December 30, 2015

Year in review

Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966). Hunted by the enemies of written language, and its production of individuality. Relationships to the (better) Blow-Up: a similar-looking male lead, a chic imported director, but this is stuck in a scrupulously modernist suburbia. 

December 23, 2015

More is more

Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015). The new Star Wars blurs the lines that would normally separate a reboot from a remake from a sequel, which makes it nearly as forward-looking as the George Lucas original was in 1977, despite its appearance of looking backwards. Lucas made the old new again; in a more narrow sense, so does Abrams in an ingeniously pitched film that is skilfully designed to disappoint no one. When it quotes the originals, it does so with a knowing wit, and when it coins fresh dialogue, it often joins us in commenting on the wonders we are seeing or the new chance we are getting (“It’s true. All of it.” “I can't believe we’re really doing this.” “Don’t stare ... at any of it.”) The story and visuals are clear and simple and the performances by the franchise’s newcomers – Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac – are powerful and compelling, which is pretty much the exact reverse of the prequels, where the images were cluttered and actors rarely seemed to be in the same galaxy as each other, let alone the same room (with the exception of Ian McDiarmid, who has never got enough credit). There is pastiche and then there is revising history: it’s hard not to imagine that Abrams and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt are not only remaking the original, they are doing an even more audacious thing, which is to correct one of the prequels’ most notable flaws. What is Driver’s Kylo Ren but the petulant Anakin Skywalker done right? 

December 22, 2015

Watching Paul Dano

Paul Dano has been so superb at creeps that you sense come easily to him (12 Years a Slave, There Will Be Blood, Prisoners) that it was good this year to see him take that quality – hurt, which can manifest as something painful or dangerous or sullen – and do more with it, stretch it, in Sorrentino’s Youth and, especially, Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Dano is tremendous in the Wilson film, as the genius drowning in the sounds he hears in his head, but the movie is mostly a straight film about going crazy, with a certain truth to prove. I thought of a different way in: take all the Dano scenes and separate them from the burnt-out John Cusack scenes, and run Inherent Vice in the middle; lead in and out of the join with Love & Mercy’s hallucinatory three Brians in one bedroom (2001: A Brian Wilson Odyssey). That Dano and Cusack don’t really look or seem alike would matter less and the weirdness would increase, with Paul Giamatti seeming like a grotesque who escaped from Inherent Vice: California bad dreaming. 

December 10, 2015

The 15 films of 2015

1 Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). This is what a comeback looks like. Not a cash-in, not nostalgia, not a lazy retread but something bigger, louder, faster and wilder. Everything madder than everything else. It felt like it had to happen.
2 Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In unexpected ways, this was almost a companion piece to Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth: it’s about performance, youth, glamour and the innate selfishness of artistic creation. It’s a nuanced, beautifully acted film.
3 Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015). Sleep as escape, even as a political act. Deep and mesmerising.
4 Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014). Why are all the great actors in capes? Birdman was a technical feat, a stunt that felt lighter than air, an inside joke about acting and insecurity and Hollywood vs theatre, with almost too many self-aware layers to penetrate.
5 Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015). Call this psychedelic ethnography – there was a wizard in the audience and there was a shaman on screen. This Colombian revelation steered me towards Ciro Guerra’s earlier film The Wind Journeys, which is also highly recommended.
6 Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015). It was divisive and often unloved, but this ambitious Paolo Sorrentino statement (or is that “testament”?) floored me. Michael Caine, in his frailty, has seldom been better.
7 The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014). Factions and dark uprisings in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, told in sign language without subtitles – no, I didn’t understand a word but I got it.
8 The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015). Brilliant, excessive, too much: Guy Maddin is good in small doses and this was a big, big dose.
9 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014). Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing Indonesian atrocity documentaries reveal a world in which evil has not just gone unpunished – no one has even called it evil. The effect is nauseating: you watch in disbelief as morality is turned upside down.
10 Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014). I preferred this to Bennett Miller’s more celebrated and more pretentious Capote. Maybe this is Capote’s gloomier, colder, quieter brother: no one comes out of this story as a success. 
11 Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015). A war film without a war, set on the porous drug-gang borders between Mexico and the United States. Denis Villeneuve generates ambient fear in the sky, on the ground, in tunnels and on dark, lonely roads that could be on either side.
12 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). In a perfect world, this Scientology expose, with David Miscavige as the tyrannical lord of time and space and Tom Cruise as his celebrity enabler and sidekick, will get the documentary Oscar next year. That would be like a bomb going off in Hollywood.
13 The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, 2014). Profundity came easily or flowed naturally in this sensational, moving documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado that tracked, over the course of one life, discovery, disillusionment and then that rare thing, hope.
14 Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Sleek, efficient and often funny science-fiction about female robots and male anxiety. It also contained the year’s least expected dance sequence.
15 Mr Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014). A portrait of the great artist as a grunting genius.

Worst film of 2015: Terminator Genisys. In a year of successful reboots (Mad Max, Star Wars, the disposable Jurassic World) this one was an absolute franchise-killer. It won’t be back, surely.

Disappointments: Blackhat, Inherent Vice, The Wolfpack

Acting: Michael Caine in Youth, Michael Keaton in Birdman, Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Tom Courtenay in 45 Years, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

Films about writers: Should we have felt touched and even inspired by the mostly agreeable and cuddly version of David Foster Wallace that The End of the Tour gave us? Perhaps. But the less heralded, cynical Listen Up Philip was just as true in its portrait of a “notable” writer as a total fucking asshole. Not inspiring at all, but refreshing.

For kids: Inside Out.

Documentaries (recent New Zealand history edition): in The Price of Peace, The Art of Recovery and The Women of Pike River, three of the most traumatic events of the past decade were explained and contextualised in ways that even long-form journalism seldom allows.

Documentaries (the dark side of Hollywood edition): Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Listen to Me Marlon

December 7, 2015


Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015). It would be easy to say that Paolo Sorrentino doubles down on the Fellini-isms of The Great Beauty by moving from a variation on La Dolce Vita to a variation on 8 ½ and giving us not one but two ageing and self-absorbed men working through their issues about mortality, frailty, regret and beautiful young women, but where The Great Beauty seemed grandiose and self-pitying, Youth has a gentle humour, thanks largely to nuanced performances by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as a retired composer and a still-working film director taking their regular holiday in a Swiss spa that feels more like a luxury prison for famous people. Despite their blind spots, both men are regularly made available for criticism from women: there is a blistering monologue from Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter and a matching take-down from Jane Fonda as Keitel’s muse. Sorrentino is aiming for high modernism and big statements, and if you think that “pretentiousness” is always a sin, then stay away, but it’s hard not to be impressed by this much ambition and feeling. 

December 6, 2015


On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969). There are so many things wrong with this – the constant innuendo, the oafish lead, the repetitive and badly composed action scenes and a general sense of carelessness – but the post-Bonnie and Clyde ending is such a great downer, almost worthy of the Craig era. 

November 29, 2015

Death and the maidens

Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). Call this evolution: the “Bond girl” names have gone from the sniggering Pussy Galore to the Proustian Madeleine Swann. I really like the gloominess of the Craig-era, Mendes-directed Bonds, and part of that gloominess comes from the intense seriousness of the acting – Daniel Craig, Ben Whishaw, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Belluci, less so Christoph Waltz as usual – and part of it comes from the visual quality but most of it derives, as in Skyfall, from the morbid, death-haunted themes. Bond is an assassin, a death-carrier, and he is bad luck for everyone who associates with him. Death is in the first seconds of Spectre, in Mexico, and stays almost to the end. Dead villains, friends, family and lovers keep being remembered. Bond’s first (most callous) conquest is a widow at a funeral. So it goes. But there are new traces of lightness too, of the glamour and absurdity of the 60s and 70s, as if by popular demand: a romantic train ride through North Africa, a ski setting in Austria, a wildly overlong car chase through the night-time streets of Rome, complete with gadgets, a villain’s secret base in a crater, the erotic-octopus opening credits set to a suitably terrible song. The depression is lifting, but hopefully not too much. 

November 27, 2015

Old machines

Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015). Here is the worst film of the year, if only for its pointlessness and cynicism. Imagine that the first two, Cameron-directed Terminators were dismantled and then reassembled the wrong way. The pieces don’t fit. You know the names but not the faces; the old catchphrases come out of the wrong mouths at the wrong times; familiar scenes replay but without the same meanings; the past is cancelled and all that is solid melts like liquid metal.

November 23, 2015

Dinosaur act

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015). Twenty years later, we’re all so jaded that the things that scared us in Jurassic Park have become our friends, or even our pets. Anonymous understudy Colin Trevorrow and his effects team do less with more; the script barely goes further than being a list of sub-Spielbergian themes and ideas that someone forgot to flesh out later; and the reverence towards its traditions is embarrassing. On the other hand, there’s that pterodactyl attack scene.

November 12, 2015

The helicopter at the end of Werckmeister Harmonies

Which should have appeared in this blog’s selection of great helicopter moments in films. As it’s Tarr, it’s prolonged and ominous. It sees out, we don’t see in. 

November 5, 2015

Wounded animal

Marlon Brando rearranges the disordered ruins of his life into something closer to a redemptive shape in Listen to Me Marlon, with posthumous narration from beyond the grave assembled from Brando’s private audiotapes by writer, director and editor Stevan Riley. The idea of secret recordings in dark rooms might suggest Nixon, Kurtz or Jim Jones – or any other maniac or recluse – but the private Brando is a warmer, much more sympathetic, troubled figure: not so much paranoid as flawed, endlessly self-examining, wounded and deeply sensitive. And no matter how much Brando tried, none of us ever really get to escape scrutiny but at least Riley, acting for Brando Enterprises, finds something to salvage from a tragic and raw story of generational damage, violence, life-changing early success and wasted talent. The meaning of Brando’s life that Riley creates, in the end, is about the pleasure that acting brings to others – a suitably generous conclusion to a fascinating and constantly entertaining account. 

October 29, 2015

Home and humane values

As in Saving Private Ryan, set in equally treacherous Europe a decade earlier, Tom Hanks embodies home and humane values in Steven Spielberg’s cold war thriller Bridge of Spies. Who wants to play pure decency? Hanks’ comedic gifts allow him to wriggle around a little but I was drawn more to the sly Mark Rylance, here as Soviet spy and amateur painter Rudolf Abel. As ever, it’s a handsome production and does any cinematographer anywhere light a scene as beautifully as Janusz Kaminski? His bright white light has become so identified with the Spielberg look that you might wonder what it represents. The light of knowledge, the light of justice? 

October 28, 2015


“Bergman has been remarkably frank in avowing the confessional nature of Hour of the Wolf, which he called an open display of ‘the sore on my soul’. During ‘long periods in my life’, he told a startled interviewer, real ‘demons and bad wolf-hours’ had plagued him … Some of the demons – Bergman has specifically mentioned the old lady who removes her face and the creature who walks on the ceiling – entered the film directly from his recurring dreams.”
The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, by Frank Gado.

“Normally the Anglo-Saxon approach to a ghost story – even in the best cases, like MR James – is an approach that sees the rational clashing with the supernatural. On the other hand, in Crimson Peak there’s a full-blown acceptance of the ghosts being real from the first ten seconds of the film. There is a postulate that opens the movie that says, ‘Ghosts are real. This much I know.’ That’s a very Mexican thing to say.”
Guillermo Del Toro in Sight and Sound, November 2015.  

October 25, 2015

Portrait of a Gothic Lady/Gothic Portrait of a Lady

Can you do the Gothic in the 21st century without it being overpoweringly about the Gothic? (Westerns have a similar problem.) Early on, Guillermo Del Toro’s Gothic ghosts-and-romance melodrama Crimson Peak is up against that challenge: everything seems obvious (ghosts are metaphors of the past, our heroine explains) and there is little sense of mystery and fear. Yet, slowly and subtly, it shifts gears, and an almost stifling reverence about tradition and overt nods at predecessors – the surname Cushing, anyone? – fade like ghosts in sunlight and the story takes more natural and brutal turns, as though Del Toro has finally dug deep into the red clay of his unconscious. Within the beautifully imagined boundaries of this beautifully acted film, there is some highly emotional and maybe even personal material about parental absence and damage – parents are either violently battered or disfigured by disease – and as in a dream, a crimson tide of blood soaks everything, before the artistic impulse turns it all back into a story. If it ultimately seems like the weakest of Del Toro’s three “personal” films – behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both masterpieces – that could be because the film’s world and the material in general is more familiar, to viewers outside Spain at least.

October 24, 2015

Michael Haneke on Salo and violence

“Have you seen Pasolini’s Salò? Forty years ago, that was a key moment in my career as a viewer. Now Salò isn’t much like Funny Games at all. Funny Games is unbearable for its ­relentless cynicism — I don’t actually depict much physical violence. But in Salò, there are people tied up naked on dog leashes, they are force-fed bread stuffed with thumbtacks, blood runs from their mouths while their tormentors are boiling up shit in massive pots to be served up, eaten, and of course they all end up puking. It is unbearable, and Pasolini shows everything. After watching that film I was devastated and unresponsive for several days. Yet Salò was how I realized what you can do in cinema — what the true possibilities of the medium are. That, to me, is still the only film that has ­managed to show violence for what it is. All these action movies” are merely spectacular. They make violence a consumable good. They may be scary, but they’re still a turn-on. Salò won’t turn you on at all — it will turn your stomach. Funny Games was meant as a counterpart to Salò, except that I tried to treat violence in a different way — in the context of a self-reflexive thriller that doesn’t depict physical violence but works through psychological cruelty alone.” From Paris Review, winter 2014

October 20, 2015


You are introduced to a narcotised, nocturnal cinema-world in Ana Lily Amirpour’s slow, sparse, druggy vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – people have said it’s like early Jarmusch or even Sin City but I would say that there is much of the exotic, borderline camp melodrama of Tabu and Blancanieves in here as well. If there is never quite enough happening – too few killings, too many slo-mo reveries – to carry its 90-odd minutes, the world is powerfully evoked and sustained. It’s an enormously appealing world, too. Even sudden and violent death can look attractive.    

October 18, 2015

Violent year

I admire JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year as a loving replica of some classics of the new Hollywood, and their sombre or violent feeling, their ambition and ambivalent sense of corruption – The Godfather is in there, naturally, and so are Scarface and GoodFellas – but the film feels remote too, bordering on academic. And that’s not just because Chandor is obviously a student of that era but because there is no sense that the story has ever been lived – it never really feels like anyone’s experience.  

October 17, 2015

February 13 1945/October 30 1988

The medieval hero on screen: exceptionalism, prophecy, metaphysics and trauma in the time-travel fantasies Slaughterhouse Five (1972) and Donnie Darko (2001).

October 11, 2015

When the stories run out

Everything from him has been stories. Stories as tricks, stories as frames for experience, stories that play games with time – that was his original gimmick, appearing as a time traveler. The terror near the end of Before Midnight is about the fear that the stories have just run out.  She has to trick herself into trying to believe them again.   

October 6, 2015


Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, 2015). We’re a long way from District 9, Blomkamp’s first film, which seemed like a genuinely radical and clever sci-fi allegory about race, power, media and law enforcement in near-future South Africa. Chappie is set in the same brutal world but the treatment is juvenile and sentimental, like a cyber-Pinocchio – the title character is a law-enforcement robot that develops childlike human consciousness and grapples with free will – while the poverty and crime tourism that seemed bold and fresh back in 2009 now offers diminishing returns. Only the closing minutes finally promise something better: when intelligence is downloaded from broken machines and given a fresh start, you hope that it is analogous again, this time for Blomkamp’s career.   

October 5, 2015


Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).  

October 4, 2015

On Mars

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015). The prolific (too prolific?) Ridley Scott brings an unusually light touch to Drew Goddard’s tightly-written and entertaining screenplay about Matt Damon’s resourceful stranded astronaut. After Gravity and Interstellar, Scott’s brisk film is less about the deep loneliness of space isolation than the positive values of problem solving and their potential for global togetherness. When a Bowie song hits the soundtrack, it’s not “Space Oddity” but “Starman”, with its uplifting singalong chorus and “Over the Rainbow” melody. It’s a tough movie to dislike and may even be, somehow, the funniest film of Scott’s career. Nasa loves it and no surprise: with its use of documentary approaches, it even tricks you that you’re watching a precise dramatisation of the space agency’s greatest, most humane hour. 

September 27, 2015

Haunted instrument

The Wind Journeys (Ciro Guerra, 2009). I got to this late, via Embrace of the Serpent: like that, a long journey through haunted landscapes. Duels, challenges: the musical instrument as weapon, and cursed object. 

September 24, 2015

Down in the lab

The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983). David Bowie is a delicate, spectral presence in movies and just as that worked so well for him and Nic Roeg in The Man Who Fell to Earth, it also worked for him and Tony Scott in The Hunger. I hadn’t seen this since the late 1980s, on murky VHS on a small television, and given Scott’s love for shadows and dim light through billowing curtains or venetian blinds, it was like looking for figures in the fog. It’s better than I remember and it’s better than its reputation. The 80s high style is hazy and unreal, the mood is listless and eroticised Euro-decadence and the minutes that Bowie spends, abandoned and alone, ageing rapidly in a hospital waiting room, is the most affecting screen performance he ever gave. The Hunger appeared in April 1983 – the mass-appeal commercial breakthrough of Let’s Dance came in exactly the same month. There is something sad and significant in that timing as well, in seeing a reclusive and nocturnal Bowie die onscreen while out in the bright world he was being reborn as a popular entertainer. It was a transitional time: the unhealthy Bowie was on the way out and a healthy replacement was on the way in. With his wide hat and his limo rides, the dying Bowie of The Hunger even looks like the Thin White Duke of the 70s. The use of Bauhaus at the start was so obviously clever (as the band in the new wave club, they play their Bowie-influenced song about a dead movie vampire while Bowie and Catherine Deneuve hunt for warm bodies) but I had forgotten that another key scene is scored to Iggy’s “Funtime”, which was a Bowie co-write (“Last night I was down in the lab / Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew”). 

September 17, 2015

At war

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015). A tense, dark and gripping contemporary war film that is reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty – What is legal? What is illegal? What, in the end, does it matter? – set on, above and below the US-Mexican border where a shadowy group of law enforcers fights a vast and unwinnable war against brutal drug cartels. As in the Bigelow film, a woman (Emily Blunt) is our guide and troubled conscience in a morally confusing world. Blunt was too good, too serious for the risible Tom Cruise actioner The Edge of Tomorrow; here, she is powerful and sympathetic as FBI agent Kate Macer and both Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are excellent as the most enigmatic and cynical of the unofficial war on drugs/black ops team. With the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve turns Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay into a strongly visual story and amplifies a sense that this is just one small part of a much larger picture (it’s the flip side of Traffic). Following Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve shows that he is becoming a master of generating and sustaining ambient fear, even if the material has not always been equal to the mood. A Blade Runner sequel is next.  

September 7, 2015

Lost Pope

We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011). Everyone wanted something else: a farce, or a biting satire of organised religion, or the thoughtful exploration of a loss of faith that Moretti vaguely hints at in his film’s best moments, when the elected Pope gone AWOL (Michel Piccoli) takes a night bus through Rome or sits in on rehearsals of The Seagull, finally free of the burdens of being himself. His air of quiet disappointment and failure is the persistent tone. 

September 4, 2015

Guns and cars

The Rover (David Michod 2014). A heavily bearded Guy Pearce is easily the best thing about the second, less celebrated film from misanthropic Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michod; it is a physical, soulful, quiet performance as a man alone on desolate roads in South Australia 10 years after “the collapse”. Everyone will automatically expect the son of Mad Max, but Michod isn’t interested in that kind of fantasy (or, to be honest, excitement) – he prefers to show us a largely male, brutal world that is slowly breaking down and reverting to barbarism. It is another kind of animal kingdom, powerfully imagined and sustained, and the mood is melancholy throughout (Sad Max?). 

September 1, 2015

End of winter, first day of spring

Wes Craven, 1939-2015. With Drew Barrymore, talking knives during the making of Scream. Widely held to be the third of his three reinventions of American horror cinema, as though a career could be loosely mapped against the Vietnam 70s, the VHS franchise 80s and the post-modern 90s, it had the added side effect – good for him, maybe, but perhaps less so for us – of leading to remakes of his and Tobe Hooper’s original, almost unwatchably brutal 70s gore classics for a more flippant, less shockable age. But still, the first Scream would have to be in a Craven top five, with The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, the first Nightmare on Elm Street and the nearly too-conceptual-for-its-own-good New Nightmare. He was one of horror’s thinkers. 

August 28, 2015

50 years

“ … Miss Kelly has a particular and fabulous significance which is not limited to the screen but illuminates the suburbs and thus American life in general …” (Delmore Schwartz on To Catch a Thief, 1955). 

August 26, 2015

Unserious moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014). As half-assed and underwritten as most recent Woody Allen, but in Colin Firth, Allen somehow found an actor who exactly matched his conception of the character, here a grumpy philosopher proving something to a much younger woman. So it is not without its charms and maybe we can almost admire the way Allen keeps producing this stuff, year after year, which varies from mediocre to terrible and returns again and again, gently but obsessively, to the same questions.

August 24, 2015

You want to be in a crowd

The New Zealand International Film Festival that just wrapped its fortnight in Christchurch seemed like the best one to play in the city in all the time I’ve been here, at least. Not so much for the quality of films, which is subjective, but for the undeniable buzz around the restored Isaac Theatre Royal as a venue and central meeting place. There is a way in which the festival must be a social event – not just done but seen to be done. You want to be in a crowded lobby with the others who are viewing your film. A top ten:

1 Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). As a Friday evening film, this was the ideal antidote to a week of media bullshit (worms, cucumbers, Mike Hosking, Ashley Madison). This is a deep and nuanced film about performance, age and the dangerous and unstable appeal of youth, written by Assayas for star Juliette Binoche as a Persona-like piece. Kristen Stewart is marvellous in it too.

2 Cemetery of Splendour (Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, 2015). “The act of sleeping is an act of escape,” Weerasethakul has said, hinting at a political reading of his mesmerising film about, well, sleep. It seemed fitting that a man next to me slept through nearly all of it, as an act of sympathy.

3 Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015). Call it psychedelic ethnography. There was a wizard in the audience and there was a shaman on the screen.

4 The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014). The world’s first Ukrainian sign language feature is dark, strange and original work. I didn’t understand a word and I didn’t mind.

5 The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015). Maddin at his most Maddin-ish: brilliant, excessive, singular, fiercely original and far too much. He and Johnson recreate a wealth of alternative, lost cinema worlds and histories that tunnel in and out of each other.

6 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014). Oppenheimer’s simpler and less flamboyant companion (not sequel) to his sensational The Act of Killing puts more attention on the victims of the Indonesian coup of 1965. It is a film made in the long shadow of a still misunderstood atrocity, a film about historical amnesia and fading memory. To act (to perform) was central to the first film; to see clearly is central to the second. By the end, we finally feel that we do.

7 The Club (Pablo Larrain, 2015). The premise of Larrain’s black comic The Club suggests that the sitcom Father Ted could somehow become a harsh allegory about the Catholic Church’s cover up of abuses. Move the bad priests to a remote house by the sea, where no one can see them. A brutal, emotional film.

8 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). Just when you think that Gibney, adapting a book by journalist Lawrence Wright, has gone soft on Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, he takes a very tough line on his successor David Miscavige and Miscavige’s celebrity enabler, Tom Cruise. Hubbard seems here to be a nutty, fondly-remembered eccentric while Miscavige seems more cunning and tyrannical, humourless and corporate, with his armies of lawyers and his pseudo-military uniforms. But given that Gibney was sceptical about Wikileaks in an earlier doco, it seems ironic that in the end it was the internet that really started to undermine Scientology’s control of its own image and information.

9 Ex Machina
(Alex Garland, 2015). This is sleek and efficient science-fiction, economically and even humorously told by a dour Garland. There are shades of Under the Skin or a pessimistic Her – with similar male anxieties. 

10 The Lobster (Yorgis Lanthimos, 2015). It starts brilliantly, with Roy Andersson-like surrealism and character-driven comedy, only to lose its way almost completely. Still, it’s worth it for the incredible first hour. But did I miss the lisping parrot?

August 14, 2015

Smoke and fog

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014). Earlier today, someone was talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger in the context of films from the 1970s. A few hours later, watching Inherent Vice, you remember: Schwarzenegger had that very small part in The Long Goodbye.

August 9, 2015

Separate reality

“A vampire film must somehow lapse into a separate reality otherwise you have not made a vampire film.” – Werner Herzog, on the commentary track of the Nosferatu DVD.

August 8, 2015

On the border

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958). Orson Welles is always restlessly acting; he is never not acting. And you can’t take your eyes off him. This has the same barrelling, excessive energy of Kane but it is an epitaph not for stumbling greatness but for corruption and squalor.

August 2, 2015

Philosophy blues

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015). As underplayed and casually assembled as most recent Woody Allen, with unusually lacklustre acting by Joaquin Phoenix as the drunken, dark, seductive philosophy professor suffering the existential blues (does the world need another book on Heidegger and the Nazis, he sighs), this at least hits a couple of familiar points for long-term Allen watchers: what is the role of chance? And what is the perfect murder? The thing only really comes alive, oddly enough, when Phoenix’s Abe Lucas wrestles with the second question. 

August 1, 2015

Citizen Kane and journalism

Citizen Kane was an entirely predictable and completely necessary choice in a list of 10 greatfilms about journalism that I posted a little while ago, but the short summary was a little shallow: Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane as an ink-stained monster from the golden age of newspapers, waging wars, settling grudges and scoring political points through his mastheads, much like an early 20th century Rupert Murdoch. Of course, the film is entertaining on the shameless lies, agendas and inventions of yellow journalism and “dirty politics” (as in the front page pictured above, in which a rival paper finds a way to attack Kane’s political campaign, and famous lines like “You write the prose poems, I’ll provide the war”, straight out of the Hearst back catalogue), but there is much more to its struggle with journalism. I watched it a couple of times this week, after not seeing it for more than 15 years, once with Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary and once without, and became more aware of the obvious: it’s framed as journalism about journalism. The almost faceless reporter Thompson is sent to find the missing detail in a newsreel obituary: what did “rosebud”, Kane’s last word, mean? The film is unusually literary, for its time and for now, and the bulk of it is presented as his interviews with people who knew Kane, unspooling as long flashbacks; we only see Kane “objectively” in the opening moments, before the newsreel comes on.   
Of course, Thompson never finds out what rosebud means, but we do. There is a secret complicity between film-makers and audience, who are in possession of information that is not shared with any living character on screen. It’s easy to forget that no one within the film’s present ever knows why rosebud is significant. In that sense, the journalist has failed – his investigation has turned up nothing and it is likely that no one will ever be any the wiser about what made Kane tick. But does that matter? Welles went on to dismiss the idea of rosebud as cheap Freudianism and Bogdanovich explains that Welles introduced the dialogue preceding the revelation, about no word ever being able to explain one man, for that very reason (similarly, at the end of
Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”). Welles seems to have believed there was no great secret, there was no one great truth to be found out about anybody – the film opens and closes with “no trespassing” signs – but audiences have disagreed and the idea that one word, deeply connected to childhood memory and loss, can unlock everything has become almost metaphysical. People want to believe in the explanation and see it as tragic that the evidence is destroyed.

July 27, 2015

Going undercover

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014). Magnificent and sensitive work from Benedict Cumberbatch, playing code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing as though he had Asperger’s Syndrome, suggesting that the human social code is tougher to crack and that much more cruelly enforced, and casting an ambivalent light on the title. Everything else is the routine simplifications, convenient fictions and prestigious production values of the historic biopic. The impersonation game. 

July 20, 2015

Passed upon the stair

Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, 2015). It’s a pity Nick Broomfield used Kurt and Courtney as the title of his notorious conspiracy doco because it would have been a perfect fit for this mess, which is voyeuristic when it shows us its big prize, Cobain and Love’s junkie home movies, with the obnoxious Love already acting for posterity, always conscious of her legendary status, and merely exploitative when it shows us touching Super 8 footage and drawings from Cobain’s childhood, presumably stored for all those years by the family who didn’t want to know him when he was a teenager. Music comes a distant third, which is a problem because it was only within music that Cobain’s sense of humour and subversiveness were really on show (we’ve seen and heard enough of the Sid-and-Nancy doom stuff to last any number of lifetimes, and the punk rock notebook doodles and animations add little). Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic talks far too briefly and, amazingly, Brett Morgen passed on including Dave Grohl. Buzz Osbourne has already talked about what he sees as the errors (“Cobain was a master of jerking your chain,” he says here) and other important contemporaries, such as Dylan Carlson, are missing. We’re at the 20-years-on phase of the myth-and-afterlife now, almost exactly the same point in the cycle that the Doors were at when Oliver Stone made his Jim Morrison movie. And that’s a sobering thought. 

July 18, 2015

Hippies, whales, epiphanies

On the Greenpeace documentary, How to Change the World, directed by Jerry Rothwell. Pictured: Walrus Oakenbough. 

July 17, 2015

Dreamed streets

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). Empty, dreamed streets in London. Vertigo’s green light (it meant death) seen on the porch of a hotel in Marrakech. Dream scene: a small group watches you as you make an important telephone call. Doubles, mistaken identity, repeats. The ghoulish assassin with a mummified face. The sense that being abroad could easily slip into some kind of terror.  

June 26, 2015

Summer in the city

King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976). How strange that Peter Jackson’s version should be the most childish and innocent of the three Kongs. His is a world of oversized cartoon monsters. The 1930s original still has its crude nightmare-ish quality. The unfairly slammed second version is all bright 70s American excess: oil money and greed, the newly built World Trade Center as the obvious summit and an almost constantly ecstatic Jessica Lange as the prey. It’s superbly lurid, unpretentiously directed and never not entertaining. 

June 23, 2015

Moustache as weapon, symbol

Marshland (Alberto Rodriguez, 2014). Not a True Detective imitator, but made in parallel, stripped of occult complexity and carrying instead some dour weight about the years after Franco, but never quite as interested as you hope it might be in the actual details of its sordid crimes.