Before the year was out I intended to write up my favourites of the films I saw in 2016. It’s almost March. The moment has passed. So I’ll write a looser series of posts around those same films – no one cares when I watched them, the important thing is that they’re good.
Most people would list the best films released theatrically that year, and being in the middle of awards season makes that pretty relevant. I can’t do this myself, for one important reason: I only saw three new releases in 2016, and none of the current awards slate. So-called cinephile. It’s too expensive and I’m poor, but even if I wasn’t the screening conditions are not nearly good enough to justify the price. Digital projection is still lacking, though granted we are still in a transitional period and this will improve (the technology is all but there, just too expensive for anyone but the big hitters). Worse are marks on the screen, crooked or cropped projection and distractingly placed lights, which is even more of a problem if it flares in your 3D glasses, not that the 3D experience is usually up to scratch anyway. Granted there are personal aspects too – not having perfect hearing, I’d often rather watch at home with subtitles and not miss anything. Cinema visits are usually saved for social occasions and opportunities to see older films on the big screen – me and mine enjoyed Pepe Le Moko and Lift to the Scaffold last year. Even this is often marred by poor quality, as demonstrated by our first cinema visit of 2017, Jaques Demy’s Lola, a good film but clearly just played off a DVD. I could have done that at home. They really shouldn’t be allowed to do that without telling you. The big cine-event of 2016 was the re-release of Napoleon on the big screen but, for the price they were asking (£19!) they could have at least put it on their actual big screen, not one of the smaller ones, particularly given that the ultra-wide ‘triptych’ section is one of the big selling points. I gave it a miss and I suspect I’ll get a better experience from the blu ray disk. Size is overrated. At least the image will be framed correctly without cropping any of the picture out. I am still baffled that cinemas can’t seem to get this right, when the room is surely designed for it. This isn’t a dig at my local Picturehouse, but a lamentation about cinema projection in general. If they want people who care to keep going then they’ve got to improve things or make it much cheaper. Probably both. I suspect things are better in London, but I don’t live there.
Am I being harsh, picky? Certainly working with video myself has made me a lot more attentive to these issues, especially when I have to go through the ordeal of watching my own films projected. To be fair, the best screening I’ve had by far was at a Picturehouse cinema, but even then there were problems in representing colour and contrast. When it comes to sound Mark Cousins recently lamented that cinemas are too quiet, that they should be as loud as a rock concert where appropriate – I have to agree. The whole point of cinemas, surely, is to offer what you can’t get at home. Multiplexes do seem better in this respect, (and in many others – I suppose they can afford it) but there is still a sense that they’re holding back. I’m sometimes told that certain technical aspects ‘don’t matter’ in a dismissive attitude that people wouldn’t dream of applying to serious art. That’s the diminished standing of cinema as an art form. It’s fine not to have developed an eye or ear for such things (I certainly don’t have the ear) but can we not all agree that ideally, we’d want the best perceptual fidelity as possible? Especially if we’re paying so much for them. And if we can’t agree on that, why not? People wouldn’t take that attitude towards paintings. I’ve only ever seen digital reproductions of Girl With A Pearl Earring – I like it a lot and feel I can get a decent sense of it without seeing the original. It’s not exactly cheap or convenient to go to Holland whenever you wanted, after all. But if I was going to pay to go and see it, of course I would want to see the original. And if not, it would be better to see a more detailed representation of greater fidelity than a little discoloured postcard print, though this too may well do in a pinch. The more accurate representation is clearly better when it comes to paintings. To deny this of film is to deny its status as a visual art, instead just a conduit for narrative information. Cinema is lots of things, and they’re all important. Of course films don’t really have ‘originals’, especially in our digital age. Reproduction always was integral to cinema – that’s part of what makes it great, and what makes it the medium of the masses. It’s fidelity that’s important, to experience the thing as close to how its creators have intended as possible. This becomes very clear in screening my own work – I want people to see it the way I made it. Of course we all make necessary sacrifices in fidelity based on cost and accessibility. The vast majority of us can’t access film prints in our own private cinemas. We make trade-offs because we know that we’re not losing too much. But for me, cinemas are supposed to be the professionals. The film galleries, the protectors of fidelity in our convenience age. We need to know that when we go, we are seeing the film at its best. Failing that, they need to be cheap and accessible.
I did see 3 new releases in the cinema last year: Hail Casear, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight. These were released towards the beginning of the year when all worthwhile films seem to be released (or maybe I’m still in celebratory mode – with Christmas and Birthday, I am freer with my money). But alas, no new Tarantino or Coen films this winter. That’s no visits to see new films at the cinema since March. That pattern has started repeating this year with a few cinema visits already, though again, these are mainly older or foreign films (including Toni Erdmann – one of the best films I’ve ever seen – though I’ll talk about that some other time). 2017 is shaping up to be an even worse year for the Hollywood mainstream than 2016 was, but perhaps that’s no great loss. The talent is pooling in other areas, definitions of film are blurring. It says something that one of the few 2016 releases I watched was Mascots, on Netflix. Which is very enjoyable but not up to the standards of Best in Show, which it is obviously trying to replicate (and the photography is ugly). I did catch up with several 2015 releases, without being very impressed – Mockingjay pt. 2 (the worst in a good series), Bridge of Spies (promisingly low-key, the ending ruins it), Steve Jobs (fine, but up itself), Macbeth (great when it’s simple but keeps complicating things), The Martian (good premise but ultimately not successful), The Good Dinosaur (dull and simplistic by Pixar’s standards), Ant-Man (Edgar Wright’s version could have been great, this isn’t.), Straight Outta Compton (disappointingly cliched), Spectre (some crunchy fights but lacks what made Skyfall great), Trainwreck (some great jokes and performances – Tilda! – but poor narrative), Jurassic World (why did I watch this?) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (A mess, the chaos doesn’t seem to have consequences, but Paul Bettany’s big perfect purple person is bizarrely great). To be fair, I didn’t expect much from many of these titles in the first place. Peer pressure more than anything. Remember kids: Just Say No. It’s proof at least that I’m willing to watch mediocre films in order to stay part of the cinema conversation. I’m just not often willing to pay cinema prices to do it.
That last paragraph sounds harsh and snobbish, reading it back. Well it is. I’m just sick of watching bland films when there is so much genuinely interesting stuff out there. We only have so much time.
Fairing a bit better were Me, Earl and The Dying Girl, Inside Out, The Big Short, Shaun the Sheep and Hitchcock/Truffaut, but only 2 that I watched from 2015 made my favourites: Ex Machina and Wild Tales. I wrote briefly about Ex Machina at the beginning of the year, January being the only time I can muster the motivation to write these things (hello again – taken a bit longer this time), at New-Year’s insistence on me being a proper person who writes things. It’s a borderline favourite for me, I liked it a lot yet something didn’t quite sit right. I’ve forgotten much of it a year later. Oscar Issac dancing. Some impressive effects. The faint whiff of Black Mirror. Wild Tales was a real find though – brutal, unforgiving, the blackest of humour. It always keeps one foot in the land of movies – the surreal, the unreal, the constructed – so we don’t make the mistake of taking it too seriously, so we can enjoy it’s movieness without too much guilt. After all, what’s more cinematic than a revenge story? Six of them, apparently. Strong concepts are executed expertly, building vital empathy along with the suspense. I suppose this one feels a bit like Black Mirror too, in all the best ways. The pace starts to wane a little in the last two segments and almost drags the film down with it, but just as it was losing me it reels me back in again with a great reversal, that rarest of things, a perfectly judged ending.
Sorry for the largely negative post. I always want to retain the integrity to speak my mind, but in doing so I have almost certainly offended many people by dismissing films they like. Of course ‘many’ is not an accurate description of the number of people who will read this, so you’ll have to take that last sentence hypothetically. Anyway, I thought I’d get the whining out of the way. The next one will be more aligned with the spirit of that Wild Tales review at the end: full of pure love for brilliant films.