What follows is a collection of scattered notes about my favourite films in 2015. Not necessarily films that were released last year, just some fragmented thoughts about films that I watched and liked. As every year ends and the film lists come pouring out, I lament that I never wrote down what I thought about films as I watched them, because by then I have largely forgotten what I liked and why. So last year I stopped wishing and started doing. I wanted to note down at least some small thought for each film but consistency isn’t my forte, so some films I discuss at length and for some I forgot to write anything at all. I will try harder this year (although I’m already off to a bad start – must remember to figure out what I thought of Ex-Machina.)
My only aim in these notes was to write down whatever strikes me. Images, moments, techniques. Whatever I’m thinking about when the film ends. The very best films often give me ideas or make me feeling differently about my own work, so sometimes I write about that too. A lot of this is about trying to figure out what thrills me about cinema and how to apply it myself. Anyway, I’ll begin at the beginning of the year, then go on until I come to the end. Then stop. More or less.
The year began with Birdman. The percussive soundtrack was great. On one hand it’s nice that this is becoming more common (drums used similarly in the series Fargo). On the other hand it’s annoying because I wanted to do this, but by the time I get round to it it’ll practically be a cliché. Still, its nice to see an intelligent evolution of the movie soundtrack in the last few years. There have been several uses of music that I have actually liked! Which is unusual for me. Under The Skin comes to mind. So I’m warming up to movie music, but it’s still used atrociously 90% of the time.
Skolimowski’s Deep End was great, except for the awful ADR and the unnecessary ‘dramatic’ ending – it was going along quite well enough without having to kill someone off for a final thrill (er, spoilers, sorry).
Harakiri. Visually flawless. The black and white cinematography is immaculate, and was well served by the Masters of Cinema Blu Ray. Immaculate in most other ways too. In fact, extremely difficult to criticise at all.
The Bill Douglas trilogy was one of my biggest cinematic revelations this year, if not in all my film-watching years:
My Childhood is my kind of film. Particularly in its use of music (i.e. none, except diegetic), which only enhances the stark brutality that is at times very difficult to watch. You couldn’t exactly call the film well crafted, but it is all the more poetic for its rough edges. Definitely my kind of thing.
My Ain Folk Another mini-revelation. That shot of his grandma, sitting in her chair, we don’t know she knows he’s there behind her, under the table. Suddenly she stretches her hand back out towards us, and him. Lingers for a moment. That cut. He’s sitting on her lap. She stares at him. The stillness. Like Bresson. And not to forget that brilliant beginning: Colour film, Lassie, the boy watching in a cinema, cuts to black and white. The colourful square frame of the cinema then echoed in a stark black and white landscape, framed in a miner’s lift. The landscape slides off the screen as the lift descends.
My Way Home ended the trilogy with the same brilliance. Bill Douglas makes me want to make my own shots longer and stiller. He strengthens my resolve, my dedication to stasis and the cut. Bill Douglas is a revelation.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg was romantic in all the best sorts of ways.
I began the Apu Trilogy in 2014 but finished it with Aparajito and The World of Apu:
Aparajito. As with Pather Panchali there was much to admire, but it took its time to grab me before coalescing at the end. I liked that the train continued its function as an important motif, and that the emotional payoffs come from small gestures, usually revolving around objects. In PP, After his sister dies Apu finds a necklace that she had denied stealing years ago, and immediately runs out to throw it in the lake before anyone saw. Aparajito never quite reaches this high, but comes close. Apu pretends to miss the train after it’s clear that his mother is unhappy with him leaving so soon. And the subtle prompt of a matchbox towards the end of the film, casting our memory back to the matchbox Apu borrows for his mother shortly before his father died. We see Apu looking at it, and the return to his sick mother, who is hoping for him to return. This symbolic jolt puts us in mind that he may return too despite his words, but he doesn’t.
The World of Apu: His wife, her calm, serene manor. The way they walk around on the balcony and the way they wait for the train to go past. That train, a symbol of hope and joy in the first two films, now seems angry, ugly, piercing.
The beautiful minimalist music of Gion Bayashi, soft cymbal and drums (which Under The Skin evokes). If I have to use music at all, I would want to do it like this. It’s also to do with the subtlety of the music – it’s quiet and spacious, almost as if it could be coming from outside. But it does become a little too sentimental and conventional with the strings towards the end. Not to forget the gorgeous cinematography. A lovely low-contrast feel, the print is severely scratched but still looks beautiful (Masters of Cinema are good at that). I bought this double-film disk for Sansho the Bailiff, which I loved the first time round, but now found a little mawkish. I fell in love with Gion Bayashi instead.
“I wanna see people putting secret things in fucking cars…” I like Richard Linklater but Slacker exceeded all my expectations. Jenny and I watched this on my birthday eve and we both agreed it is his best film, better even than Dazed and Confused and the Before films. The dreamlike quality of it (evident again later in Waking Life) is almost hypnotic, constantly engaging without the need for a narrative through-line. It’s also consistently funny and bizarre. In one scene a character posits a theory about how The Smurfs is propaganda to prepare children for the coming of Krishna. The strength of the film is that despite its highly surreal nature, it really captures something about life in every scene.
To be followed, at some point, by February, and the other months.