—Sisters: There’s a lot of egregious shit written about Brian De Palma ‘elevating’ the genres he works in, rather than him being, as is truthful, an adept operator within said genres, while doing his usual routine of aping conceits from Hitchcock films—here, a heady mixture of Psycho, Rear Window, and Rope—through his own experience. In this psychological-thriller the sequences, as ever with De Palma, are a joy (cross-cutting with rare and dangerous glee), yet the performances are lacking in the extreme and the dialogue is a mess. But the final shot is one of the funniest things in the director’s filmography, which is the work of a fine cinematic comedian.
—The Grand Bizarre: Once you start seeing patterns, can you ever stop? Jodie Mack’s brilliant film, a travelogue of sorts, makes the inanimate dance: Mack incorporates whatever she finds, textiles and alphabets, suitcases and tattoos, into her scheme—all backed with extremely relaxing and inventive lo-fi music. The back tattoos sequence, especially, is impossible not to head-bop along with.
—Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Sciamma holds so much in at once in this: for a while it’s textbook gothic drama, replete with an old, grand, ghostly, and cavernous house with closed doors and mysterious superiors; developing concurrently is a canvas, a gift for a male suitor far away, the painting of which both reevaluates the muse-subject relationship and opens up the film to create tableaux representing exactly the art women would have been making for centuries were society’s conditions different (a genuine loss on the scale of the Library of Alexandria); and then there’s the impeccably patient formation of Marianne and Héloïse’s romance. An enormous film.
—My Blueberry Nights: It’s not that bad! Wong, in trying to do for Norah Jones what he did with Faye Wong in Chungking Express, clearly doesn’t succeed: it’s not an awful performance by all means—her gestures are interesting—but her line readings are a bit pat; and, yes, the whole Natalie Portman as a card-sharp thing is a total bust. But Wong’s Americana is fascinatingly ripe and vanishing, especially the Memphis scenes, as ex-partners Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn, wandering in from the world of Tennessee Williams, ham it up marvellously. As ever, repeated song-cues, slowed frame-rates, mobile camera set-ups, lashings of neon: all the wonderful curlicues of Wong’s cinema, deployed to less—but still—satisfying ends. Oh, and there’s hot Mancunian Jude Law, you know?
—Night Moves: Kelly Reichardt’s film is quite neatly bisected: one half is a quiet, process-driven eco-thriller, the second a paranoiac character study. But even before the act that marks this split occurs, certain gestures appear vatic. Fanning’s character has a slightly astray gaze and a sing-song simplicity in her line readings, which suggests she won’t stick to plan; Eisenberg, playing down all the usual ticks and affectations that make his performances unbearable to me, is acting mainly with his eyes, the quick movements of which, matched with his snapping and dismissive utterances, provide confirmation as to an internalised anguish; and Sarsgaard has that wonderful, you-can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it untrustworthy quality (it’s his sibilant laughs that unnerve me most). These are detailed and recessive performances within a detailed and recessive film. And though to certain eyes that recessiveness might indicate a lack of purpose on the director’s part, I think it indicates the same in her characters: their mission is done without much in the way of forethought, they’re too rash, too intemperate, and they make mistakes at nearly every juncture. The film isn’t a warning, not a conservative screed: it’s a lament for those who feel powerless, because they are.
—Night Mail: GPO unit film from 1936, directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, documenting the process of transporting the post from London to Glasgow through the midlands by train. Sounds romantic, no? It is. It’s such fun. The contraptions at the train’s side, operating with a lever, essentially eject the mail into a net at the right stop while picking up more. That’s labour as art. There’s a lovely moment set in Edinburgh, the music is by Benjamin Britten, and the poem read in voice-over is written and recited by W.H. Auden. Trains, Edinburgh skyline, Auden: it all makes for a wonderful 23-minutes.
—Sherlock JR.: The greatest.
—Face: There are some askew performances in Antonia Bird’s thriller, notably from Ray Winstone, but through Robert Carlyle, and his character’s habit of mentally juxtaposing passersby and former colleagues with those people he stage-manages during robberies, expresses something eminently recognisable (perhaps even more so post-Corbyn): any progressive body or institution in a Britain forever changed by eleven years of Thatcher governments is bound to failure. (The film came out in 1997, so it missed out on the further damage done by Maggie’s disciple, Tony Blair.) The dejected Bennite in me might agree.
—When I Saw You: Fastening a movie, in a difficult setting during a difficult period in history, to a child’s point-of-view can be fraught with the dangers of belittling, patronising, or sentimentalising that perspective and the wider subject of the drama. Annemarie Jacir avoids these traps in When I Saw You, her film set, to begin with, in a Jordanian refugee-camp post-1967. Hélène Louvart’s images have an inquisitive quality, belonging to Tarek (Mahmohd Asfa), as he falls in with an improvised military outfit hoping to return to Palestine.
—Daisies: On the surface: anarchic, Dadaist, colourful, fun. Beneath: profound feminist despair; gorging on food and colour and texture because of a scarcity of the same; informed by real ambivalence. Věra Chytilová’s is a tremendously deceptive and sly film, which makes its pessimism all the more substantial.
—Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig’s (solo) debut feature is a more formally relaxed movie than Little Women, but this allows for Gerwig to hone exquisite performances out of her actors, and she knows a thing or too about exquisite performances. Saoirse Ronan and Gerwig have already forged one of the great actor-director relationships of contemporary cinema: Ronan hits the embellishments and assumptions of her intelligent, impatient character precisely, and she’s encinctured by great scene-partners: Laurie Metcalf’s take-no-shit mother, Tracey Lett’s depressed and doting father, Beanie Feldstein’s excitable best pal, and Lucas Hedges’s lovely first crush.
—Homecoming: I had not listened to Beyoncé intently since I Am Sasha Fierce (which came out….when I was in primary school, good god), so watching the concert film of her Coachella performance—which she directs—was an enormous “so, this is what I’ve been missing” moment. It’s a thrilling, monumentally staged act, a testament to both the self-reliant genius of Beyoncé herself and her collaborators. The meshing of the two nights’ worth of footage, signalled in the cuts from pink to yellow outfits, is unbelievable.
—Love on Delivery: A transcendentally stupid movie. No more words are needed.
—Suspense: Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley’s short from 1913, available as part of Kino Lorber’s Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers set, is handsomely staged to no small degree: there are point-of-view shots, trisected screens, mirror compositions, and the directors cross-cut evocatively between two planes of action, as an intruder threatens a woman and her child as her husband steals a car in order to reach home and defend them.
—Birds of Passage: It’s the steady escalation of stakes in this drug-trade thriller, directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, that impresses most; each small jump forward in time is matched step-for-step by a loosening of trust between the pistons in the narrative’s machine. The film, focused on a group of Wayuu Colombians, situates the semantics of the crime film within a specific cultural context, which gives many of its scenes, but none more than its opening in which one character performs a ritual coming-of-age dance, real cinematic charge.
—Timbuktu: The tragicomic register of Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film is constantly surprising; as Malian cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) gently entreaties his Jihadist captors to let him see his daughter’s face one last time, there’s an ironic glance or two shared between the pair interrogating him, even a bit of undisclosed sympathy. The film is sharp on the absurdity of haphazardly applied religious tenets, such as when a woman selling fish is instructed to wear gloves while doing so. Sometimes the balance between tones is oddly struck, as with a narrative detour into a possible forced marriage, but mostly it’s harmonious: never more so than during and after a decisive act of violence—a jump cut registers the initial shock, but then Sissako cuts away to an extreme longshot of the lake, one man traipsing away from the crime, leaving a straight line through the water; the other, barely alive, tries to crawl to the opposite shore. The quick act; then the long deliberation: that’s the drama of conscience. (BBC IPLAYER)
—The Hitch-hiker: A tight, tense, and economical thriller by Ida Lupino, in which a dastardly William Talman holds Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy captive behind the wheel of their car, hoping to avoid police detection for a spree of murders committed between California and Illinois. (YOUTUBE)
—The House is Black: The only film directed by the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, The House is Black is an empathetic 20-minute documentary set in a leper colony in Tabriz, northwestern Iran. While this premise suggests something like an educational film, and a doctor’s listing of the symptoms of and treatments for leprosy does hew closely to this, Farrokhzad’s focus is more in honouring, even immortalising her subjects than investigating the source of their suffering. Voice-overs, either enunciating quotations from the Qur’an, or poems which sound like religious invocations, are coupled with montages of people in the colony, playing games, receiving treatment, attending prayer. During a school lesson, the teacher asks a boy to “name a few beautiful things.” He answers: “The moon, the sun, flowers, playtime,” before smiling. And he isn’t wrong. (4:3)
—Mr Thank You: Hiroshi Shimizu’s lovely 1936 film, based on a Yasunari Kawabata story, in which an affable bus-driver (called arigato-san because he effusively thanks everyone who steps aside to let the bus ride the narrow mountain lanes which constitute his route) notices with wistful sympathy the changing landscapes of his country and the changing fortunes of those passing through it. The repeated set-up, of the bus coming up behind someone on the road, of the driver tooting his horn, riding on, and thanking them for their consideration, is filmed with delightful regimentation: Shimizu lap-dissolves into the person, switching POV from the front of the bus to the back, as though the vehicle were part of the passerby and the passerby part of the vehicle; as though the fluid motion of the edit extends the driver’s thanks, expressing it visually. The passengers have their own preoccupations—the drama of a young girl moving to Tokyo for reasons other than the ones she and her mother supply; the comedy of a stuffy, flirtatious older man getting on everyone’s nerves; the humanistic observation of the driver himself—as do, it should be extrapolated, all the people the bus rolls past. A beautiful film. (YOUTUBE)
—21, 3ºC: Helena Wittmann’s short film is a study in variation and contingency: eleven static shots each lasting just over a minute, all bearing the same composition of a window within a room, captured from a few steps back, the camera pointed out at three floors of the opposite building. In most shots, the white-walled room is given internal colour by a bunch of flowers in a vase to the right, but sometimes these are absent; but being so plain opens the room up to external influence, the state of the light from outside: sometimes it is bleached, sometimes luminous, sometimes full of shadows. It rains once; and in only one shot is someone within the room. But people aren’t absent: they’re visible in the other building, or can be heard from neighbouring rooms, talking or playing music. One moment reminds me of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, which this predates: a tall-stemmed purple flower loses its standing within the vase during the take, falling to the side—seconds before someone across the way slams their window shut (think of Cameraperson‘s double-luck in capturing a bolt of lightning, and then the director sneezing, all in a take). In the process of letting the seconds elapse Wittmann justifies the idler’s past-time: for there’s much to gleaned from a lifetime spent looking out of the window. (THIS LONG CENTURY)