Going Clear is kind of astonishing. I knew Scientology was both dodgy and ridiculous but I had no idea just how messed up the whole thing is. We’re not just talking conning people out of money with ludicrous promises, there’s a huge amount of serious abuse involved. Some of the tales told are jaw-droppingly awful, and the fact that they’re coming from a significant number of ex-members who’ve since come to their senses gives their stories a fair amount of veracity. Framing this from the point of view of these ex-scientologists is a powerful and vital technique. You see that these people are genuinely ashamed of what they’ve done. You see how easily people can be brainwashed. It gives the film relevance outside the specific context of Scientology. It’s a souped-up case study that lays bare the manipulative inner workings of organised religion.
The Wind is one of those expressionistic late period silents that makes me feel like maybe they had perfected the art form until sound came along and ruined everything. I may be exaggerating just a bit, but there is certainly something special here. Seldom have any modern films created such indelible imagery as we see in The Wind, and there’s something in the restrictions that the silent, black and white medium imposes which enhances that. The version I watched (below) gives it a new soundtrack, though as with most silent films, there never was any ‘original’, but we can say that this soundtrack isn’t an official one. However I’m glad I watched this rather than anything official because the music is so much better than accompanies most silents, which tend to range from mildly annoying to actively detrimental. A traditional tinkly piano or full orchestra is most common. Here instead the music is modernist, subtle, nuanced. It complements the film perfectly. It’s a shame about the poor image quality in this link, but I couldn’t find anything better. The Wind contains some of the most wonderful imagery I’ve seen in a film, but so much of it is hidden behind the macro-blocking of web compression. It deserves a proper restoration.
Compositionally, Ida is one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen. I always love the 4:3 aspect ratio and Ida makes brilliant use of it. It’s exactly the type of filmmaking I love – cool, measured, still, quiet, distant. It was surprising then that I was left feeling there was just a little something missing. Perhaps it was too cool and too distant and too quiet? Perhaps it just requires a re-watch. But I’m nonetheless impressed. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful digitally shot films out there, one of the most beautiful films in general. I’ll let the images speak for themselves. Looking for frames to use, I very nearly screencapped the entire film, the whole thing is gorgeous. I almost feel like I could learn everything I would ever need to know about cinematography just by watching it over and over again.
A couple of years ago, I was astonished by Jeanne Dielman, taking the opportunity to watch it while it was available for free on Hulu (it’s still not had a dvd release in the UK, and nor has the rest of her work). So it was sad to learn about the director Chantal Akerman’s suicide in October. In response, Criterion made all of their Akerman films free to view again for a short period, and feeling guilty of only ever having seen her most famous film while she was alive, I decided to binge. All were interesting durational works, though some survive their duration better than others (or rather, I survived the duration of some better than others). To be honest I expected to discover that Akerman was a one-hit-wonder, that her debut at the age of 25 would end up being her one and only masterpiece. Based on interviews, it’s apparent that Akerman had similar fears herself, but I’m pleased to say it’s not true. Jeanne Dielman may still be my favourite but that should in no way detract from the brilliance of her other work. News From Home rigorously follows a simple concept. On the soundtrack Akerman reads out her mother’s letters to her while we are shown only shots of New York, where the Belgian Akerman had recently moved to. It doesn’t sound much like material for a feature film, but the result is heartbreaking. The fact that she doggedly sticks to this concept is what makes it work so well, because it’s about what we aren’t being shown more than what we are. There’s a palpable sense of avoidance and guilt that is so much more powerful for not being addressed by the imagery. Les Rendezvous d’Anna is a completely different kind of film. Where News From Home is a sort of personal, experimental essay film, this is a more traditional piece of fiction. It’s not as austere or rigorous as Jeanne Dielman but form and duration are played with as always, and it makes for some remarkable scenes and shots. Chantelle Akerman made the kind of films I would never have the guts to make. They remind me of a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
A few months ago I was working on a project for an artist, editing together clips of different films. We used a striking scene from Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent, but I knew nothing else about the film. I recently got the chance to see it in full, and it is indeed a very good film with some wonderful imagery, but it didn’t quite make my favourites list. Then I watched the same director’s Wings (not to be confused with the American first Best Picture Winner). I loved it, but I wish I had written some notes at the time explaining why, because my memory has forsaken me on detail. It follows a former female soviet fighter pilot, now bored by her life as a school headteacher. I will say it reminded me of Dreyer’s Gertrud, which should be high praise enough.
In October I screened Mary No More at my very first film festival, NoGloss in Leeds. I don’t particularly enjoy watching my own work, but there was one film screening there, an Iranian feature film Marzipan Flowers, that was really excellent. It was a real find for a small DIY festival and deserved its Audience Award, which it won despite having a much smaller audience that many others that screened. It’s a difficult film to explain. An average middle-aged woman moves into a flat with a flamboyant trans woman – who is the real highlight of the film, an extraordinary performance in a film of extraordinary performances. What’s more it’s funny, the filmmaking is inventive and it showed me a whole new side of Iranian culture I had never thought about before. Being accepted into a film festival for the first time I had mixed feeling about what I wanted and expected from the other films. On one hand I wanted to the standard to be good, so that its the sort of festival with which I’d be proud to be associated. But then there’s also that mischievous desire for the others to fail, because I want to be better. Marzipan Flowers may have been much better than my own entry but in the end I didn’t really mind at all, because it deserved it, and deserves to be seen and known.
Gun Crazy – A masterclass in camera movement. It’s one of Scorsese’s favourites, and you can see the influence on the way he moves his camera. It’s got a cringeworthy childhood opening but this quickly gives way to an inventive and seductive fatalistic noir, told via some top class filmmaking.
Darkman is a very silly film, in that wonderful way that only Sam Raimi seems to be able to achieve. In another’s hands it would have been forgettable trash. The Chin’s inevitable cameo is granted at the perfect moment, though I won’t spoil it here.
Edge of Tomorrow is not the kind of film I would usually bother with (mainstream Tom Cruise Hollywood identikit actioner? I’m alright, thanks) but word on the street suggested it was better than it sounds, so I gave it a try. I never expected it would join the esteemed company of my favourites list, but I really did enjoy it that much. The concept may not be totally original – essentially it’s a cross between Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers. But then, doesn’t that sound pretty interesting? Turns out it is. Not that it’s perfect. It’s not as smart as Groundhog Day, and not as mad as Starship Troopers. It would be nice to see them deal with these complex themes in a more intelligent fashion, but at least it gets the existentialism spot on and it’s surprisingly dark for a mainstream film. Add that to some brilliantly executed action and powerful use of repeated images and they’ve created a film that kept me riveted throughout. I’m not a fan of Tom Cruise on a personal level (especially after watching Going Clear…) but I have to admit he does this sort of thing extremely well. The supporting actors are well cast too – it’s always nice to see Noah Taylor, and he’s never the same twice. Emily Blunt stands out above them all, and she certainly seems to have good taste in the action roles she chooses. I can’t help but be reminded of Looper, which was great in some of the same sorts of ways.
November brought film festival number two – Aesthetica in York. A huge affair showing over 300 short films, I was lucky enough to get the best venue, with Mary No More on 3 times at a proper Picturehouse Cinema. With so many films showing I didn’t see many that ended up getting the awards, but it seemed like they had fairly good taste because my favourite from the festival, Drifters won in the experimental category. In lieu of a conventional structure it is more of a portrait of an actress made up of fragmented moments, often abstracted from their context. But they are excellent moments played with truth, conviction, and vulnerability. One of its strengths is that amongst its experimental structure, all the great ideas and formal play, the focus is always psychological. The fragments are quiet and relatable (her reaction to the man on the bus!), serving to be highly engaging as it gradually puts each piece of the portrait together. I couldn’t help thinking of Lynch – not least because she reminds me of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. But that’s no bad thing. Often with great films I get this bittersweet feeling, recognition of a great idea but wishing I could have thought of it myself. Its a feeling that struck me several times during Drifters. I can foresee Anu Valia’s style working very well indeed for a feature, and I’m suitably jealous.
Children of Heaven. A story about Iranian children and a lost pair of shoes. Impressive in its simplicity, it reminds me of The Apu Trilogy, or Bicycle Thieves. It goes deep into the children’s world, which we experience from their point of view. Small details make up the drama of their lives. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to make. But simplicity like this isn’t as easy as it looks.
The Last Temptation of Christ – Marty’s trippy bible story. (Sort of.) Willem Defoe as Jesus is not your obvious casting but it’s quite possibly the one detail that makes everything else work. He’s not a beautiful, serene, perfect prophet. He’s an ugly mess. Yet Defoe still brings a ‘holy’ quality to the role, for lack of a better word. Keitel is also good, though his bright red perm is a bit distracting to say the least. There are some other nice bits of casting dotted around: Harry Dean Stanton is always welcome, plus a lovely cameo that was all the lovelier because I wasn’t expecting it, so I won’t ruin it for you either. This is probably the best film I’ve seen based on religious lore (is that the right word?) because it is self aware and it doesn’t preach. It’s humanised. But still trippy.
A simple little parable from Norman McLaren, that’s creative and fun, violent and dark. All too sadly, recognisably human. This one can be watched here
So that’s that. Those were the best films I watched in 2015. Maybe you should watch them too. I recommend them.
I’ve seen this one way too many times by now but If you haven’t, Mary No More is now online, free, and unshackled from its oppressive password:
The earlier parts to this post still exist, if you’re the completist type: