Film 2016

Is there something, I wonder, that happens as you get older which leaves you feeling more and more difficult to please; that means you are more likely to appreciate things from the past, possibly but not necessarily encountered before, over what is new? It seems, if 2016 is to be trusted, to be increasingly so.

No doubt, the two most original and exciting films I’ve seen this year were made in the 1920s: Eisenstein’s Strike from 1925 and Murnau’s Sunrise from 1927. The Eisenstein, which I hadn’t seen before, was showing as part of a season of his work at the small and independent Close Up Film Centre in Shoreditch; the Murnau I had seen several times but never as gloriously as at this screening, with magnificent live organ accompaniment, at the Regent Street Cinema.

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That I saw these and other classics in the repertoire was due in no small part to my daughter Molly’s growing interest in film and film history – hence a terrific noir double bill of Tourneur’s Out of the Past and Wilder’s Double Indemnity; Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, and, more up to date, Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue and Three Colours Red.

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Against those, little holds up. American Honey had a terrific performance by Sasha Lane and Andrea Arnold is a really interesting director, but it’s about 30 minutes too long; Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake had most people falling over themselves in its praise, but, while its heart is 100% in the right place, its function as parable drains it – until the final third – of any real tension or complexity – this despite  a compelling performance from Hayley Squires; Arrival simply didn’t, as far as I was concerned, and there’s a whopping cheat, surely, two-thirds of the way into the plot? Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson were charming, both celebrating innocence in quite different ways, but I have to say I found the deliberately repetitive and low-key movement of Jarmusch’s narrative, following Adam Driver’s bus driver through his fairly boring daily routine, pretty, well, boring, and, as for the poems he writes en route (the work, apparently, of Ron Padgett), all I can say is don’t give up the day job too soon. The new Dardenne Brothers film, The Unknown Girl, is ponderous and pretty unbelievable; the latest Woody Allen, Café Society, a strong contender for the worst of his career – until the next one comes along, that is.

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Two films stood out most strongly for me, both, in differing ways and different contexts, taking as their subject girls and women suffering from and struggling to overcome male domination, violence and abuse. Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang centres around a family of five girls growing up amidst the claustrophobia and abuse of a rural Turkish family; Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents takes place immediately after WW2, in and around a Catholic convent in Warsaw in which some of the nuns are pregnant as a result of rape by Russian soldiers. Sympathetically directed and convincingly acted, both films are moving, deeply disturbing, and, against the odds, ultimately uplifting.

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I’ll also confess to liking David O. Russell’s Joy a whole lot more than perhaps I should, but any movie that can have me so desperately wanting someone to succeed in selling her self-designed mop on the shopping channel must have something going for it. Probably Jennifer Lawrence.

Otherwise, the films that have held my attention most strongly have all been documentaries: Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse – probably the best film about an artist I’ve seen – Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink – Robert Frank; Sara Fishko’s The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, and Gianfranco Rosi’s excellent Fire at Sea, contrasting the traditional lives of the families living on the Italian island of Lampedusa with the hopes and desperation of refugees fleeing there from Africa – two different, barely compatible worlds.

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Last (Baker’s) Dozen Films I Saw

  • The Glenn Miller Story : Anthony Mann (1952)
  • Strike : Sergei Eisenstein (1925)
  • Alexander Nevsky : Sergei Eisenstein (1938)
  • Breathless : Jean Luc Godard  (1959)
  • The Parallax View : Alan J. Pakula (1974)
  • The Big Sleep : Howard Hawks (1946)
  • Peggy Guggenheim, Art Addict : Lisa Vreeland (2015)
  • Joy : David O. Russell (2015)
  • Love and Death : Woody Allen (1975)
  • Tubby Hayes, Man in a Hurry : Mark Baxter & Lee Cogswell (2o15)
  • Insomnia : Christopher Nolan (2002)
  • Spotlight : Tom McCarthy (2015)
  • The Miners’ Hymns : Bill Morrison (2011)

Briefly, Strike, Eisenstein’s first full-length movie, is astonishing from beginning to end; a jaw-dropping movie. So far from the birth of the nouvelle vague, the Godard, made, as someone pointed out, when he was in love with the United States, instead of hating them (a development many of us go through) now seems not a little archaic but charming. The Big Sleep is wonderful for its dialogue, for the scenes between Bogart & Bacall, and, perhaps almost most of all, for that delightful and sexy little scene in the bookshop between Bogart and Dorothy Malone. Joy mostly works, for me anyway, the first third especially – and any film that can have me weeping when it’s heroine finally succeeds in selling her self-designed mop on the shopping channel obviously knows what it’s doing.

Spotlight is a perfectly decent film on a still important subject, but finally too one-paced, and, despite Mark Ruffalo’s puppyish enthusiasm, too lacking in energy: ultimately it is carried by the strength of its subject matter rather than whatever might have made it more interestingly cinematic.

Bill Morrison’s documentary about the mining communities of Durham is beautifully evocative of times now past, cultures and communities that are being concreted over and consigned to memory. Visually glorious, it benefits enormously from a music score by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

 

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