20. One Cut of the Dead (Shinichirou Ueda)
It begins with a 40-minute single take in a zombie-infested industrial warehouse, and ends with the rest of the film’s duration ingeniously revealing everything was not quite what it seemed. Think of Buster Keaton rhyming his every set-up in the first half of The General with a pay-off in the second half, like a magician turning a revelation of his every trick into a gag, and you’re not far off this film’s charm. And, like Keaton, this film also has an instinctive knack for making the most of film as a medium, using every aspect of filmmaking to comic effect. Just watch it and you’ll see what I mean. A screening of One Cut of the Dead in a packed theatre was the most uproarious cinema experience of 2018 for me. Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland can step back into the grave as zombie comedies go, Ueda’s film is one cut above.
19. The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson)
Ingenuity and making the most of the cinematic medium are characteristics that abounded in this one too, pretty much defining the very ethos of Guy Maddin’s experimental endeavour: an attempt to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo out of clips from other San Francisco-set films. No doubt this is a cinephile’s treat, with Vertigo being such a canonical text we know the spine of well enough for this collage of clips to make sense in its retelling of Hitchcock’s story of obsessive love and doppelgangers. The result is often uncannily funny — the way each clip is cut just before a character speaks, making this a silent and dreamlike remake of a film that is at its most beautiful precisely when wordless and dreamlike — and the idea itself is genius. Sampling other films, many of them B-movies which don’t see the light of day much anymore, to turn them into a unique film experience is a veritable act of artistic recycling. The fog is green indeed.
18. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her debut The Babadook (one of the most refreshing twists on the horror film in recent years) tackles a very different genre. Set in 1825 on Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Island as it was still then known, or “the arse end of the world” as one of the British colonial soldiers describes it), its bloody narrative of murder, rape and righteous vengeance brings together an odd couple in the face of a shared enemy, and is a sort of feminist update of Mad Max’s revenge narrative. By letting an Irish widow hell-bent on meting out justice on her British tormentors slowly form an unexpected bond with a young Aboriginal man who is her only guide through the island’s wilderness, The Nightingale attempts to do for Australia’s colonial past what Kent did to stigmas around motherhood in Babadook. It largely succeeds, thanks to great chemistry between Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr in the lead roles, but also in its intelligent re-imagining of Australian mythology. When the Irishman Ned Kelly kills a policeman, he becomes a national icon and folk hero; but when it is an Aboriginal man who does the same in self-defence (for instance in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country) then he is a villain who must be hanged, and cannot be identified with in the way that Ned Kelly can. Here Kent bridges that gap, and makes her heroine reach that inclusive identification with the plight of the Aboriginal, coming to realise it is inextricably connected with her own.
17. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)
The latest feature by Jia Zhangke saw him reach a stage where he can confidently look back on an incredible body of work of more than 20 years. If Mountains May Depart (2015) was a slight departure into melodrama to win back the money lost on the officially embargoed A Touch of Sin for his producers, Ash is Purest White represents more of a plateau from which to have a vantage point over his career. Not by rehashing anything but rather by self-referentially distilling so much from his previous films into a summation of his work. Like in A Touch of Sin, Jia is putting his own twist on tried-and-tested genre conventions, in this instance the gangster saga. Just like in Xiao Wu, his debut, the criminal outlaws here symbolise a code of honour which Jia wishes to use as a means to comment on wider changes within China. Ash‘s saga unfolds over two decades, taking in a broader panorama of social changes, much like his 2000 film Platform had done with its own two-decade saga of change and evolution in post-Mao China. Many more little references and connections with Jia’s earlier films pop up, but there is much to enjoy in Ash on its own merits. Unlike in Xiao Wu, the masculine criminal code of honour of the outlaws is not romanticised, and it is Jia’s muse Zhao Tao, in her meatiest roll as a long-suffering gangster’s moll, who represents the film’s core central values.
16. Ray and Liz (Richard Billingham)
There’s something about the process of translating autobiography into film that lends itself particularly well to the cinematic medium. The flow created by stringing together images and sounds, in the right hands, can create the most evocatively impressionistic invocation of memory. Philosophical masters like Tarkovsky and Malick have used this approach, but it has also been germane to depictions of British working class life: just look at autobiographical masterpieces by Terence Davies or Bill Douglas, whose films excavate their own remembrances, events from their childhoods that may seem prosaic or banal or depressing are turned into something poetic, lyrical, even universal. While Ray and Liz may not hit those towering heights of Davies and Douglas, it deserves its place in that specific branch of British filmmaking, and the feature debut of photographer Billingham (whose work has often included raw snapshots of his own troubled family home) is a mighty achievement. Mostly it is warts-and-all brutal honesty, with Billingham (just as in his photography) unabashedly airing his family’s dirty laundry in public, and why not, since this is after all a film about people whose lives slip away, people who are all around us and whom we too easily tend to ignore in our society. As for the poetic, the vignette about Billingham’s own younger brother and how he spends his days skiving school reaches those profoundly moving heights of the personal-lyrical cinema of a Davies or a Douglas.
15. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Much like The Nightingale, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman sought to forge connections between different groups and identities in the face of forces trying to divide people. Sacrificing neither entertainment nor politics, Lee’s return to swaggering form was both stylish and deeply topical — its opening scene of Alec Baldwin (now noted as the go-to Trump impersonator on Saturday Night Live) as a KKK rhetoric-spouting bigot was carefully calculated, and its closing moments deliberately open up the 1970s fictional narrative into the contemporary present. I say fictional, but of course this story of an African-American cop (John David Washington) infiltrating a white supremacist organisation using his telephone voice (as an aside, an even more wildly entertaining but finally perhaps too chaotic African-American film of 2018, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, also hinged on a black man’s pretending to be white over the phone) and a Jewish cop (Adam Driver) as his physical stand-in is one of those stranger-than-fiction true stories. Lee, cast and crew turn it into an exploration of personal identity and mutual hate at the core of the divided US of A, a state-of-the-nation film high on stylish bravado and some of 2018’s great sequences (the Black Panther meeting, the parallel editing between Harry Belafonte and a screening of The Birth of a Nation, the closing minutes).
14. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski) & Columbus (Kogonada)
Okay, I’m cheating a little bit by including these two very different films as some sort of unplanned double-bill but lists are personal and arbitrary, so what’s the harm in making my own rules. Anyway, both these films felt like a breath of fresh air in their quietly empathetic and observational depictions of life in the central states (aka Trump-voting…) of the USA, Texas for Support the Girls and Indiana for Columbus. I remember how in the 1990s and 2000s when Iranian cinema was becoming big worldwide, many American critics expressed surprise that Iran with its media representation as some fundamentalist backward country could be exporting this wonderful, humanist and universal cinema. Well, I don’t know how film critics in Iran felt, but for me ironically the tables have turned and now after the madness of the recent political atmosphere of disunity and bile, I welcomed these American films as a reminder that not everyone is bonkers on the other side of the pond.
Both have very different, but in their own ways surprising and unassuming, subject matters, as well as their their own very different rhythms. Support the Girls follows the hectic schedule over one day in the life of a Hooters-style bar manager (Regina Hall whose incredible presence anchors the film just as her persistent solidarity towards her waitresses anchors the bar), coalescing into an empowering story of togetherness and girl power in the face of the difficulties and instabilities of modern employment. Meanwhile, Columbus operates on a far more minimalist, gentle pace, flowing over a few days in which a chance encounter, between a Korean architect’s son stuck in the town of Columbus and a local young woman with a passion for her town’s modernist architecture and a troubled family life, develops into an unexpected friendship. The feature debut of video essay maker Kogonada, it displays a real aesthetic and emotional awareness of how space and place help to shape who we are.
And perhaps more than anything, these two films combined in my mind to confirm the talent and acting range of Haley Lu Richardson, playing characters as different as the two films are in each, respectively a warm-hearted and confidently bubbly waitress and a nervous architecture buff plagued with doubts and emotional damage. A definite star in the making.
13. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher)
Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature is both a continuation and an ambitious expansion of what she was doing in her previous film, The Wonders. Once again the setting is a sort-of timeless fable (both films could be taking place in the 21st century or the 1960s, with clear time-markers deliberately left out) examining a clash between tradition and modernity within a community in rural Italy. But whereas in The Wonders the fairy-tale and magic realism elements remained subtle (e.g. Monica Bellucci’s TV presenter as a “fairy godmother”), here Rohrwacher goes into more full-on mystical territory, albeit in surprising ways. At the heart of the film is a teenage boy, Lazzaro, played by untrained actor Adriano Tardalo in a performance of simple purity which would have been at home as one of the Franciscan monks in Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio. For this is the thing about Lazzaro, he seems to be a holy fool, an innocent ‘saint’ too good for the world he lives in and hence finding no place in it. Something happens to him, in the middle of the film, which takes Happy as Lazzaro into unexpected directions and which ultimately makes this a film of two halves. I won’t say any more here, but what made this film stay long in my memory is Rohrwacher’s skill in pulling off this mode of storytelling and this gutsy shift of tone, something very few films even could even dare in 2018. It is a mode riding a fine line between documentary-style neorealism and pure magic realist parable, the kind of strangeness that would be in keeping with post-neorealist Italian classics like Kaos (1984) by the Taviani Brothers, and which was enough to make this one of the most audacious, memorable films of 2018.
12. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda)
It was somewhat of an ironic surprise to see the great Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda finally win a Cannes Palme d’Or, considering the consensus in recent years has been that his best, most innovative films are behind him. As a big admirer of his early run of films (Maborosi, After Life and Distance to name just a few), I somewhat subscribe to that view: his last five or six films have been hit-and-miss, but at the same time the way Koreeda’s films are being painted as “only” gentle, humanistic Ozu-lite family dramas is completely unfair.
Shoplifters, his best film in quite a few years, does well in contradicting this simplistic idea. It begins (maybe deliberately in a self-aware manner) as another seemingly warm-hearted family film, about two children, two parents, a younger aunt, and a grandmother (the Koreeda stalwart Kiki Kilin in her poignant swansong) who live a precarious existence on the margins of Japanese society by pinching groceries and hustling whatever money they can from part-time jobs. But soon, things reveal themselves as not what we thought they were. Like Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son (2013), Shoplifters proves to be an interrogation of the concept of family, asking questions about whether this fundamental building block of society should be meshed by biological relation or by personal choice. With some of his most fully-fleshed out characters in a long time, this inquiry becomes an ode to the makeshift family, coming together in solidarity, and the pinnacle of that theme plays out in one quietly lovely scene of a day-trip at the beach.
Beyond the individual family he is depicting, Koreeda is going for wider metaphor. Just like Leo Lionni’s story of Swimmy the fish, mentioned in passing by a character in the film: this is the story of an orphaned fish who swims with a school of other fish in order to avoid being eaten by bigger predators. The metaphor is not underlined but is clear all the same; what it says about family is obvious, but what it says about the predator-like Japanese society around the family is perhaps more hard-hitting — Prime Minister Kenzo Abe himself is rumoured to have hated the film. So much then for Koreeda being gentle and sweet and humanistic. By the time the film ends, Shoplifters leaves us with a real bitter sting, making it one of his darkest films. Comparisons with Yasujiro Ozu will keep on coming and are all well and good, but we should also connect Shoplifters to other Japanese masters: it is as strong as the mighty Mikio Naruse in its awareness of how money sours even the most loving relationships, and its depiction of a relationship between a father and son who both daydream of better things recalls Akira Kurosawa‘s Dodeskaden.
11. Genesis (Philippe Lesage)
Young Canadian actor Théodore Pellerin had already stolen a few scenes in Philippe Lesage’s previous Les Démons (which made my 2016 list) but here in Lesage’s follow-up he is an absolute revelation as a teenage boy struggling with the awakening of his non-heteronormative sexuality while at an elitist boarding school. Whether showing off charisma, cockiness, sensitivity or vulnerability Pellerin positively shines adolescent natural spontaneity, exactly the quality Lesage’s film seems to be an ode to, brimming with empathy for his young protagonists at every step of the way and hoping they can navigate the obstacle course of adolescence while learning to be true to their instinctive inner selves. Pellerin’s narrative is, however, just one of the three storylines Lesage interweaves here. The second main plotline belongs to the boy’s sister, slightly older, who falls into a vicious cycle of bad choices and even worse men, making the kind of mistakes that are unconsciously self-destructive and giving us what is probably the film’s weakest episode. This is more than made up for by a bold move in the film’s narrative structure which introduces the third plot strand — think of the way Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express stops and restarts in a trial-and-error manner— which invites the return of Felix, the young boy from Les Démons.
Across all three strands, youth itself is like a summer camp destined to end one day but which you’ll always remember and which before you even realise it comes to shape who you are. If the atmosphere in Les Démons was perfectly dialled on dread, here it is more carefully balanced between observation and mood, with the use of repeated music cues flowing over characters’ experiences, or at times unlocking underlying meanings. The Trashmen’s B-side to ‘Surfin’ Bird’ playing over scenes of physical exercise at the boarding school can only recall Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and hints at the dehumanising impact of these educational establishments at a crucial turning point in adolescent lives. All three characters seek in their own ways to preserve their identity and integrity, while inevitably hurling towards the adult world of conformity, expectations, societal roles, dulled emotion — all forces which inevitably encourage them to lose their innocence and deaden that inner child. In others words, Lesage poignantly posits his youngsters’ fleeting childhood as a paradise lost in the vein of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.
10. Transit (Christian Petzold)
Christian Petzold’s follow-up to the fantastic Phoenix is another rumination on identity, loss, and in its own way is also a period piece. But there the similarities end. Where Phoenix riffed on classics like Vertigo and The Marriage of Maria Braun, Transit is a more literary, abstract affair based on Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of exile and attempted escape in Nazi-occupied France.
Fleeing arrest from the military police and occupation forces in Paris to reach Marseille, Georg (played by Franz Rogowski, an actor who physically resembles a more mellow and vulnerable Joaquin Phoenix and had a memorable supporting role in Haneke’s Happy End) is witness to the deaths of two other men. As he reaches the French port and decides whether or not to set sail for Mexico, and with whom, Georg slowly becomes enmeshed in the lives, loved ones and identities of the two deceased men. This is the essential premise of Transit, a low-key existential thriller, and in this regard it succeeds. What pushes it beyond that is its boldly anachronistic setting that is simultaneously 1940s and contemporary. There are references to concentration camps and the purging of Jews, but the cars are modern, and the police weaponry and riot gear are of today and echo modern France’s response to the terrorist attacks of 2015. Everything else is non-descript, not particularly of past or present and, bar a few dates briefly glimpsed on official documents, there are no clear time-period markers.
Two things make this more than a gimmick. Firstly, the (rightly) often-noted parallels between today and the European political crisis that led to WW2 are projected onto each other. A look backwards at history is always inevitably done through the lens of the present, and Transit is upfront in not even attempting to hide this. The ghosts haunting today’s Europe are all here in this adaptation of a WW2 novel: the rise of the populist right, the refugee crisis, and in some bizarrely prescient way with its themes of borders and closures even the current coronavirus crisis. The past, in its terrible lessons and its contemporary echoes, feels all the more resonant.
Secondly, the neither-past-nor-present (or both past and present) setting is in harmony with what the story is about. Marseille is rendered abstract and anonymous, sort of like Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos turned into a port city, a permanent waiting room where exiled people linger in limbo unsure when and if they can ever sail away to safety. Georg as a character whose backstory we know almost nothing about has something of the blank mannequin about him, trying on different identities for size, and learning to shed his emotional detachment as he goes. So the setting of a time and place as a liminal space in between past and present, in between specific identity and abstract anonymity, in between one destination and the next, and even in between life and death, works for Georg’s and the film’s overall arc. Like he did with Phoenix, Petzold has once again assembled a film bigger than the sum of its parts, through which intellectual concept and emotional impact mutually reinforce each other.
9. Three Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Three Faces begins in the middle of a car journey triggered by an alarming phone message and social media video, sent by a rural teenage girl to director Jafar Panahi (playing himself) and the well-known Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself), which appear to show the girl committing suicide in protest at her traditional and conservative family refusing her permission to accept a scholarship at drama school. Both the director and actress, ridden with guilt at what the girl’s message says and shows, drive into the Iranian countryside in order to find out who she is and what happened to her.
The story seems new but at the same time strangely familiar. If Panahi’s previous (Taxi) was a revisitation of his own filmography in clever self-references, this feels more like homage to his friend and mentor, the late great Abbas Kiarostami who died in 2016. For those who have seen a few films of the so-called New Iranian Cinema, it won’t take long before the films of Kiarostami ring in your mind while you watch Three Faces. There’s the urban outsiders driving around rural Iran searching for a young person (Life and Nothing More), which also becomes a self-critique of the filmmaker turning his gaze on the countryside population (The Wind Will Carry Us), and an investigation into the yearning for celebrity to transcend one’s poverty (Close Up). There’s also the emphasis on issues related to women’s rights and an abundance of car-bound scenes (Ten) and, naturally, the blurring of lines between real-life and fiction with both lead characters (Panahi and Jafari) playing fictionalised versions of themselves, something which echoes any number of Kiarostami films.
There’s ample enough great filmmaking, tension and tonal shifts in Three Faces to make it a fine film on its own merits. But, like Jia Zhangke in Ash is Purest White, Panahi seems to have reached a stage where (partially because of restrictions on his filmmaking imposed by the Iranian authorities) he elects to look back at his career and even (with some nostalgia) on the achievements of Iranian cinema in the 1990s and 2000s, a time when it was one of the most exciting national cinemas in the world. He even looks back at pre-revolution Iranian cinema, with the pseudo-cameos of two main actors from the 1969 classic Gheisar. Panahi’s artistic energy continues to be a tribute to Iranian films and filmmakers, as defiantly as ever, and obliges me to also mention a couple of other recommended Iranian films from 2018 hovering not too far behind my final list. Both were set in Tehran rather than the countryside: Ali Soozandeh’s animated tale of the Iranian capital’s underbelly Tehran Taboo and Ali Jaberansari’s Tehran: City of Love, an acutely observed and deadpan tragi-comedy about loneliness and finding love in modern Iran. King Abbas may have left us but Iranian cinema lives on.
8. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
Just like Billingham’s Ray and Liz earlier on the list, this is another example of the cinematic medium crystallising a loose thread of impressionistic memories, taken directly from the filmmaker’s own life, into a resonant and often spellbinding film experience shot in gorgeous black and white. Cuarón has meticulously recreated the 1970s Mexico City of his childhood, but goes for a more detached point of view than many autobiographical films. Only gradually do the emotional and political layers of his narrative reveal themselves, without any rhetorical emphasis. At times it reminded me of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful telling of his own coming-of-age in A Time to Live and a Time to Die, but there’s no doubt the moral centre of the film here is not young Cuarón himself, but instead it is the young indigenous maid (played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio) who becomes a pillar of inner strength in his increasingly fractured bourgeois household. There might have been sentimental or even condescending pitfalls to avoid in making a film about the memories of your own maid, someone from a very different social, class and ethnic background to you. But Roma‘s approach in the large avoids all these in its blend of nostalgia, strange unexpected moments (often involving the maid’s boyfriend, whose narrative arc eventually leads to the film’s most political moments) and slow-burn immersive storytelling — and there’s even a transcendent family at the beach sequence to rival that of Shoplifters.
7. Die Tomorrow (Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit)
Ever since I was a child, I’ve remained semi-haunted by the realisation of how little we control we have over our own mortality. Every time we take a drive, we run the risk of being killed through no fault of our own. Every time we fly, we may feel relieved at the odds of a crash being something like one in ten million, but whether that one is your own plane has absolutely nothing to do with you. Then of course there’s the far shorter odds of one day getting a disease like cancer. We’re all playing a sort of ‘reverse lottery’ without ever having bought a ticket.
This ruminative video-essay-film hybrid by Thai filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit triggered the return of all these thoughts through me as I watched its six vignettes, each one based on real-life accidental and/or unexpected deaths which the director read about in Thai newspapers, and each one a re-enactment of some final (often trivial, but retrospectively poignant) moments in the final 24 hours of these six different people’s lives. Morbid it may sound, but the treatment is in fact beautifully flowing, gently life-affirming and so human.
Each of the six episodes is shot in a square 1:1 aspect ratio, scored to the airy cascading piano of Debussy’s Arabesques, in one single floaty long-take as if a cut could suddenly burst the scene’s bubble. These delicate moments are interspersed with intertitles which tell us about the real-life incidents, a recurring onscreen live-ticker counting the number of people who have died around the world as we watch (it averages 2 per second…), and interviews from opposite ends of the age spectrum: a 9-year-old boy whose first reaction on being told about death was to run it on Google search and a 103-year-old veteran of life who feels completely ready for the time to come. Death is something we all must face, all must come to terms with in our own way, and tackling it in this gorgeously poetic but very direct way feels salutary. In making this gentle meditation on mortality, Nawapol has actually conjured up an exploration of the topic (in fact an infinite spectrum of topics) which all great films are about in one way or another: what it means to be alive.
Nawapol is a director whose 36 (2012), the sensitive story of a young woman’s personal crisis of loss when her hard drive containing photos of great emotional value is accidentally and permanently erased, had already deeply impressed me as a formally rigorous and original inquiry into how the digital age has changed our conception of memory. I’m further convinced that he is a filmmaker whose work I wish to continue to follow very closely indeed.
6. A Gentle Creature (Sergei Loznitsa)
Sergei Loznitsa’s recent features may begin with a pre-movie credits stream of different co-producers, state funding bodies and national agencies from all sides of Europe, but there’s never any question which cultural entity is the true subject of his cinema: Mother Russia, in all its facets. Whether making archival montages of Soviet-era television, revisionist accounts of Belarusian resistance, or immersive studies of populist movements in Ukraine, Loznitsa’s work examines all the cultural tributaries of Russian and Soviet influence. A Gentle Creature, his third fiction feature (he has many documentaries and shorts on his CV), is no exception.
In the vein of his debut feature My Joy, a dark road trip through the Russian hinterlands, A Gentle Creature is the story of one woman’s quest across Russia to a Siberian prison where she hopes to find out why the parcel she has sent her incarcerated husband has been returned to sender. Once there, she meets totalitarian bureaucracy, ruthless dog-eat-dog hustlers who see her as prey, and various guides who only take her deeper down the circles of hell. The time period is also deliberately ambiguous; the appearance of a mobile phone is about the only signpost that this is post-USSR, but there lingers plenty of iconographic vestiges, myths and anecdotes relating to the old Soviet days, and many Kafkaesque nightmares to suggest new Russia is not so dissimilar to old Russia.
Besides skill with actors or in sustaining mood, all that makes up the genius of Loznitsa’s body of work can be found in A Gentle Creature. Like in many of his films, long takes and camera movements are meticulously choreographed to organically open up the film’s focus onto other characters, other conversations, other digressions, making his films something like being ground-level inside a Brueghel painting, or maybe even a Bosch. Several moments in a train station waiting room, where everyone sleeps and dreams, directly calls back to his hypnotic documentary short from 2000, The Halt. Then, just like in My Joy, Loznitsa and his now-regular DoP Oleg Mutu demonstrate impeccable control over the widescreen frame, telling multiple stories within the same shot as different things take place in foreground or background. Finally, the film’s final third veers into a dream sequence more surreal than anything in Loznitsa’s earlier work, suggesting a side of him we may not have seen before, but still very much conforming to his primary interest in excavating Russia’s collective unconscious.
His central character may be stuck in a bureaucratic cul-de-sac, but continuing to operate at a very high level, Loznitsa is himself exploring new avenues while honing his earlier themes and traits. On the face of it, he may not be telling us anything we don’t already know about post-USSR Russia: namely that it descended into a human jungle in which “man is a wolf to his fellow man”, as one cabbie puts it in the film. But the way he packages the message is nothing less than masterful — after all I did include a profile of Loznitsa in my Masters of Modern World Cinema series for good reason.
5. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
Made on the cusp of the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, an incident which saw the brutal murder of unarmed reformists assembled for a peaceful meeting at St Peter’s Square in Manchester, Mike Leigh’s latest is a procedural of the political process and a piece of revisionist history-telling of paramount relevance. Set during a time when the idea of democracy was considered radical enough to make the British Establishment tremble at the dreaded prospect of a repeat of the 1789 French Revolution on their shores, it resonates loud and clear as a reminder of the preciousness of democracy to us today in an era when it is in peril. Such a grand narrative requires a wide-scale view and Leigh shifts between London and Manchester, from the ruling class to the hungered peasants and factory workers, and just about everything in between: baton-happy coppers who enjoy cracking a few skulls, over-zealot Messiah-like idealists, grass-roots political meetings, a young soldier back from the Napoleonic wars with PTSD, a quartet of magistrates who ship unfortunate souls to Australia for the mere theft of a jacket, or the elite in London who call themselves the “moral superiors” of everyone born into a lower social status — something you can safely bet on the current bunch of Conservatives in charge of Britain still muttering behind closed doors.
Do not expect characterisation, for that is not what Leigh is going for. This is a panoramic exposition setting up the final denouement we all know is coming. And, not for the first time, he uses types and caricatures — the portrayal of the Prince Regent could be straight out of Blackadder and leaves us in no doubt where our sympathy must lie — to paint his ensemble. If Leigh’s previous film was a biopic of Turner, here one reference point might be Hogarth and his picture-series telling narratives across different paintings, likewise often relying on caricature to warn of moral pitfalls or to lampoon aristocratic hypocrisy. Leigh too uses artful caricature and clarity of organisation to give us a panoramic view of 1819, the political context, the social inequality, the hopes of ordinary people, and the systemic rot in which smart young working-class people with potential are forced to waste their lives (a recurring theme for Leigh, just think of Phil Daniels in Meantime or David Thewlis in Naked). Perhaps most of all though, Peterloo lets us hear the varying cadences and affectations of speech of these many characters, since this is so much a film about talk, debate, discussion, speaking as a political act, and for this reason it functions almost as oral history. Appropriate, since this is the primary way that the memory of this assault on justice and freedom has been passed down in the region where it happened, for the British school curriculum offers almost no mention of it at all in its history classes…
4. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)
Like Jia Zhangke, first-time (and tragically last-time) director Hu Bo is interested in exploring the contradictions at the root of China’s huge economic transitions: the neo-capitalist nation may be materially wealthier, but how to fill the emptiness and existential vacuum left behind following the death of communist ideology? Rather than Jia’s macro-saga spanning two decades, however, An Elephant Sitting Still takes place only over one day, in a grim industrial town in Northern China. This is no ordinary day however. Over its mammoth 4-hour duration and dense, novelistic accumulation of characterisation and observational details, Hu Bo’s film takes on the weight of an entire outlook on life. Four different plot strands are interwoven through Hu’s careful tapestry and long mobile takes in desaturated colour, focusing on four characters each world-weary for different reasons, and each wanting to leave the city. They’ve heard that in the town of Manzhouli, an elephant sits in acceptance of the absurdity of life. A Buddhist concept, paired with a hint of Camus’ take on Sisyphus. But make no mistake, even if An Elephant carries a philosophical weight, it very much remains rooted in the concrete real-life symptoms and political realities of modern China, a society with nothing left to believe in and in which almost all relations has been soured by money, corruption and selfishness. There is some hope in Hu’s masterfully crafted vision (e.g. one character unexpectedly saves a life, or the final shot depicts a makeshift community coming together equally unexpectedly) but you have to squint quite hard to see it.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room when discussing this film and that is the suicide of Hu Bo, aged just 29, before the film was even released. It becomes tempting to read his suicide into his film, with its characters who feel bruised and battered into numbness by all the despair around them. But this is a temptation better rejected. For all his obvious awareness of the ugliness of the world around him, and for all the nihilism and pessimism of his characters, Hu Bo took on the gargantuan feat of making such a complex and accomplished film, and (even if posthumously) he succeeded. The very act of making this film, the art and craft that went into it, the skill and the ideas, transcends the despair and nihilism. True nihilism would be to not even bother expressing oneself, but to make art can be already more than enough to make life still worth living and that transcendence is finally what the film leaves you feeling after its epic, weighty four hours.
3. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Yes, we can all trace the DNA of First Reformed back to Bresson and Bergman, but Paul Schrader’s self-described “serious film for serious times” is nevertheless a film of the here and now, perhaps the most fine-tuned reading of a zeitgeist in Schrader’s filmography since he practically launched 1980s aesthetics with American Gigolo. And again, yes, on the face of it Schrader the Calvinist has made a film about a crisis of faith within a priest struggling to reconcile his values in the material world. But look again and you see this is not the Bressonian transcendence of Diary of a Country Priest but a more explicitly political depiction of the moral gangrene setting in. That makes it closer to Bresson’s 1977 masterpiece The Devil, Probably, in which the resonant line “The whole world is being sold and destroyed for profit” is uttered. Here, we are no longer dealing with some great imagined Satan but with very real corporations whose very real actions are making our despair a commodity in the face of global crises.
This is, like Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, a film about that apocalyptic despair which seems to be hovering all around us and how to cope with it, how to want to live on, and how to want to do something as basic and as once taken for granted as love. It is a despair which is passed on from one suicidal parishioner onto Ethan Hawke’s world-weary priest (an immense performance from an actor who’s matured like fine wine over the years), and a despair which from there resonates through every carefully framed shot of Schrader’s film. This is not despair in the mode of the sociopathic nihilism of Travis Bickle, but the much harder struggle of caring in this uncaring world. One of the most profound and necessary films of recent years and Schrader’s finest work in decades.
2. Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
A metaphysical thriller, of sorts, Burning begins with a chance meeting between two young Koreans: the carefree advertising model Hae-mi who dreams of exploring the world and Jang-su who longs to be a writer but instead spends his time working menial jobs and picking up the mess his incarcerated father has left behind. To complicate matters, Hae-mi insists they were childhood acquaintances but Jang-su has no recollection of her. This is one of many ambiguous questions the film leaves up in the air, but it does not stop the young man from becoming quickly infatuated with this ‘manic pixie dream girl’ he may or may not have known…
Things only get murkier when Hae-mi introduces a new man into what becomes a love triangle, the Korean-American Ben who is everything Jang-su is not: rich, successful, confident to the point of arrogance, able to own whatever he wants including the young women in his life whom he treats no different to possessions. Everything hinges on Hae-mi’s disappearance midway through the film, and all those ambiguous ‘did he or did he not’ questions then take over the film.
Lee Chang-dong, himself part of the dissident 1980s generation who protested against Korea’s military dictatorship, is here relating with a new generation’s feelings of anger, lack of opportunity and dispossession, in Korea and worldwide. What he adds to the dangerous molotov cocktail in Burning is powerlessness. The slow-burn narrative lingers with the sense of how easily we can become overwhelmed by the infinite web of events, information, media, injustices, and other constant sources of righteous but deeply distressing rage all of which we can do nothing about. In the case of Jang-su, his powerlessness leaves him trapped in a state of perpetual frustration, desperately attempting to piece together random pieces of the jigsaw in order to make sense of things around him which may well be unknowable, locking him into what one of the central metaphors of the film terms the ‘Great Hunger’. Lee’s first film since Poetry in 2010 is certainly his most broodingly mysterious and elusive, and in unexpected ways his most topical, tapping into the wider mood in a captivatingly potent way.
1. The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Following 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (still one of the best films of this century for my money), Turkey’s foremost art cinema proponent Nuri Bilge Ceylan has gravitated from a more allusive, moodily minimalistic style to a more explicitly literary mode. Somehow his last two films feel both topical (the subtle allusions to the state of things in contemporary Turkey are pointedly present) and simultaneously timeless, the way great literature makes its most memorable characters immortal. In The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan has created his own Raskolnikov or Meursault, not only with a pen but thanks to a thoroughly impressive performance by Doğu Demirkol as Sinan. With the arrogance of youth and the misanthropy of someone who deems himself superior to his surroundings, he returns like a prodigal son to his provincial hometown after graduating from university. Restless at home in front of a gambling father he despises and hopes to be the opposite of, he traipses all over town in a series of encounters and conversations as he mulls over his limited slate of options.
To live the literary life would be his dream but he’s also disgusted at the idea of being tied down as a provincial writer, and anyway nobody is willing to lend him the money to self-publish the book he has written — one scene has him describe it as a “quirky meta-fiction free prose novel”, with the wry humour poking fun at his pretentious bloatedness certainly intended by Ceylan, but whether it’s any good or not we are never told. So the other, more realistic, avenues are teaching (his father’s profession), the police or the army, either staying in this stale little town he hates or, perhaps worse, going to waste his youth away in the far eastern Turkish hinterlands. In other words, while it could be a universal treatise on youth, the film is at core specifically about the rotten lot of the current young generations of Turkey, and Ceylan makes subtle allusions throughout, as Sinan meets politicians, businessmen, religious clerics, that this is a state-of-the-nation film.
But as you would expect from Ceylan, it is also much more, a weighty philosophical treatise on the passing of time, on the relay race from one generation to the next, on the burden of history, on the assimilation into society of misanthropic outcasts, on the role of the artist. All with enough magic, atmosphere, and complex ideas to make it never less than compelling. As ever Ceylan captivates through control of image and sound, with astute use of slow zooms or switches in frame speed to create uncanny, momentary fluctuations in atmosphere with expert precision. In particular, the scene between Sinan and Hacine, his old high school flame, under the trees by the well reaches the heights of the angel-at-night epiphany in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. It also betrays a remnant of Ceylan’s influence from the Koker-era films of Abbas Kiarostami; I like to imagine this conversation as the cynical, world-weary version of that had by Hossein and Tahereh in Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees. And then, there’s the final shot, more than fully earnt after our several hours with Sinan, as he finally realises where his own wild roots really lie. About as happy an ending as we can get in the wintry and life-affirming universe of Ceylan’s cinema.