Films of 2018

Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I saw roughly 406 films for the first time in 2018.

I say ‘roughly’ because this figure is not entirely accurate, since there are a couple of films that I went to watch only to realise that I had seen them before, or at the very least to suspect that I had seen them before (In Praise of Nothing being a case in point).

What is more, there are some films that I saw at the Strange Days exhibition at London’s 180 Strand, but which are not listed here (Pipilotti Rist’s 4th Floor to Mildness functions as a stand-in for all of the ones that I did see).

On that topic, there are two gallery/installation films that I enjoyed a lot, but which I did not get to see in full, those being Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Tate Modern and Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow at the Strange Days exhibition. Of the former, I managed to see from 10:02 through to about 18:00 – although there is one final all-night session in January 2019 that may allow me to see the film in its entirety provided that I go and that I stay awake for it. And of the latter, I only managed about half an hour, but it was hypnotising and I would like to see more (it is available on YouTube, but I have not had a chance to see it).

Beyond that, I saw 220 films at the cinema this year, making it the most common venue for my film viewing. This was followed by 144 films that I saw online, 22 films that I saw on DVD, VHS or from a file, 11 films that I saw on an aeroplane, 7 listed here that I saw at galleries, and two that I saw on television.

This includes various short(er) films.

The distinction between cinema and online continues to be eroded, in that many films are readily available online at the same time that they are in theatres. I would say that when I see a film like Bird Box, and I can see the image blur as the internet connection wavers, or when I see a film like Mudbound and I can see streaks of grey (as well as my own reflection) in the black of a nocturnal scene as my laptop cannot handle the tonality of darkness… then I feel that the theatre is still the best venue for watching films.

I fell asleep during a relatively large number of films this year, but I did not keep a record. That said, I did sense that I was beginning to fall asleep on occasion during mainstream films, which previously was only a very rare occurrence. Perhaps I need more sleep, or to change my lifestyle in numerous ways (drink less, stop smoking, do more exercise, watch fewer films, not work so hard, learn to be an adult, and so on). All the same, though, maybe blockbusters are having less of an effect on grabbing my attention than they used to.

I also noted that I would check and answer messages on my phone more regularly during film screenings. I am not sure how to stop the endless tide of messages or the insistent compulsion to answer them. In part this may be because watching films can sometimes still feel like skiving.

There are a few filmmakers by whom I saw several films this year, and these include Ingmar Bergman (as part of the retrospective of his work at the British Film Institute), Alia Syed and Kamran Shirdel (as part of events organised through the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image), and then Philippe Garrel, Krzysztof Zanussi, Mark Cousins, Angela Schanelec, Rick Alverson, Kevin Jerome Everson, Barbara Hammer, Annemarie Jacir, John Torres, Lou Ye, Gérard Courant, John Carpenter, Douglas Sirk, James Marsh and Christoph Schlingensief. These latter are mainly as a result of retrospectives on MUBI, although some are also a result of me wanting to catch various of their films out of a sense of failure at not having seen them already (Carpenter), or simply because they seem to have been productive (Mark Cousins and James Marsh, who, via The Mercy and King of Thieves, seemed this year to begin a trend of Brit-film mediocrity that I hope does not last too long).

Of these, the work of Jacir and Everson was in particular a pleasant discovery, while my engagement with Torres was more a case of finally reaching a destination that I had been meaning to visit for a few years. I enjoy but continue not to be blown away by Garrel, while Schlingensief is (or rather was) perhaps one of the most interesting and subversive European filmmakers of the contemporary era. Indeed, without wishing to sound too much like an arrogant c-unit, Schlingensief and Torres would in particular make excellent case studies of what I term ‘non-cinema,’ and about which I published a book this year.

On this note, I also saw a handful of South African films this year (Love The One You LoveThe Wound, We Are Thankful, Revenge, Girl from Nowhere, as well as a couple of experimental shorts not listed below by Jyoti Mistry and Nobunye Levin), some that I preferred more than others… but of which Love The One You Love and We Are Thankful struck me as really strong low-budget pieces of work (and which thus might qualify as what I term ‘non-cinema’). In particular I’d in the future look out for work by Jenna Bass, the director of the former, as well as further work by Mistry and Levin.

Other films that I saw (but which might not necessarily be new), and which might qualify as good examples of ‘non-cinema’ (and which for me were memorable viewing experiences) include Joséphine Ndagnou’s Paris à tout prix, Eric Eason’s Manito, Li Ning’s Tape, Khoa Do’s The Finished People and Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal.

What was also interesting for me was to think about my conceptualisation of non-cinema in relation to the work of Kevin Jerome Everson mentioned above. Briefly put, non-cinema is a way of thinking about low-budget, anti-hegemonic filmmaking (read, work that critiques or offers alternatives to white, heteronormative patriarchy), and which at times is wilfully (but not necessarily) anti-commercial. In particular the argument tries to work productively with the idea that the digital is in some senses not cinema anymore in terms of production (celluloid) and distribution (theatres). And so if for various reasons it is ‘not cinema,’ then maybe we can positively say that it is ‘non-cinema.’

Should anyone ever read the book, one of the issues that they might have with it is that I want or insist that filmmakers who do not belong to white, heteronormative patriarchy somehow should or must produce ‘non-cinema,’ meaning that the wonders of cinema remain the preserve of the powerful.

This is not the intention behind my argument at all and I do try in the book to make clear that ‘non-cinema’ is still (or at least can still be) ‘cinematic’ (whatever that means), while also (perhaps without articulating it in so many words) wishing to encourage film viewers to consider that various of the things that they might consider to be ‘bad’ or ‘not even’ cinema are not necessarily a result of inferior filmmaking abilities (which is to create hierarchies of power), but that they might be positive choices, expressions of difference, perhaps especially expressions of a lack of access to power (especially money-as-power since many filmmakers simply cannot afford to make films that are as pristine as a Hollywood production), and thus aesthetically innovative should we have the eyes and ears to think about them in that way.

In other words, non-cinema is a tool to try to level the playing field of film aesthetics, which in turn might help to level the playing field of our political world, not least because aesthetics play such a central role in our political thinking (the political message is perhaps not as important as how it is presented, i.e. its aesthetic dimension; in cinema, he who makes the most noise and who has the flashiest colour palette is often/in many popular quarters considered to be the winner).

From this, it hopefully would be clear that one can make ‘cinema’ and still be anti-hegemonic (nothing necessarily precludes this, although the closer one gets to cinema there may well yet be a tendency to have to make films that try to make money simply because of how much it costs to make a film). Indeed, to make cinema can still be subversive, and this to me is the power of Everson’s films.

For, by regularly using polyester film stock to portray the everyday lives of working African Americans, Everson surely does ask viewers to consider his subjects to be equally as cinematic/as worthy of cinema as the figures that we see in mainstream, commercial cinema. This gesture is profound and powerful, and I would hope that it works in tandem with filmmakers who embrace non-cinema (low budget digital filmmaking) in order equally to level the playing field. Both are, I hope, working towards creating a more just and democratic world.

Perhaps it does not merit mention in the year after Get Out that African American filmmaking appears to be especially strong, with Black Panther being a necessary film to mention given its status as the first ‘black’ superhero movie (even if I personally had some issues with the film, as I have issues with superhero fantasies more generally, and even if I feel that the Saturday Night Live episode of ‘Black Jeopardy’ with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa was not only one of the most enjoyable audiovisual experiences that I had in 2018, but also politically one of the most astute and powerful).

Nonetheless, one thing that struck me about the films that I saw in 2018 concerning the African American experience (if I can put it that way) is the legacy of Spike Lee. This is not to disregard other figures in the rich history of African American filmmaking, nor is it to disregard Boots Riley’s criticism of Lee concerning the latter’s BlacKkKlansman. But films like Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting seem to carry strong traces of Lee’s influence, with Lee’s work itself remaining relevant and which, when considered as a whole, is relentlessly brave, even if personally I can sometimes find it derivative and testing. One thing is for sure: he continues to experiment and to push himself as a filmmaker, and in this respect he is nothing less than admirable (if that is not too condescending a thing to say).

Lee’s influence can also be seen in films like Justin Chon’s Gook, which tells the tale of American Korean Angelinos, and the turn to which also helps us to consider how currently there is equally a growing visibility of Asian Americans in contemporary cinema – with John Cho being a central figure in this growth as he begins to hold together films as varied as internet rescue film Searching and architecture essay-film Columbus.

(Can one summarise 2018 without mentioning Crazy Rich Asians…? Maybe this single mention is enough.)

I did also see two films by Steven Spielberg in 2018, those being The Post and Ready Player One, the latter of which was my first 4DX experience, and which ideologically annoyed me quite a lot – but so be it. I was also mildly disappointed by some of the Netflix films that did not get (much in the way of) theatrical releases in the UK, including Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox.

But rather than linger on disappointments, perhaps one might instead celebrate achievements, and in this sense 2018 saw a fair amount of what I would consider to be strong American films coming out. Among these I might include I, Tonya (a hangover from 2017), the afore-mentioned BlindspottingBlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You, ColumbusLeave No TraceAmerican AnimalsMid90s, TullyLuckyThe Old Man and the GunRalph Breaks the Internet and Assassination Nation (which nearly sustained its headfuck aesthetic until the end).

Indeed, while I shall list below my ‘proper’ favourites of the year (these ones that I am discussing currently being points of interest and ever-so-nearly my favourites), I was worried that American filmmaking might run away with it this year, not least because a whole bunch of films by big-name world auteurs (including by non-Americans) were fine, but did not quite do it for me in the way that some of their earlier work has done. By this I mean that while I saw films by the likes of Jia Zhangke (Ash is Purest White), Lars von Trier (The House that Jack Built), Kore-eda Hirokazu (The Third Murder and Shoplifters), Pawel Pawlikowsi (Cold War), Steve McQueen (Widows), Fatih Akin (In the Fade), Corneliu Porumboiu (Infinite Football), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), Ruben Östlund (The Square), Jafar Panahi (3 Faces), Andrei Zvyagintsev (Loveless) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), these did not quite do it for me (even though I liked a good number of these films a lot).

A list of films that really came quite close to doing it for me include Jacir’s Wajib, Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, Naomi Kawase’s Radiance, Robin Campillo’s 120BPM, Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra, Frederick Wiseman’s Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. I liked Paul King’s Paddington 2. Both Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite are great films that really have at their core magnificent performances by female leads (respectively Yalitza Aparicio and Olivia Colman, although Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz from the latter are worth mentioning, too – with Weisz having also shone alongside Rachel McAdams and the under-rated Alessandro Nivola in Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience).

I might also say that The Favourite made me think that Peter Greenaway’s legacy remains strong, as well as leading me to believe that the film is perhaps the best Grexit-Brexit comment to have been made in the recent past – not least in the face of much ongoing and conservative British cinema (although Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is also a beautiful investigation into Anglo-European relations up in Yorkshire).

In a year that also saw The Greatest Showman and Mary Poppins Returns saturate our big screens, the legacy of Baz Luhrmann also seemed to loom large, making me wonder what he is up to and why he seems not have any projects along the lines of his best work (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + JulietMoulin Rouge!) on the go. Hopefully these would be more enjoyable than the two musicals mentioned above – even if my niece insisted on dancing repeatedly to ‘A Million Dreams’ and ‘Never Enough’ from the former throughout the Christmas period.

Returning to the UK in the era of Brexit, William English’s It’s My Own Invention, which I caught randomly at the Close-Up Centre one night early in 2018, has really stuck with me as a kind of bizarre insight into insanity as it charts the life of Hugh de la Cruz, who claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine. It perhaps chastened me with regard to my own propensity for insanity.

Although a couple of years old, I might mention Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road as one of the best essay-films that I saw for the first time in 2018, with Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson’s The Green Fog being a beautiful and very funny video-essay on San Francisco as depicted in cinema (and which thus shares a lot of ground with my forthcoming video-essay on the Golden Gate Bridge).

Finally, out of retrospective films that I saw at the cinema in 2018, I might make mention of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 film The Land, which was beautifully restored and screened at the Ciné Lumière as part of the SAFAR Film Festival 2018.

And so now we can come to my personal favourites of 2018, which number 9 in total and which appear below in no particular order:-

Between Fences by Avi Mograbi, a film (actually from 2016 and which I saw online, but what the heck) about acting workshops with African refugees in a camp in the Negev desert. This made me want to make films like it, while also leading me to read Augusto Boal, who is an influence on theatre director Chen Alon, who with Mograbi ran the workshops.

The Nothing Factory by Pedro Pinho, which is a weird micro-budget musical about workers on strike at a lift factory in Lisbon.

You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay, which has at its core a towering performance by Joaquin Phoenix, an incredible score by Jonny Greenwood and some of the most taut directing from Lynne Ramsay at the absolute peak of her powers.

A Deal with the Universe by Jason Barker. This no-budget diary film is about a man transitioning from being a woman, but who delays said transition in order to have a child. Tender and beautiful.

First Reformed by Paul Schrader. After The Canyons (which I secretly admire but do not particularly like), this came from nowhere – and is about as impassioned a film about environmental disaster as one can hope to see.

Summer 1993 by Carla Simón. A heartbreaking film about an orphan girl taken in by her aunt and uncle and which left me sobbing.

The Rider by Chloé Zhao, which uses non-professional actors from the world of rodeo to tell the story of the decline of the American west – and which also left me devastated and hiding in the cinema until the credits had finished so that I could have a good cry and time to dry my eyes unseen.

The Flower by Mariano Llinás. A kind of compendium of six separate feature films in one and all starring the same cast, this 14-and-a-half-hour long film becomes completely hypnotic and is a wonderful example of infinite storytelling, of the sort that Llinás’s fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges would endorse, and which keeps alive the Scheherazadean tradition of storytelling as life (it also made me love Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights even more for doing something similar).

The Wild Pear Tree by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which is for me his strongest film. Ceylan continues to edit across different takes in such a way that one gets a sense of not a single story world, but parallel universes that all talk to each other. This film features perhaps the most beautiful scene of love that I can remember, as ne’er-do-well Sinan talks to his old crush Hatice by a tree. Furthermore, I felt chastised by the film for sharing many of Sinan’s faults, such that I really want to change my life and endeavour to be a better person… even if now in the fog outside of the cinema, I continue to feel lost and unsure of what it is that I am supposed to do with existence.

Although the next film is not really among my favourites, this talk of changing my life does lead me to my final thoughts, various of which concern Weeks in the West End, a no-budget independent feature made by Ian Mantgani and which I saw as a result of an invitation from a friend (Hind Mezaina) at the Prince Charles Cinema on the eve of the London Film Festival.

It is a personal story about the filmmaker’s relationship with cinema and the way in which the London Film Festival annually brings about a strange set of rituals as one endures long days of film-viewing and long nights of partying and film discussion.

It is also in some senses a kind of love letter to the filmmaker’s then-partner, as well as an account of the disintegration of their relationship.

What is curious about the film is that I once asked out the filmmaker’s partner for a drink (at around the time that they got together if my understanding of their timeline is correct). However, the filmmaker’s ex turned me down, and so Weeks in the West End became this odd experience of feeling slightly sorry for myself (a sense of inferiority at not being as attractive as the filmmaker, at least in the eyes of his ex; a wonder at how my life could have turned out so differently).

But more than this, the film also became an exercise in seeing how the filmmaker’s obsession with cinema perhaps got in the way of his relationship, maybe even ending it.

Weeks in the West End might work as a piece of non-cinema in many respects, not least because so low budget, even if shot in a wilfully quirky fashion on film. However, the movie is also beholden to cinema, especially as it goes off on numerous tangents that aim to showcase Mantgani’s beautiful turns of phrase as he reviews films that he has seen at the festival.

Two thoughts.

Firstly, we do not see those films that are described, but just the title and what is written about them in the London Film Festival catalogue from 2017. Weeks in the West End seems desperately somehow to want to be cinema, and this desire to be cinema seems ultimately to be destructive of human relationships. Perhaps we should never love cinema more than we love people. Perhaps I also watch too many films, even if I try to hate and in some senses to destroy cinema in my filmmaking and in my writing about film and coming up with notions like ‘non-cinema,’ which various of my friends would tell me are worthy of Pseuds’ Corner. I must learn to be a better human being and to value others ahead of my stupid fantasies, which I must also try to shed in order to see other humans for themselves and not filtered through my idiocy (I must stop being an idle romantic dreaming of other worlds rather than helping to improve this one).

Secondly, Mantgani is a beautiful writer. The Wild Pear Tree is a contemplation of literature, while The Flower also feels very literary/novelistic in terms of how it is constructed and how long it takes to get through it (the same applies to An Elephant Sitting Still, which is based on Hu Bo’s own novel, to name but one more among various others mentioned above and below).

One of the most important conversations I had this year was about how many of the great filmmakers are also great readers – and about the ongoing and perhaps necessary relationship between literature and cinema (or between text and film more generally).

If indeed we are drifting into a world where people do not have the time or the patience for novels (especially ‘difficult’ novels), then this also will lead to the impoverishment of cinema (and perhaps by extension to the impoverishment of human relationships).

Let us continue to read and write in order to make and to understand films as best as we can.

Some people hate him, but Jean-Luc Godard perhaps still has it and is on point with his latest film, The Image Book, which in some ways is a consideration of the relationship between cinema and language/literature/text, between images and books, and which is also a proxime accessit film for me this year: I loved it, but only as much as other work of his and not as if I had seen something anew (hence not in my favourite favourite list).

But most of all this: if we love cinema and/or literature, then let us also see if we can learn to love each other.

Appendix
(featuring all of the films I saw in 2018)

[Blank = cinema; * = online; ^ = DVD/VHS/file; > = gallery/installation; // = television]

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan)
Menashe (Joshua Z. Weinstein)
Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
Youth (Feng Xiaogang)
Brad’s Status (Mike White)
Paddington 2 (Paul King)
Marius (Marcel Pagnol)
Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mondruczó)
Rey (Niles Attalah)
Glory (Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)
Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin)
Field Niggas (Khalik Allah)
Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonough)
Tempestad (Tatiana Huezo)
Swan (Alia Syed)
Unfolding (Alia Syed)
Syntax (Martha Haslanger)
Light Reading (Lis Rhodes)
Fatima’s Letter (Alia Syed)
Three Paces (Alia Syed)
Red Shift (Gunvor Nelson)
The Post (Steven Spielberg)
Attraction (Fyodor Bondarchuk)
Hex (George Popov and Jonathan Russell)
The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey)
Barbara (Mathieu Amalric)
A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof)
Radiance (Naomi Kawase)
Hannah (Andrea Pallaoro)
120 battements par minute (Robin Campillo)
A Fábrica de Nada (Pedro Pinho)
Downsizing (Alexander Payne)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Room for Let (Yuzo Kawashima)
The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman)
Makala (Emmanuel Gras)
Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
Loveless (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
The Mercy (James Marsh)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
It’s My Own Invention (William English)
It Rains on Our Love (Ingmar Bergman)
The Song of Cotton (Yuancheng Zhu)
The Worldly Cave (Zhou Tao)
From the Life of the Marionettes (Ingmar Bergman)
I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Dark River (Clio Barnard)
The Devil’s Eye (Ingmar Bergman)
La vendedora de fósforos (Alejo Moguillansky)
Vers la mer (Annik Leroy)
Rewind and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman)
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence)
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Gringo (Nash Edgerton)
Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton)
The Nile Hilton Incident (Tarik Saleh)
Women’s Prison (Kamran Shirdel)
Tehran is the Capital of Iran (Kamran Shirdel)
Women’s Quarter (Kamran Shirdel)
The Night It Rained, Or The Epic of a Gorgan Village Boy (Kamran Shirdel)
Gook (Justin Chon)
Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)
Tomorrow Never Knows (Adam Sekuler)
Luz Obscura (Susana de Sousa Dias)
Gholam (Mitra Tabrizian)
A Deal with the Universe (Jason Barker)
Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian)
The Third Murder (Kore-eda Hirokazu)
The Square (Ruben Östlund)
Peter Rabbit (Will Gluck)
Martyr (Mazen Khaled)
God’s Own Country (Francis Lee)
Ready Player One 4DX (Steven Spielberg)
Journeyman (Paddy Considine)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson)
The Camera: Je, or La Caméra: I (Babette Mangolte)
Pacific Rim: Uprising (Steven S. DeKnight)
The Finished People (Khoa Do)
The Sun Island (Thomas Elsaesser)
Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown)
Un beau soleil intérieur (Claire Denis)
The Wound (John Trengove)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
Beast (Michael Pearce)
Journey to the South (Jill Daniels)
Revenge (Coralie Fargeat)
Tully (Jason Reitman)
Shadow World (Johan Grimonprez)
Funny Cow (Adrian Shergold)
Le redoubtable (Michel Hazanavicius)
Deadpool 2 (David Leitch)
Jeune femme (Léonor Serraille)
Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard)
Entebbe (José Padilha)
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
L’amant double (François Ozon)
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Frontières (Apolline Traoré)
Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Christophe Honoré)
Una questione privata (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
Morocco (Josef von Sternberg)
Absolute Rest (Abdolreza Kahani)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (JA Bayona)
Veere di Wedding (Shashanka Ghosh)
Mobile Homes (Vladimir de Fontenay)
A Ciambra (Jonas Carpignano)
In The Fade (Fatih Akin)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Stefano Sollima)
The Women Weavers of Assam (Aparna Sharma)
Clem (William Brown)
Ocean’s Eight (Gary Ross)
Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Bao (Domee Shi)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Pin Cushion (Deborah Haywood)
Estiú 1993 (Carla Simón)
The Receptionist (Jenny Lu)
Generation Wealth (Lauren Greenfield)
Extinction (Salomé Lamas)
Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo)
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)
Mogambo (John Ford)
El Mar La Mar (Joshua Bonnetta and JP Sniadecki)
Cocote (Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed)
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
The Escape (Dominic Savage)
Las herederas (Marcelo Martinessi)
No Date, No Signature (Vahid Jalilvand)
The Eyes of Orson Welles (Mark Cousins)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)
The King (Eugene Jarecki)
Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson)
Searching (Aneesh Chaganty)
Robot Jox (Stuart Gordon)
Yardie (Idris Elba)
Baronesa (Juliana Antunes)
Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
The End of Fear (Barbara Visser)
American Animals (Bart Layton)
Home of the Resistance (Ivan Ramljak)
Uppland (Edward Lawrenson)
(In Praise of Nothing (Boris Mitić))
(Island (Steven Eastwood))
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan)
The Predator (Shane Black)
The Search (Hossam El Din Moustafa)
Stories of Passers Through (Koutaiba Al-Janabi)
Poisonous Roses (Ahmed Fawzi Saleh)
Scheherazade’s Diary (Zeina Daccache)
The Film of Kyiv (Oleksiy Radynski)
Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)
Diamond Island (Davy Chou)
We Don’t Care About Democracy. This Is What We Want: Love, Hope and Its Many Faces (John Torres)
I Have Sinned a Rapturous Sin (Maryam Tafakory)
The Land (Youssef Chahine)
Wajib (Annemarie Jacir)
Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno)
Marvin (Anne Fontaine)
The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
People Power Bombshell (John Torres)
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge)
Climax (Gaspar Noé)
El reino (Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Venom (Ruben Fleischer)
Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)
Weeks in the West End (Ian Mantgani)
Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle)
Wild Relatives (Jumana Manna)
Columbus (Kogonada)
aKasha (hajooj kuka)
Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
Kusama – Infinity (Heather Lenz)
The Wife (Björn Runge)
Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard)
La flor parte 1 (Mariano Llinás)
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (Mark Cousins)
La flor parte 2 (Mariano Llinás)
La flor parte 3 (Mariano Llinás)
Halloween (David Gordon Green)
Fahrenheit 11/9 (Michael Moore)
Dogman (Mateo Garrone)
First Man (Damien Chazelle)
The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery)
Beautiful Boy (Felix Van Groeningen)
The Man with the Iron Fists (RZA)
Mid90s (Jonah Hill)
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)
Wildlife (Paul Dano)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Álvarez)
Widows (Steve McQueen)
Nae Pasarán (Felipe Bustos Sierra)
Assassination Nation (Sam Levinson)
Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer)
The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier)
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)
Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio)
Le livre d’image (Jean-Luc Godard)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman)
The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson, Evan Johnson)
Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall)
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Aquaman (James Wan)
The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore and Phil Johnston)
Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg)*
Unexpected (Kris Swanberg)*
Daphne (Peter Mackie Burns)*
I am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni)*
Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda)*
Monsters: Dark Continent (Tom Green)*
Tentacles (Ovidio G. Assonitis)*
On the Road (Michael Winterbottom)*
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)*
Mega-Shark versus Giant Octopus (Ace Hannah)*
The Protagonists (Luca Guadagnino)*
Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood)*
A Spectre Is Haunting Europe? (Julian Radlmaier)*
Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer)*
The Dunwich Horror (Daniel Haller)*
It Came From Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon)*
The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller)*
Superdyke Meets Madame X (Barbara Hammer)*
Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)*
The Structure of Crystal (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
(20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer)*)
It Came From Outer Space (Jack Arnold)*
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce)*
Hokusai Manga (Kaneto Shindo)*
L’amant d’un jour (Philippe Garrel)*
Untitled (Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi)*
The Constant Factor (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Las Plantas (Roberto Doveris)*
Mirror World (Abigail Child)*
Life is a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Wùlu (Daouda Coulibaly)*
Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier)*
The Gorgon (Terence Fisher)*
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Chris Columbus)*
On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi)*
In The Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter)*
Annihilation (Alex Garland)*
The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah)*
The Bridge (Eric Steel)*
Paris à tout prix (Joséphine Ndagnou)*
The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan)*
Spotswood (Mark Joffe)*
La Jalousie (Philippe Garrel)*
L’ombre des femmes (Philippe Garrel)*
Why Him? (John Hamburg)*
Kékszakállú (Gastón Solnicki)*
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (Thom Andersen)*
Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman)*
Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)*
Shanty Tramp (José Prieto)*
Afternoon (Angela Schanelec)*
Audition (Milos Forman)*
Orly (Angela Schanelec)*
There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk)*
Night Tide (Curtis Harrington)*
No intenso agora (João Moreira Salles)*
The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec)*
The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)*
Allende mi abuelo Allende (Marcia Tambutti)*
Ma Loute (Bruno Dumont)*
Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Nagisa Oshima)*
(La petite vendeuse de soleil (Djibril Diop Mambéty)*)
Refugiado (Diego Lerman)*
New Jerusalem (R. Alverson)*
The Comedy (Rick Alverson)*
Lek and the Dogs (Andrew Kötting)*
The Tingler (William Castle)*
Matinee (Joe Dante)*
Casa Roshell (Camila José Donoso)*
Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Ben Safdie)*
Polytechnique (Denis Villeneuve)*
Human Desire (Fritz Lang)*
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky)*
Agilem (Ilkka Levä)*
Manito (Eric Eason)*
Separado! (Dylan Goch and Gruff Rhys)*
Adiós entusiasmo (Vladimir Durán)*
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan)*
Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (Fabrizio Terranova)*
Central Intelligence (Rawson Marshall Thurber)*
Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant)*
Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember (Khavn de la Cruz)*
Aditya (Gérard Courant)*
4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara)*
Rubber (Quentin Dupieux)*
Je meurs de soif, j’étouffe, je ne puis crier… (Gérard Courant)*
They Live (John Carpenter)*
Inkheart (Iain Softley)*
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies)*
Evolution (Ivan Reitman)*
Jesús (Fernando Guzzoni)*
Fausto (Andrea Bussmann)*
Gamer (Oleg Sentsov)*
Mr Kaplan (Álvaro Brechner)*
We Are Thankful (Joshua Magor)*
Revenge (Coenie Dippenaar)*
Meteors (Gürcan Keltek)*
Temporada (André Novais Oliveira)*
Between Fences (Avi Mograbi)*
Djon África (Filipa Reis and João Guerra Miller)*
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)*
El apóstata (Federico Veiroj)*
Todo Todo Teros (John Torres)*
The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise)*
Spring Fever (Lou Ye)*
Blind Massage (Lou Ye)*
The Supplement (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Bonsái (Alex Andonie)*
The Last of Us (Ala Eddine Slim)*
120 Days of Bottrop (Christoph Schlingensief)*
When I Saw You (Annemarie Jacir)*
Terror 2000 (Christoph Schlingensief)*
All You Can Eat Bouddha (Ian Lagarde)*
100 Years of Adolf Hitler (Christoph Schlingensief)*
Tonsler Park (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Quality Control (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Teatro de Guerra (Lola Arías)*
Cinnamon (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
1428 (Du Haibin)*
Three Quarters (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Una corriente salvaje (Nuria Ibáñez Castañeda)*
Wild Plants (Nicolas Humbert)*
A morir a los desiertos (Marta Ferrer)*
Giuseppe Makes a Movie (Adam Rifkin)*
Tape (Li Ning)*
Years When I Was a Child Outside (John Torres)*
‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing)*
Trees Down Here (Ben Rivers)*
Spice Bush (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
L’Apparition (Xavier Giannoli)*
Season of the Devil (Lav Diaz)*
Girl from Nowhere (Mark Jackson)*
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan and Joel Coen)*
L’année des méduses (Christopher Frank)*
Alba (Ana Cristina Barragán)*
Mañana a esta hora (Lina Rodríguez)*
L’affaire des divisions Morituri (FJ Ossang)*
Female Human Animal (Josh Appignanesi)*
Bird Box (Susanne Bier)*
Li Shuangshuang (Lu Ren)*
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach)*
A Star is Born (William A Wellman)*
Mudbound (Dee Rees)*
Mon Souffle (Jihane Chouaib)*
Octopussy (John Glen)^
Cathy Come Home (Kenneth Loach)^
Les amours de la pieuvre (Jean Painlevé)^
A Lesson in Love (Ingmar Bergman)^
Waiting Women (Ingmar Bergman)^
Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley)^
Io Sono Li (Andrea Segre)^
The Royal Road (Jenni Olson)^
Freakstars 3000 (Christoph Schlingensief)^
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas)^
By Night With Torch and Spear (Joseph Cornell)^
Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold)^
Disorient Express (Ken Jacobs)^
The Trail of the Octopus (Duke Worne)^
I Love You (Marco Ferreri)^
Love The One You Love (Jenna Bass)^
Cefalópodo (Rubén Imaz)^
The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway)^
L’uomo in più (Paolo Sorrentino)^
Cabaret (Bob Fosse)^
Web Junkie (Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam)^
Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram)^
Live By Night (Ben Affleck)+
Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy)+
Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis)+
A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan)+
Epic (Chris Wedge)+
Alpha (Albert Hughes)+
Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M Chu)+
King of Thieves (James Marsh)+
Isoken (Jadesola Osiberu)+
Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley)+
The Meg (Jon Turteltaub)+
4th Floor to Mildness (Pipilotti Rist)>
Purple (John Akomfrah)>
Joan Jonas (Joan Jonas)>
Despair (Alex Prager)>
La Petite Mort (Alex Prager)>
Face in the Crowd (Alex Prager)>
La Grande Sortie (Alex Prager)>
About A Boy (Paul and Chris Weitz)//
Bros: After the Screaming Stops (Joe Pearlman and David Soutar)//

 

Notes from the LFF: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA/UK, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013, Transnational Cinema

If I linger on aspects of 12 Years a Slave that I feel do not work, it is because a very moving film might have been – in my humble opinion – an even better film.

I shall take it as read that overall I praise the movie in this blog (because it has things worthy of praise, things that will get mentioned), but the things that grated with this film are three in number: the casting, the use of music and, on a slightly different note, the film’s credits.

With regard to the casting, I can understand that any film can and will use big stars in order to become more commercially appealing. And I can also understand that, when there is a film in production about an historically important topic such as slavery, lots of actors will want to work on that project because it boosts the amount of prestige that they have as actors.

Nonetheless, having avoided reading much about the film before watching it (increasingly my preferred way to see films – as ‘blind’ to pre-hype as possible), to see a procession of fine anglophone acting talent work its way through the film in larger and smaller roles – Scoot McNairy, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt – in fact detracts from the narrative.

For, my experience of the film was along these lines: I am enjoying this film, but now I am faced with Brad Pitt, giving a decent performance as usual (because I think him a good actor), but since he is Brad Pitt (and since his character gets to speechify about the iniquities of slavery) I cannot but think that the he and the film are pushing the ‘worthy’ button a little bit too much.

To be clear: slavery as an historical – and, it cannot be emphasised enough, a contemporary – evil are undoubtedly topics worthy of filmmaking, because filmmaking can and does do all manner of things to raise awareness of slavery, as this film festival in part testifies. As such, the film being ‘worthy’ is not the problem (though a film might want to avoid being too moralising or sentimental in its depiction of slavery – but that is a different issue).

The problem is that one keeps on thinking ‘isn’t Brad Pitt very worthy?’, such that one thinks less about 12 Years a Slave, and more about how morally righteous those people are who made it. Again, this does not make Brad Pitt or anyone a bad person (of course it does not; although the way in which white actors accrue prestige for playing ‘difficult’ and, specifically, racist roles is slightly problematic for me: the white actor’s difficulty in playing a racist potentially occults/keeps out of view both the victims of real slavery and the (again, potential) assumption that black actors playing slaves is somehow ‘easier’).

In conclusion, then, the film can be as worthy as it wants, but the more I am thinking about the making of the film and its actors, the less I am thinking about the film. And slavery should be a topic that is important enough that the film could have no stars in it, and I’d still want to watch it because it should, in effect, speak for itself. The stars stop the film, to my mind, from speaking for itself.

(Furthermore, if the white stars also function to sell the film, then this points to the ongoing issues of race in relation to Hollywood casting. Chiwetel Ejiofor – who gives a fine performance – is relatively famous, but obviously the filmmakers did not want to give this role to Will Smith or various other, more famous black actors because… because he may be too famous for the ‘issue’ of slavery with which the film deals. But it’s fine for Brad Pitt to crop up towards the film’s end, because… I am not sure why (aside from his involvement as a producer in the film). Are these not double standards? And is using white stars to ‘sell’ slavery in cinematic form not also problematic – as if the topic did not speak for itself as important, but instead is only worth thinking long and hard about because a bunch of white actors are involved in the project. In effect, if business comes ahead of morality – stars will bring in the audience, and this is more important than the ‘issue’ that the film portrays – then the film surely is open to criticism.)

My second beef with the film is its use of music. This is not just moments where Hans Zimmer’s score lays down industrial gong sounds to convey the fact that SOMETHING BAD IS HAPPENING. Rather, it is that Hans Zimmer recycles a piece of music in 12 Years a Slave that he used for the magnificent Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, USA, 1998) fifteen years ago.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mar the film somewhat. The piece of music the (forgive my lack of knowledge regarding musical terminology) chord progression of which is largely repeated in 12 Years a Slave from The Thin Red Line is called ‘Journey to the Line’ – and it is a beautiful, epic piece of music. However, knowing that McQueen’s film is borrowing from Malick’s film in this way is also slightly jarring.

I could believe that McQueen, being a ‘clever’ artist and all, is pointing to the impossibility to depicting slavery without the use of cliché (with cliché here meaning saying things through terms that other people have used, i.e. repeating someone else’s words or, in this case, music).

Nonetheless, what the Zimmer score does is to give the impression that McQueen aspires to make a Malick film. To do for slavery what Malick does for war in The Thin Red Line, namely to offer a metaphysical treatise on the nature thereof.

But where Malick uses James Jones’ novel to discuss war on a relatively abstract level, McQueen is using a true story potentially to do the same. And true stories do not lend themselves to the abstract in quite the same way: what is slavery? How do some men seemingly desire to be masters and others slaves? (What is this war in the heart of nature? being Malick’s seeming guiding question with The Thin Red Line.) So, again for me, this does not quite work.

Don’t get me wrong; there are moments in 12 Years a Slave when we wonder that Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free man cast into slavery by a pair of scheming entertainers, could escape, especially early on when he and the other captives outnumber their captors (although they have all taken a significant beating by this time). And so the film treads that fine line in asking whether men in part desire the conditions that they face, but this is not the same as offering a piece of Malickiana.

The aspirations to Malick perhaps also explain the procession of stars that appear in the film. But, again, one ends up thinking: but Terrence Malick is Terrence Malick and Steve McQueen is Steve McQueen, so why does McQueen piggy-back on Malick? One cannot ‘do’ Terrence Malick (not without comic results). One can only be Terrence Malick. And the Malickiana here – signalled especially through Zimmer’s score – again seem slightly to undermine the film.

Again to be clear: McQueen’s film does have moments that McQueen is famous for, namely scenes that linger and are long in duration, including a powerful moment when Northup is left hanging by the neck from a tree branch, his toes touching the ground and keeping him alive. This protracted sequence – akin in part to the epic confrontation between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Priest (Rory Mullen) in Hunger (UK/Ireland, 2008) – is very powerful, as is a whipping administered on a slave in part by Northup and in part by Epps. But where McQueen and his desire to linger on certain moments is very strong, this strength is hindered at moments when it feels like the director wants to step into someone else’s shoes.

Finally, it is for me a mistake in the final credits of the film to put the name of Lupita Nyong’o a long way down the credit list – and after many of the white stars who have significantly smaller, and certainly less important, roles than she does.

For, Nyong’o plays Patsey, a slave on the estate of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), who is a legendary cotton picker and who also becomes the target of Epps’ amorous advances.

And Patsey is, to my mind, the beating heart of this film. It is she who is whipped by Northup and it is she who, importantly, makes clear that what for Northup is a temporary experience, for others is a lifelong experience.

Don’t get me wrong: 12 years as a slave is a massive amount of time and it is not that anyone should go through a single instant of slavery in their lives. But since we are watching a film called 12 Years a Slave, the clue is in the title that there will be a ‘happy ending’ (forgive the inadequacy of these film terms) for the main protagonist.

And while there is a ‘happy ending’ for American slavery – in that in principle it was abolished in 1865 – this does not make up for c250 years of slavery on what is now known as the North American continent. That is, and no disrespect to Northup, but 12 years pales in comparison to the enormity of North American slavery. And so it is important that the film conveys as best it can how Northup’s experiences are temporary in relation to those of innumerable others.

And this is done through Patsey, in particular the moment when Northup is rescued (*spoiler*?), for she must of course stay behind (the law does not allow her to leave). The moment is deeply moving, and Nyong’o’s performance here, as throughout the film, is remarkable. And so, given the centrality of her part, in that she stands in for that which it is impossible to depict (the size and scale of slavery in the USA in its entirety), it is disappointing that her name disappears at the end until after all of the white stars.

All this in mind, 12 Years a Slave is nonetheless a powerful film, with great performances, as mentioned, from Ejiofor and Nyong’o, and with some excellent McQueenian touches (scenes that linger for longer than most other directors would have them). It is no mean task to try to depict something that is perhaps beyond the bounds of cinema and which can only be suggested rather than shown. On the whole McQueen does an excellent job, but one wonders that a film with fewer stars, less Malickiana, and a desire to recognise upfront the performers involved, might have raised its bar even higher.