Thursday, December 29, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2016

Only Angels Have Wings
Over the last two years, I have been maintaining a movie journal as a way of keeping track of the best new and old films I watch in a given month. This is partly an administrative task - it's a lot easier to make end of year lists if you already have a bunch of lists to work from - but it's also part of an ongoing desire to watch more, and more varied, films. If I get to the end of a given month and I see that I've watched a lot of French or Japanese films (or not enough French and Japanese films, for that matter), or if I've watched a lot of films noir at the expense of everything else, that gives me an impetus to seek out films from other eras, countries or genres in the immediate future. It's an awkward self-correcting system, but it more or less keeps things balanced.

To put a cap on a year in which I watched around 250 older movies (i.e. ones released before 2016), I looked back and picked out the ones that have stuck with me the most over the last twelve months. Since it's hard to rank them all against each other, I have ordered them chronologically by release date (though I will call out the very best older film I watched because it also happened to be the very best thing I watched all year) to give a sense of what my film watching year looked like away from the 2016 treadmill.

In some cases these films lingered because they led me to discover others films from a specific filmmaker or movement that I hadn't considered before, in others it was because they were just great. In several cases, it was because they were among the stranger films I've ever seen, and featured images that I won't forget any time soon. For whatever reason, these are the twenty older movies that had the biggest impact on me in 2016.

Only Angels Have Wings (dir. Howard Hawks, 1939)

Although he wasn't one of the most prolific directors to come out of Hollywood's early years - largely because, unlike someone like John Ford, he didn't direct a ton of silent films - Howard Hawks has such a strong catalogue of classics and near-classics that there always seems to be one great film more waiting for me, even after I think I've seen all the major ones. Only Angels Have Wings was the latest Hawks joint to sneak up on me, being a film which I had not heard of before but which became a firm favourite as soon as I finished watching it. Starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth, it's almost the Platonic ideal of a Howard Hawks movie; charming, attractive people throwing barbs back and forth at each other while working to achieve a common goal, in this case operating a crumbling airline in South America. It's got action, suspense and charm to burn.

Gaslight (dir. George Cukor, 1944)

There's something about the cheeriness of old Hollywood films that makes their darkness so much more sinister. There's a lot of pep and energy to the performances, and they try to toss out as many solid quips as the story will allow, but that all makes for a stark contrast when evil is a foot. That dichotomy is used to particularly memorable effect in George Cukor's tale of a woman (Ingrid Bergman) being slowly driven mad by the people around her: the joie de vivre of Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury only adds to the sense that Bergman is experiencing an entirely different reality. Arguably the most useful film to watch in 2016, if only because the term "gaslighting" is going to get a lot more common in the next few years.

Sergeant Rutledge (dir. John Ford, 1960)

John Ford directed so many movies, not to mention so many Westerns, that it's hardly surprising that buried among iconic films like Stagecoach and The Searchers there are plenty of good, even great film that don't get as much attention. Sergeant Rutledge is one such movie, and it's a fine piece of filmmaking. Woody Strode plays a decorated and beloved soldier accused of rape and murder, while Jeffrey Hunter plays the man assigned to defend him at his court martial. It's a rigorously structured courtroom drama/mystery peppered with flashbacks to allow for some derring-do to break up the film's attacks on racism and bigotry, a mix that could have backfired by cheapening the moral arguments in the case, but ends up reinforcing Rutledge's decency and grace. It's basically a Stanley Kramer movie that's actually enjoyable.

Cléo From 5 to 7 (dir. Agnès Varda, 1961)

I said I would call out the best film I saw this year and here it is. A movie so great that I felt elated after seeing it and angry at myself for not watching it sooner. Varda only covers two hours in the life of Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a singer worried that she might have cancer, but in those two hours she manages to convey so much about her life and worldview; her hopes, her fears, her philosophy. It's all so sickeningly French and gorgeous.

The L-Shaped Room (dir. Bryan Forbes, 1962)

It's nothing new to say that British cinema has something of an inferiority complex. Apart from the occasional film that succeeds and makes waves worldwide, or at the very least breaks out of the usual period piece/urban crime drama/bad comedy molds, our national cinema tends to be overshadowed by Hollywood, Europe, and basically anywhere that isn't Britain. The lackluster state of contemporary British films has had the adverse effect of making me underrate or outright dismiss a lot of the older ones, a mistake which I'll try not to make again after watching films like Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and The L-Shaped Room. While it hews to the social realist vein of British cinema in telling its story of a French woman (Leslie Caron) who moves into a boarding house after becoming pregnant, the film is much livelier than that tag would suggest. It's an at times giddy story about bonhomie and friendship in adversity which never loses sight of its heroine's dire situation.

Black Girl (dir. Ousmane Sembene, 1966)

One of the best films I've ever seen about colonialism and its aftermath, Sembene takes the story of a Senegalese girl (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) who goes to work as a maid in France and turns it into an unforgiving and unremitting indictment of how France (and, by extension, all European powers) used and abused the people they invaded, colonised and ruled for decades, and continued to do so even after their empires started to fall apart. Yet despite its bleakness, it manages to feel lively and exciting, if only because of the thrill that comes from articulating a cogent political argument through art.

Closely Watched Trains (dir. Jirí Menzel, 1966)

One of the targets I set myself this year was to watch some of the major films of the Czech New Wave since it was one of the film movements from the '60s that I had largely ignored. While I loved the surreal, aggressive inventiveness of Daisies, this coming of age story about working at a train station was the one that most surprised me because, based solely on the name, I assumed it was going to be a weighty, punishing drama. While it deals with serious ideas through its World War II setting, it's defined mainly be a bawdiness and a sense of fun that I absolutely was not expecting, but came away thoroughly delighted by.

Seconds (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1966)

John Frankenheimer is one of those reliable journeyman directors who directed some great films - most notably The Manchurian Candidate - but was distinguished more by solid craftsmanship than a clear artistic vision. Which makes Seconds an interesting film in his oeuvre because, although it exhibits the same polish as his other films, it also displays a visual sophistication lacking from the solid action films, thrillers and dramas that made his name. It's a nightmarish vision of a man who pays a company to fake his own death, then rebuild his body so that he looks by Rock Hudson, a process which is supposed to make him happy but ultimately causes his entire world to fall apart. One of the most savage and compelling movies ever made about the promise of America.

Portrait of Jason (dir. Shirley Clarke, 1967)

Something I've realised this year - in part thanks to my decision to mainline episodes Billy on the Street - is that I'm fascinated by situations in which a usually benign interaction turns contentious or toxic, but both parties continue with it because they're being filmed. Such is the case with Clarke's film, in which she interviews Jason Holliday, a gay cabaret performer whose life story is unfurled through a series of long monologues prompted by increasingly antagonistic questions from Clarke and crew. Even as their conversation becomes increasingly ugly, neither side backs down or tries to end it because of the presence of a camera and expectations about the need for performance, which in turns prompts a deeper and more revealing conversation that the film's initial string of interesting but superficial stories would suggest.

News From Home (dir. Chantal Akerman, 1977)

When Chantal Akerman took her own life last year, I resolved to see as much of her work as possible. She had been someone whose name I had heard a lot from friends who knew a lot more about cinema than I did, and I felt that I had been letting the side down by not seeking out her work with enough urgency while she was alive. I've now seen about a dozen of her films and she has become one of my favourite filmmakers, and this documentary is the one that hit an especially strong chord with me. Consisting of footage of New York played under voiceover of Akerman reading letters from her mother, it's a deeply melancholy film about homesickness, loneliness, and the pull of the past, played out in the conflict between the images and the soundtrack; the bustling, chaotic world of Akerman's adulthood versus the calmer, quainter concerns of her distant family.

Possession (dir. Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)

If you ever want to see what happens when someone really goes for it, watch Isabelle Adjani in Possession. It's a performance of pure hysteria and madness that veers between funny and disturbing pretty quickly. Yet whether she's asking her husband (Sam Neill) for a divorce or screaming in a tunnel covered in her own blood, she's never less than convincing. Possession is a unique vision of horror that is hard to shake, largely because it's hard to describe or understand. It feels like a work of pure id, and whatever Żuławski was letting out into the world is difficult to parse, but exciting to consider.

Let's Get Lost (dir. Bruce Weber, 1988)

How much I like a music documentary is usually diametrically opposed to how much I know about the subject. If I'm already a fan, then I get bored of hearing stuff I already know about an artist I already like. Case in point: I knew nothing about jazz legend Chet Baker prior to watching Let's Get Lost and came away absolutely enraptured by the film, in large part because it avoids all the cliches of the form. It doesn't try to capture every detail of Baker's work and life, but instead offers a sketch of his past, full of hope and promise, before contrasting it against his later years, when drugs and alcohol had ravaged his body and almost destroyed his career. It's a deeply sad film, made even more so by Baker's death not long after filming had been completed, but one which captures something of Baker's charisma and charm. You can see why people kept wanting to work with him, even when he struggled to work at all.

The Lovers on the Bridge (dir. Leos Carax, 1991)

Carax's wildly expensive folly - the film was delayed so often that it was only completed after multiple backers injected money into it over several years - was worth every franc. A giddy mashup of grand excess and painful intimacy, it's a small love story played out against a grand location, driven by two incredible performances from Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche. One of the most swooningly romantic movies ever made to also feature a mashup of Public Enemy and Benjamin Britten.

Jacquot de Nantes (dir. Agnès Varda, 1991)

Agnès Varda was a filmmaker whose work I really dug into this year, and while there were a bunch of great, inventive films by her which I could have included here, this documentary about/tribute to her late husband - the brilliant director Jacques Demy - was the one that had the biggest emotional impact. Mixing together interviews with Demy conducted towards the end of his life, footage from his films and re-enactments of events from his life that inspired his work, it's a gorgeous, loving celebration of the man and his work which deftly blurs the line between the two.

Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

One of my goals this year was to watch more films directed by women - something which I will discuss in more detail in a later post - and part of that involved exploring the works of female directors who I had heard of, but had little direct experience with. As a result, 2016 became the year I fell in love with Kelly Reichardt's work, a process which began with this beautifully observed drama about Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young woman traveling to Alaska with her dog, Lucy, who she subsequently loses when she gets arrested for shoplifting. The entire film is wonderful, with a really keen sense of Wendy's deprivation as she tries to survive with nothing but a small amount of money and a supremely busted car, but the second half, in which she tries to find Lucy, is spectacular. It manages to be a low-key drama and a deeply stressful thriller (especially if you're a dog person) that boasts a rare, perfect ending.

3 Idiots (dir. Rajkumar Hirani, 2009)

There are a lot of countries whose film industries I am largely ignorant of, but the one that I always feel the most ashamed about is India's. I know Satyajit Ray's work and I know about some of the important movies thanks to Mark Cousins' The Story of Film, but other than that I know next to nothing about Bollywood, which is surprising given that I love musicals and love nothing more than a story filled with big, soaring emotions. Hopefully 3 Idiots, one of the most successful Bollywood films ever, will act as something of a gateway for me, because I loved every minute of this goofy, exuberant story of three friends looking for an old college pal who has gone missing. [Stefon voice] It's got everything: songs, a birth in a flood, people being electrocuted while pissing. What more could you want from a movie?

Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (dir. Peter Tscherkassky, 2005)

I've got an admittedly low tolerance for experimental films. I can appreciate them intellectually, but lose patient with them very quickly if there isn't much of a story to hang the experimentation on. At a little under seventeen minutes, Tscherkassky's short film is the perfect length so that it doesn't wear out its welcome, while the way in which it recontextualises footage from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly makes for an exciting bit of borderline sacrilege. I didn't think that things could get worse for Eli Wallach's character, but Tscherkassky's assault of sound and imagery turns what was merely a bad situation into an existential hellscape.

Boy (dir. Taika Waititi, 2010)

I watched this in anticipation of Waititi's The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and I almost wish that I hadn't. While Wilderpeople is a thoroughly charming and wonderful movie, it's maybe only about half as charming and wonderful as Boy, and seeing the earlier film gave me unreasonable expectations. It's one of the best coming of age stories I've ever seen, one filled with memorable characters, hilarious dialogue and, through its young lead's imagination, some delightfully weird imagery. Now that Waititi is part of the Disney juggernaut - he co-wrote Moana and is directing the third Thor movie - I'm not sure how many more of these small, personal films he'll get to make, which makes a film as perfect as Boy even more precious.

Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

Considering that The Invitation was one of my favourite films of 2016, it's becoming increasingly clear that my favourite niche sub-genre is "low-budget genre movies about dinner parties gone wrong". The comparison to Karyn Kusama's film is a little facile, though, since the two films could not be more different in tone and complexity: while The Invitation is a taught mystery, Coherence is a heady sci-fi mindfuck that takes a single setting (the aforementioned dinner party) and uses it to spin a tale about comets, fractured identities, and multiple realities. The endless result is overwhelming and delirious.

The Armor of Light (dirs. Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes, 2015)

This is the most recent film on this list, both in terms of release date and (since I watched it yesterday) initial viewing. I'd read a lot of great reviews of it towards the end of last year but had no opportunity to actually see it at the time. I'm glad that I made the effort because Disney and Hughes' documentary about Rob Schenck, a pro-life Evangelical preacher who began to speak out against gun violence following the Washington Navy Yard shootings in 2013, as well as the story and activism of Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, the black teenager who was shot and killed by a white motorist over an argument about loud music, is incredible.

The arguments about gun control are well-known and oft-stated at this point, but what makes The Armor of Light so fascinating is the way in which it chronicles Schenck's ethical and moral evolution as someone who vehemently opposes abortion, but finds himself unable to maintain a pro-gun stance while claiming to be pro-life. His realisation about how central gun culture has become to the Evangelical movement is striking to behold, as it offers the rare sight of watching someone's thinking and beliefs change on-screen. His interactions with McBath as she becomes more involved with advocacy groups are also incredibly powerful; it's as clear and potent an example I've ever seen of the power of empathy to change the lives of individuals, and maybe the world. A film of tremendous grace and understanding.