As part 1 of my end-of-year wrap up, here are 10 memorable talking pictures that came into my life in 2015. I’ve split the list between recent and older films.
Morgiana (dir. Juraj Herz, CZ 1972)
Actually, I don’t know if I first watched this film this year or last, all I know is that I’ve seen it probably ten times, and I love it more each time. A stunning, gothic-Victorian twisted fairy-tale about two sisters, it’s perfectly designed and gloriously over the top, complete with bombastic score. Iva Janzurová is wonderful in the dual roles of Viktorie and Klára. An all-time favourite.
लगान | Lagaan: One Upon a Time in India (dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, IN 2001)
Surely one of the best anti-Colonial films as well as one of the best sports films of all time. The four-hour runtime flies by as Indian villagers led by Aamir Khan take on the British Raj … with the game of cricket. (Incidentally, as someone who grew up playing cricket, it’s one of the few sports films where I actually knew the rules of the game). A visually beautiful film with great characters and a gripping storyline. And yes, the game comes down to the very last ball of the last over.
En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron | A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (dir. Roy Andersson, SE 2014)
The inimitable Roy Andersson is back with a darkly hilarious work. Each tragicomic vignette is expertly staged, with Andersson’s typical long takes and deep focus. Beautiful and bizarre.
The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland, GB 2014)
A stylish, moody, and surreal gothic love story about a D&S relationship between two women, set in an indeterminate but vaguely Victorian milieu. Being a giallo fan, I’d seen Strickland’s previous feature film Berberian Sound Studio (GB 2012), and The Duke of Burgundy bears much in common with it stylistically—luscious design, lots of shots with shallow depth of field, various double-exposures and camera tricks. The Duke of Burgundy is an enveloping experience, much enhanced by its haunting score. It’s so stylistic as to be almost claustrophobic, yet the film doesn’t lose sight of the central relationship between the two women.
Black Cat, White Cat (dir. Emir Kusturica, SR 1998)
Few movies have this much energy and joy. Raucous, laugh-out-loud funny, and warm.
Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, FR/DE/CH 2014)
I found this drama about female stardom, aging, and creative/professional relationships very poignant. Juliette Binoche is always worth watching, but Kristen Stewart was also excellent as her personal assistant Valentine.
Under the Cherry Moon (dir. Prince, US 1986)
I’m a huge Prince fan, but somehow it took me until this year to watch Under the Cherry Moon. The film was directed by and stars His Purpleness, who also provides the de facto soundtrack with his album Parade—not my favourite of the classic Prince era, I must say. The film is in black and white, with a decadent 80s-does-Art-Deco aesthetic: Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a fancy gigolo on the Riviera who begins a relationship with young heiress Kristin Scott Thomas (!), in her film debut. Christopher is out to scam KST … or will true love grow between these two crazy kids?
A simple and promising enough premise, but Under the Cherry Moon is a ludicrously self-indulgent vanity project. The design is beautiful and Prince looks fantastic, but the film is weighted down by inane dialogue, an incredibly unconvincing romance, and a wildly uneven tone. Luckily these things weren’t really obstacles to my enjoyment. We get Prince in an array of fantastic outfits (including a backwards tuxedo) and scenes such as Prince and KST going drag-racing, Prince and his gigolo BFF Tricky (Jerome Benton) panicking over a bat infestation in a restaurant, and KST running up on stage and drumming along to “Planet Rock” (!!). There’s even a Casablanca homage. Prince threw everything but the kitchen sink at this film—Under the Cherry Moon may be ridiculous, but you have to admire his panache.
Is this a good film? No – Under the Cherry Moon may look beautiful, but it fails on most other levels by which movies are typically judged. Did I enjoy the hell out of it? Yes! (Were my friends and I into the wine when we watched it? Also yes).
Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, US/AU 2015)
One of the most purely exhilarating movies I’ve seen in a long time: I watched it twice in the theatre and probably would have gone back another time if I hadn’t got ill. Aside from its wonderful visual imagination and crazy action scenes, this film-long car chase also contained a surprising amount of character-driven storytelling and one of the most feminist plots seen recently in mainstream cinema, topped off with an appropriately bombastic score by Junkie XL (not many films could get away with quoting Dies Irae!) I still can’t quite believe George Miller got a movie this out-there made, but I’m happy that he did.
郊遊 | Stray Dogs (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang, TW 2013)
I’m not that familiar with the ‘Taiwanese New Wave’, of which Hou Hsiao-hsien is the most well-known director (his 刺客聶隱娘 | The Assassin of this year is one that I missed in the film festival and am looking forward to watching). As for Tsai Ming-Liang, prior to seeing Stray Dogs, the only thing I knew about him was that he had made an adaptation of Journey to the West which consisted primarily of shots of a monk walking slowly west.
Stray Dogs is a similarly uncompromising work: there is not much of a storyline, the people in the film are barely characters in the conventional sense, and the film is told in a series of very long takes – generally a full scene is shown in just one shot, and often not much happens in them. However, the scene in which the main character Lee suffocates, cradles, rips apart and then eats a lipsticked cabbage (which in an earlier scene his children have christened ‘Miss Big Boobs’), weeping all the while, is an indelible image. And the finale of the film, as Lee and the main female character come together, is a genuinely moving and well-earned moment of grace, before the film culminates in Lee, now solo, standing in front of the mural (the shot shown above). Stray Dogs is the kind of film that defies judgments of like or dislike; what I can say is that it made a very strong impression on me.
I watched Stray Dogs at the Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou, China, which devoted a solo exhibition to Tsai’s work (a Mainland first), curated by the man himself. The film was screened in a room lined with crumpled papers, the floor covered with foam mattresses from which to watch projections onto the angles of walls and hung sheets. A very unique viewing experience.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America (dir. Aki Kaurismäki, FI/SE 1989)
Don’t be fooled by the title (which in fact comes from a Marx Bros. film), Leningrad Cowboys Go America is weird and wonderful and deadpanly hilarious. I never dreamed of a film where the Finnish Gary Oldman led a bunch of bizarrely-quiffed musicians on a roadtrip around the US, but it was just what I needed.
And one more that really should have been on this list …
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (British Ministry of Information, GB 1945/2014)
This film, the official documentation of the German atrocities by the British Ministry of Information, was truly one of the most difficult things I’ve ever watched. I think I cried almost the whole time, and we all exited the theatre a bit shell-shocked. The history of the film, never released in its time, is available here.
ten eleven, but here’s an extra for luck: an experimental short film.
The Rapture (dir. Michael Fleming, NL 2014)
“A pulsating image bombardment about our pursuit to happiness and freedom of fear” is how Fleming describes his work: it’s an excavation of the history of celluloid film, hand-manipulated and collaged frame by frame to take the viewer on a tour through pop culture, advertising, and even pornography, making an aesthetically dynamic (and somewhat cynical?) statement on visual media. The Rapture can be viewed on Vimeo here.