of neo-realism was applied to a culturally specific and historically authentic milieu, unburdened by western perspectives - this intimate, almost theatrical memory-play, shows the filmmaker's further development and mastery of diverse narrative forms. Perhaps owing as much to the influence of the Southern Gothic of writers like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams as it does to the stifling chamber-films of Ingmar Bergman, the shifts from naturalism towards a kind of heightened stylisation, create an almost dreamlike quality; a sense of ambiguity in terms of the story's place between reality and fiction. While apparently underrated and even discredited by many film critics and devotees of Ray's cinema, The Coward - with its stark modernist compositions and sensitive performances from the three main leads - presented, for this particular viewer, a wandering "dark night of the soul" examination into the themes of lost love, fragile masculinity and the fear of commitment, where ghosts of the past and fears of the present freely intersect.


Blade Runner 2049 [Denis Villeneuve, 2017]:

Watched: Feb 19, 2018

This is the only film on the list that I didn't write something about after my initial viewing. I'll need to see it again before attempting to write anything more substantial, but it's sufficient to say, I found the film utterly compelling, beautiful in both design and conception, and thematically profound. While it largely contradicts the most fascinating question that runs throughout the Ridley Scott-directed original - e.g. is Deckard a replicant? - Villeneuve's sequel nonetheless compliments the earlier instalment's existential themes regarding identity and what it is to be human. Such conceptions feel more relevant now, in our current climate of smart phone technology and further developments in the field of robotics than they perhaps appeared when explored three decades ago, and as such there's a greater sensitivity, if not empathy afforded to its android characters, which suggests this societal blurring of the real and artificial. While Villeneuve's work does draw heavily on the template of the original film, the aesthetics of Blade Runner 2049 are very much its own. While one can point to the influence of a film, such as Steven Spielberg's masterwork A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), or the philosophies of Mamoru Oshii's similar sci-fi noir Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), there's also something of Tarkovsky and Solaris (1972) in its sombre mood, slow pace and elemental concerns.


Steamboy [Katsuhiro Ōtomo, 2004]:

Watched: Feb 28, 2018

Anyone going into this expecting a film along the same lines as director Katsuhiro Ōtomo's great masterwork, Akira (1988), will be sorely disappointed. While Seamboy once again showcases Ōtomo's tremendous visual sense, his ability to create vast worlds that feel utterly immersive and entirely authentic, as well as his obvious flair for creating scenes of large-scale action and destruction, the film is a lot more grounded and conversational than that aforementioned cyberpunk classic, with little of the violence or grotesquery that propelled that particular film to its lasting cult status. Instead, Ōtomo uses a fantasy of late 1800s Britain to draw a line from the industrial revolution to the tragedy of how such miracles of modern engineering would pave the way for the great wars and devastation that would come to dominate the 20th century. In doing so, he turns this beautifully crafted steampunk adventure story into an oblique anti-war commentary; wherein the protagonist - the boy-inventor, James - has to protect his grandfather's innovations from the corrupt and capitalist warlords trying to use them for their own insidious ends.


Gerald's Game [Mike Flanagan, 2017]:

Watched: Feb 28, 2018

My first experience with director Mike Flanagan was seeing his earlier films, Oculus (2012) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), during the latter half of 2017. Both films impressed me on a level far greater than what I'd expected. It was my interest in Flanagan's work that led me to subscribe to Netflix and to the film in question. Throughout its claustrophobic narrative, Gerald's Game succeeds in capturing the internal, almost stream-of-consciousness quality of its source material (the novel by Stephen King); inhabiting its protagonist's subconscious the way one might conventionally inhabit a room. Here, Jess's thoughts and fears become personified, taking physical form. While her body is bound her mind is free to wander off into the darkened reaches of her own psyche; into the past or somewhere else. While the ending of the film proved to be problematic for some, the coda seemed necessary to me, providing a point of catharsis. It underlines the central themes of abuse and survival, while also showing how the protagonist is finally able to accept that she wasn't to blame for her own experiences. The way the editing of the film conflates the two abusers of Jess into one supposedly imaginary bogeyman figure, reinforces the idea, quite disturbingly, that some monsters are real.


Before I Wake [Mike Flanagan, 2016]:

Watched: Mar 02, 2018

As much as I was enthralled by Gerald's Game (2017), I loved this one even more. Not only is the film genuinely terrifying, employing a slow-burning, long-held observational aesthetic influenced by "J-horror" filmmakers like Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (albeit, with the occasional Hollywood style jump-scare there to lower the tone), it builds to an emotional climax that is actually heartbreaking. Like the best films of M. Night Shyamalan, Flanagan uses the supernatural to explore themes of catharsis and grief. His monsters aren't embodiments of pure evil, but emotional manifestations, filled with pain and fear. If we were to follow the Shyamalan/Flanagan comparison to its logical conclusion, then Before I Wake is this filmmaker's Lady in the Water (2006). On the surface, it's Flanagan's lowest rated film to date, but like Shyamalan's similarly derided effort, I found it sensitive, imaginative and refreshingly earnest in its emotions. It's also beautifully cinematic.


Something Wild [Jonathan Demme, 1986]:

Watched: Apr 04, 2018

The spirit of the French New Wave collides with the energy of the American independent cinema in this seemingly simple but actually quite rich and intelligent road movie; a highlight of the very brief "yuppie in peril" subgenre that also gave us the brilliant After Hours (1985) by Martin Scorsese and the quite enjoyable Into the Night (also 1985) by John Landis. However, the elements that make Something Wild an actual masterpiece are almost distinct from the narrative itself. While the original screenplay by E. Max Frye is perfectly well developed, it's the depth of personality and sensitivity that is brought to the film by director Jonathan Demme that defines the overall experience. In particular, it's Demme's seemingly earnest love for alternative cultures, old Americana, reggae music, street art, indie rock and the natural eccentricities of people that elevates Something Wild beyond what could've been a fairly standard or straight-forward screwball romance into a genuine time capsule of specific attitudes, people and places.


The Mystery of Picasso [Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956]:

Watched: Apr 07, 2018

A film that should've done for live-drawing what The Last Waltz (1978) did for the rock concert. Quite why so few filmmakers have followed in Clouzot's footsteps and produced a similar arts-based documentary might be what the mystery of the title refers to, though if nothing else, one could perhaps see this as something of an early precursor to a perennial favourite like The Joy of Painting (1983-1994), hosted by Bob Ross. Nonetheless, Clouzot's documentary is a fascinating and in some sense historically significant study in the practicalities of form; a work preoccupied not just with the creation of images, but with the notion of how images can be used to tell a story. In collaboration with cinematographer Claude Renoir, Clouzot devises an intricate system that allows the audience to see Picasso's paintings come to life almost in real-time; it's not animation, but actuality; although it sometimes has the same effect. In doing so, the filmmakers provide an extraordinary insight into the famed artist's methodology, his abilities and approach.


Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life [The Brothers Quay, 1995]:

Watched Apr 07, 2018

Having discovered and explored many of the animated works of the Quay's during the course of 2017, I was very keen to check out their first live action feature, the beguilingly titled Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. As with their earlier works, such as Nocturne Artificialia: Those Who Desire Without End (1979), the acclaimed Street of Crocodiles (1985) and the underrated Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988), Institute Benjamenta is a slow, carefully composed and stylised work that carries a definite European influence. Its tone and stylisations owe something of a debt to Jean Cocteau - specifically his Beauty and the Beast (1946) - as well as Eastern-European folk tales; to say nothing of the legacy of its author, the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser. Enigmatic and inscrutable to the point of rejecting almost all logical interpretations, the Quay's sub-textual deconstruction of Walser's 1909 novella, Jakob von Gunten, embraces a dreamlike, almost fairy-tale narrative, which envelops rather than compels. While themes of incest, repression and existentialism seem to circle, the film impresses more as a work of carefully designed and beautifully photographed craftsmanship, where individual sequences of intricately choreographed sound and movement stand out.