Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Top 10 Films of 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2016

1. Harmonium (Koji Fukada)
2. Silence (Martin Scorsese)*

3. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Love)
4. Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
5. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

6. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada)

7. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

8. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

9. Cafe Society (Woody Allen)

10. The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne)

Runners up:
Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

Sully (Clint Eastwood)

Your Name (Makoto Shinkai)

The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit)

Batman: The Killing Joke (Sam Liu)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)

Allied (Robert Zemeckis)

Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Jonathan Demme)

Mike Nichols: An American Master (Elaine May)

Piper (Alan Barillaro)

Blood Father (Jean-Francois Richet)

Standout performances:
Isabelle Huppert in Things to Come
Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano & Kanji Furutachi in Harmonium
Adele Haenel in The Unknown Girl
Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals
Yun Lin in The Mermaid 
Emma Suarez & Adriana Ugarte in Julieta
Morfydd Clark & Tom Bennett in Love & Friendship
Marion Cotillard in Allied
Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys
Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart & Lily Gladstone in Certain Women
Trine Dyrholm in The Commune

Notable films from 2015 that I saw for the first time this year:
No Home Movie, Journey to the Shore, Knight of Cups, Evolution, Creed, Cemetery of SplendourExperimenterApril and the Extraordinary World, A Century of Energy, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

Films from 2016 that I'm still eager to watch:
Elle, Voyage of Time, Three, Crisis in Six Scenes, Personal Shopper, After the Storm, Shin Godzilla, Daguerreotype, Hacksaw RidgeManchester by the Sea, The Women Who Left, Being 17, The Death of Louis XIV, MoonlightA Quiet Passion, Mascots, Rules Don't Apply, Mobfathers, The Salesman, Safari, Frantz, My Beloved Bodyguard, Blue Velvet Revisited, Homo Sapiens, La La Land etc.

Films I'm looking forward to or just curious about in 2017:
Based on a True Story, The Other Side of Hope, Weightless, Wonderstruck, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, John Wick: Chapter Two, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, The Shape of Water, Happy End, High Life, Okja, Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049, The Commuter, Ready Player One, Baby Driver

Ken Adam, David Bowie, Tony Burton, Billy Chapin, Michael Cimino, Franco Citti, Leonard Cohen, Adrienne Corri, Raoul Coutard, Larry Drake, Keith Emerson, Carrie Fisher, Harry Fujiwara (aka Mr. Fuji), Guy Hamilton, Robin Hardy, Peter Hutton, George Kennedy, Abbas Kiarostami, Jon Polito, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Rickman, Jacques Rivette, Theresa Saldana, Douglas Slocombe, Peter Vaughan, Andrzej Wajda, Gene Wilder, Jason Wingreen, Vilmos Zsigmond, Andrzej Zulawski

Further Thoughts:
Whittling my favourites of the year down to a top 10 was no easy task and I'm still toying around with the order of the films listed. There was certainly no shortage of worthy runners up. I've delayed writing this for longer than I should have as I was holding out for late contenders. There have been popular favourites among critics in prior years but I can't recall one in recent memory that has polled as strongly in as many major publications as Toni Erdmann. The advance praise almost certainly effected my judgement of the film, which I liked, but not enough for it to qualify for my top 10 (or top 25 for that matter). I've cheated slightly by having two films share the tenth place spot. On reflection I may still be too conservative and reactionary in these kind of roundups.

Having largely been bored by or indifferent to the big releases I saw in 2016 it became clear that more than ever there’s a need for distinctive voices in film and this was what led me to several of my favourite titles of the year. Koji Fukada’s Harmonium was the great surprise of November’s Leeds film festival, an engrossing look at troubled pasts, hidden guilt and damaged lives. Another highlight of the festival was A Silent Voice, an absorbing animated teen drama that is both harsh and tender.

I've been aware of the output of writer-director Mia Hansen-Love for some time now but Things to Come is my first encounter with her work and it's certainly made me want to delve further in to her filmography. To my mind its lead actress Isabelle Huppert is surely the greatest screen performer of our time. I cannot think of any other actor/actress who has showed the versatility, longevity and hunger for challenging work that she has managed throughout her remarkable career. Still on top of her game with 3 acclaimed releases this year alone she deserves every bit of praise that has come her way.

Shane Black wonderfully combined private detective stories and buddy comedies with The Nice Guys, a witty and hugely entertaining movie that deserved to find a much bigger audience.

Several decades into their respective careers, two long standing heroes of mine produced solid efforts (Clint Eastwood’s Sully and Woody Allen’s Cafe Society) that may seem like minor diversions at first but are actually highly charged and playful accomplishments of surprising depth. That they make it seem so effortless is part of their charm.

The Handmaiden was both wickedly funny and gleefully perverse. An intricately plotted, bizarre love story involving double cross and revenge that is unlike anything I've seen in recent memory. One to cherish.

With Certain Women Kelly Reichardt gave one of the best demonstrations I've yet encountered of how cinema can emulate the short stories format in a cohesive feature film. Something of a rare accomplishment. It also provided a fine showcase for several actresses who worked wonders with their respective roles.

After years of indifferent and unworthy assignments Martin Scorsese has finally been able to deliver his long delayed dream project Silence, a searing rumination on faith and doubt. Many modern viewers seem to be skeptical about spiritual aspects in films, notably in responses I've read to Terrence Malick's recent output, but I'm glad that there are still those who will embrace this sort of work. I'm still processing my thoughts on Silence but my overall impression is that it's a beautiful, challenging and courageous work.

The Unknown Girl was a timely view of how individuals subtly impact the lives of others by action or inaction. That it chose to affirm how people can make a difference gave it a real urgency that complemented the previous Dardennes' effort Two Days, One Night.  

Paterson felt like a perfect tonic in a year where cynicism, despair and hate seemed to be everywhere. My misgivings almost seem irrelevant next to its beguiling celebration of modest lives, routines, hobbies and small joys. Unfortunately I saw it in less than ideal surroundings. In a film where language plays such a crucial role I wasn’t able to make out some of the dialogue due to the bad acoustics of the venue where it was showing. A second viewing (with better audio quality) may elevate this to a top 10 spot.

Special thanks should go out to Eureka for bringing solace to Kiyoshi Kurosawa fans like myself. Much to my chagrin a lot of the work of one of my favourite filmmakers has been difficult to come by for some time. It was to my great delight this year when his two most recent efforts got UK distribution on the Masters of Cinema label. A DVD release of 2015's extraordinary Journey to the Shore was followed by UK festival screenings of this year's startling suspense thriller Creepy. It would be fantastic if these are to be followed by further releases from Kurosawa's output in the near future but I'm more than grateful for now that these two were able to reach UK audiences.

Special mention should also go to RedLetterMedia's review of The Force Awakens, :: kogonada's sublime video essay Godard in Fragments and Adam Curtis's exhausting and exhilarating documentary HyperNormalisation

These were all part of the noticeable change in my viewing habits in 2016. Much more than in previous years I found myself viewing films online, struggling at times to get the right balance between viewing cinematic offerings from the past and keeping up to date with current fare. In spite of that I did set a personal record in 2016, somehow managing to do over 60 cinema trips in twelve months. I hope that enthusiasm carries over in to 2017 and beyond.

Recommended 'Films of 2016' links:
Kermode uncut
Reverse Shot

*Note: Silence was released in the UK on 1st January 2017. I chose to revise this list shortly after seeing it. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Film Highlights of 2016

My annual top 10 films should be posted on this blog within the next week or so but first here's some bits of news, trivia and (several) links to articles. A list of highlights over the past 12 months in cinema:

- A "Director's Cut" of Michael Mann's criminally underrated Blackhat was screened in New York in February. No signs yet of a DVD release but hopefully there will be a chance to see this at some stage.

- US DVD label the Criterion Collection has finally been launched in the UK.

- Sight & Sound article on Anne-Marie Mieville's work.

- Comic legend Elaine May made a very welcome return to our screens with a documentary she directed about her comedy partner Mike Nichols as well as appearing in Woody Allen's amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes. Any additions to the slight filmography of this brilliant talent are worth treasuring.

- Two Hollywood legends celebrated their 100th birthday in 2016: Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas.

- John Carpenter releases his second non-soundtrack LP Lost Themes II and performs live shows in North America and Europe.

- Aki Kaurismaki honoured with the Carosse d'Or (Golden Coach) award during the Directors' fortnight at Cannes.

- BFI Season 'Ride Lonesome: The Psychological Western'

- Best filmgoing experience:
The Wind (1928, Victor Sjostrom) with a live piano score at Hyde Park Picturehouse (3rd July, 2016)

- Film Discovery of the year:
Deep Water (1981, Michel Deville)
Part of the Patricia Highsmith season at Hyde Park Picturehouse which also included Carol, A Mighty Nice Man, Cry of the Owl, The American Friend & Enough Rope.

- BBC poll of 177 film critics sees Mulholland Drive voted the best film of the century so far. On the subject of David Lynch, select UK cinemas showed a 30th anniversary re-release of his earlier masterpiece Blue Velvet.

- Legion: The Exorcist III gets a Blu-Ray release from Shout! Factory including a previously unseen director's cut.

- News of a new John McTiernan film. His first since Basic in 2003.

- RedLetterMedia reviews The Force Awakens.
- News that Hyde Park Picturehouse is to receive Heritage Lottery Funding.

- Leeds International Film Festival, 3rd-17th November

- A restored print of Marlon Brando's sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks is shown at the Toronto Film Festival and gets released by Criterion in November. Nice to see this classic Western restored to its original glory after experiencing years of shoddy home video releases.

'The Timeless Appeal of Winona Ryder' article.

- News emerged that Hayao Miyazaki is working on a new feature length project.

- Favourite DVDs/Blu-Rays:
A Brighter Summer Day (Criterion), One-Eyed Jacks (Criterion), I'm Dangerous Tonight (Final Cut Entertainment), The New World (Criterion), Cohen and Tate (Arrow), Assault on Precinct 13 (Second Sight), Matinee (Arrow), Cat People (Criterion), The Man from Laramie (Eureka), Body Double (Indicator), Return of the Living Dead III (Vestron Video), The Hired Hand (Arrow), Four Nights of a Dreamer (Etantje), To Live and Die in L.A. (Arrow), Dekalog and Other Television Works (Arrow), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Criterion), Dissent & Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC (BFI)

Friday, 18 November 2016

30th Leeds International Film Festival, 3rd-17th November 2016

When it comes to planning and prioritising titles at film festivals I seem to be getting better every year. It's hard to comment on the overall quality of the festival when I've seen such a small fraction of what was on offer and only 3 of the 20 audience favourites. However I have fewer regrets than usual about what I missed and didn't have the same level of fatigue by the end of the festival that I had in previous years. At the start of the second week I was fighting off a cough and bad cold which meant I had to drop films such as Jim Jarmusch's documentary on The Stooges( Gimme Danger), controversial French cannibal pic Raw and The Noonday Witch from my schedule.

As it's November I'm determined to focus on newer titles. As the year draws to a close it's a perfect opportunity to find potential highlights of 2016. Sadly this means skipping an exciting opportunity to see classic titles such as Heat, The Matrix, Blue Velvet, Woman in the Dunes and Cleo from 5 to 7 on the big screen. For the first time in years I missed the silent film screening with the live organ accompaniment (Pal Fejos's 1928 feature Lonesome). Most regrettable was not seeing the screening of Abel Gance's legendary Napoleon at the Town Hall. Under any other circumstances this would be a must-see event but in the middle of a punishing festival schedule the prospect of a 5 and a half hour silent epic is just too daunting. Fortunately a simultaneous DVD/Blu-Ray release from the BFI eases my disappointment but I can't help feeling like I passed up the chance of a lifetime to see this monumental film in its ideal environment.

I did make a concession for a 30th anniversary screening of Aliens as it took place on one of the quieter days and the introduction talk about the pulse rifle by the Royal Armouries added a layer of interest.
I wonder if some titles in the classics/retrospectives selection may fare better outside of a festival climate. There are occasional cinephile events throughout the year in Leeds but the determination to cram the festival programme with a year's worth of treasures could be self defeating. Having such an emphasis on a 2 week feast of films in November feels a bit restrictive. The desire to please everyone seems to be working however as the organisers proudly announced that this is now the UK's second biggest film festival outside of (surprise, surprise) London. Alas there as no sign of my most eagerly anticipated film of 2016 - Paul Verhoeven's Elle, which found its way on the London film festival programme in October.

Another gripe was that I wasn't able to work the late additions to the programme - MoonlightMy Life as a Courgette and audience favourite Mindhorn - in to my timetable as they clashed with titles I already had my mind set on and they didn't get repeat showings. For similar reasons I sadly missed out on intriguing sounding documentaries such as S1 and Homo Sapiens.

The opening and closing titles were both smart choices. Jim Jarmusch's likable Paterson got things off to a flying start and critics favourite Toni Erdmann (which went down a storm at Cannes this year) was a highly anticipated finale to the festival. On the auteur front there were new offerings from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Creepy), Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden), Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), Cristi Puiu (Sieranevada), Cristian Mungiu (Graduation), Spike Lee (Chi-Raq), Bertrand Tavernier (A Journey Through French Cinema) and Xavier Dolan (It's Only the End of the World). Titles such as Train to Busan and Under the Shadow reaffirmed my complete lack of interest in modern Horror films. I passed on the chance to see Nate Parker's much debated The Birth of a Nation and Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge as both should be on general release fairly soon. The most enjoyable day for me came early on with the Animation Day at the Town Hall. Last year I unwisely watched all of the day's films whereas this year I managed 3 (KizumonogatariThe Red Turtle & A Silent Voice) out of 5.

I stuck mainly to official selection titles but there were curious assemblies of films under several banners including New Wave Women, Iconic Soundtracks, Norwegian Comedies, Music on Film and Underground Voices. Here's a link to a list of the films I watched at the festival over the past two weeks.

Monday, 31 October 2016

John Carpenter - 'Release the Bats Tour' live show in Manchester

Manchester Victoria Warehouse - Saturday October 29th, 2016

Probably my most eagerly anticipated event of the year - a live concert by one of my favourite filmmakers and musicians. John Carpenter made several of the films that made me a film fanatic in my childhood and early teens but what is extraordinary is how so much of his work gets even better on repeated viewings. Few filmographies have given me more pleasure as a viewer or produced more personal favourites than Carpenter's work. They are films that work as great entertainment but also reveal surprising depths, ideas, themes and subtleties on closer and further inspection. As a composer, Carpenter's now iconic film scores led to a love of electronic and minimalist music that endures to this day and inspired me to attempt my own keyboard and synth led compositions.

In some ways the 21st century hasn't been an ideal time to be a Carpenter fan. Following the hostile reception and poor box office performance of Ghosts of Mars in 2001 Carpenter went on indefinite hiatus. He's been fairly open about his reluctance to return to filmmaking sighting among other things health reasons and the general cynical atmosphere of working in the film industry. In the years since there have been two 60 minute TV movies done for the 'Masters of Horror' series - Cigarette Burns (2005) and Pro-Life (2006) - and one low budget feature The Ward (2010). Despite working within the Horror genre with which he is now synonymous they all generally lacked Carpenter's signature style and, perhaps significantly, none of these were scored by Carpenter. In an early 1990s interview he remarked that if he stopped making films he'd probably "sit around and talk about the old days" which it turns out was a fairly accurate prediction. As of late he's been a prominent figure at retrospectives, festivals, conventions and signings which seem to imply he's happy to reflect on his work rather than launch new projects. Despite his awareness and pride in his own considerable legacy it's a shame that there has been relatively little effort to reassess his less heralded works from the 1990s, although hopefully they too in time will grow in stature the way his 1980s work did.

There have however been some consolations for devoted Carpenter followers of recent times with plenty of gems to mine from his prior work. The DVD/Blu-Ray age has ushered in terrific special editions of several Carpenter films, with commentary tracks, interviews, documentaries and deleted scenes that have helped shed more light on his output. Rare TV movies Someone's Watching Me! (1978) and Elvis (1979) have both been given welcome DVD releases allowing completists to see these relatively obscure titles in a quality format. Even Carpenter related works like Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (both of which were produced, co-written and scored by Carpenter) have got the deluxe treatment courtesy of Shout! Factory.

Expanded releases of his soundtrack work has put previous releases to shame. Former collaborator Alan Howarth has issued limited edition CDs of the full scores for Prince of Darkness, They Live and Halloween II & III as well as re-recordings of the scores to Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing (which includes the short Carpenter synth cues in addition to Ennio Morricone's score). Meanwhile La La Land records have released the complete scores to Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A. as opposed to the abbreviated tracks and highlight selections of prior editions.

In 2015 Carpenter somewhat unexpectedly released his first ever non-soundtrack LP titled Lost Themes, a series of instrumental pieces that he co-wrote and performed with his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies.
Carpenter's own role is probably somewhat overstated in the billing and marketing of these records. The prog-rock style and abrupt tempo changes on several tracks seem more like the work of Cody - who scored his father's two 'Masters of Horror' episodes and has put several of his own recordings online. At times the album takes on the feel of an extended jam session with a bunch of riffs and motifs cobbled together somewhat awkwardly. There's a chaotic randomness in places that makes it hard to know where some tracks start and others begin. The influence of 1970s recordings by Tangerine Dream, Goblin and in particular Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells seem rather too obvious in places. However there's enough of Carpenter's slow build and moody vibe on tracks like 'Vortex' and 'Night' to keep fans happy.

Lost Themes II (a more guitar driven followup) was released in 2016.
Standout tracks including 'Distant Dream', 'Hofner Dawn', 'Dark Blues' and 'Real Xeno' (a CD only bonus track for some reason). Adding to the excitement of this release was the news that for the first time in his career Carpenter would be going on tour to perform album tracks and classic themes at live shows.

It seems increasingly unlikely that Carpenter will direct another feature and with his enthusiasm for filmmaking having clearly diminished this new chapter in his career has been a welcome development.

The live shows were announced in late 2015 so I've had a near twelve month buildup to the show and seeing the director of the 1978 classic Halloween perform in late October seemed like perfect timing. Sadly the major story of the night for me and many others was the venue itself. The Victoria Warehouse was a horrendous choice of setting for the show: overcrowded, terrible sound quality and there was only a very limited view of the band on stage and the projected film footage unless you were close to the front. Seeing Carpenter perform live seemed like a dream come true but the show itself was something of a nightmare.

When I booked the tickets in late 2015 the show was originally scheduled for two nights at the Albert Hall in central Manchester. Due to a change of promoters and popular demand the Friday show was cancelled and the show was relocated to the Victoria Warehouse near to Old Trafford on the Saturday evening. The Albert Hall was clearly a far more appropriate setting and the decision by the organisers to change it was regrettable to say the least.

The Manchester Evening News covered this infuriating aspect of the show in its review and website coverage.

I can only hope that Carpenter and his touring band do some additional UK live shows in the not too distant future and I get a chance to see them at a more appropriate location. At brief moments I was able to enjoy the show and get a glimpse of how it was supposed to be before my view once again got blocked and the sound became more distorted. Too bad I didn't go to the show in Liverpool instead.

I'd like to end this on a positive note so I will say it was delightful to see a huge turnout for John Carpenter performing selections from his two recent LPs as well as his iconic film scores from the 1970s and 1980s. I'd imagined it would be more of a niche offering but the huge audience in attendance proved otherwise. As someone who has idolised Carpenter for many years hearing the crowd's hugely appreciative response to the man, his films and his music was genuinely heartwarming.

Happy Halloween!