Friday, 31 December 2010

Films of the Year

I started off the year with The Devil’s Eye, Ingmar Bergman’s bawdily humorous farce of deviltry and innocence. Palm Beach Story and Hail the Conquering Hero were Preston Sturges comedies in which the director conjured and controlled comic chaos with his repertory cast. There were also several Barbara Stanwyck films: early outings with Frank Capra (The Bitter Tea of General Yen and the excellent The Miracle Woman) and Douglas Sirk (All I Desire) and her delirious western with Samuel Fuller Forty Guns. Recent Christmas treats included Born Yesterday, with Judy Holliday both hilariously funny and touching; and Farewell My Lovely, with Dick Powell a perfect Philip Marlowe, Edward Dmytryk opening up those deep, black pools into which he plunges at regular intervals.

Winstanley, Kevin Brownlow’s 1975 film about the 17th century digger’s commune, featured some beautifully stark black and white photography of British nature in winter, which pointed to the physical as well as psychological limits of idealism. In Petulia, Richard Lester showed his sensitive side, revealing human distance and exploitation on both sides of the divide in late 60s San Francisco. The Grateful Dead appear, and portray themselves in a particularly insensitive light. This is no golden-glow paean to the beautiful people. One of Jerry Garcia’s favourite movies, The Saragossa Manuscript, was a bewildering labyrinth of unfolding stories within stories, all of which remained somehow entwined, and may have had something to do with death. Stephen Weeks’ 1974 film Ghost Story was something of a disappointment, despite the presence of Murray Melvin, Marianne Faithfull and Withnail himself, Vivian Mackerall. It was a rather unconvincing piece of amateur dramatics which remained stubbornly unchilling throughout. The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty and Kings of the Road provided the acme of Wim Wenders’ 70s blend of landscape and anomie, exuding weltscmerz from every frame. The latter in particular looked absolutely wonderful, and was oddly affecting. Agnes Varda’s L’Une Chante, L’Autre Pas was an enjoyable tale of women’s lives in the 60s and 70s, although the songs in what amounted to a musical were a little of their time. Varda’s recent The Beaches of Agnes was wonderful, a personal essay film full of wry humour, reflection and considered opinion.

Lindsay Anderson and Patricia Healey on the set of The White Bus
I went back to the films of Jean Vigo, watching his short, poetic documentary A Propos de Nice for the first time, and rediscovering the wonders of L’Atalante and Zero de Conduite. I also managed to dig up Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus, his 1967 short from an abandoned anthology film. Seen after Zero de Conduite, it gave an insight into the roots of If… Lindsay Anderson’s work was also central to the Free Cinema box set, which I worked my way through, particularly enjoying Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys. Intimate Lightning was Ivan Passer’s low key Czech film from 1965 about two musicians killing time in a small rural town. It was beautifully shot by Miroslav Ondricek, who worked with Lindsay Anderson on The White Bus and If… Sunday Bloody Sunday was John Schlesinger’s 1971 tale of middle-aged angst in Blackheath, featuring performances from Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson, whose characters’ weariness suggested that the glitter of the sixties was becoming well and truly tarnished. Lukas Moodysson’s Together remains a hugely enjoyable evocation of communal politics and childhood tribulations in 70s Sweden. Funny, pointed and sweet, and all capped off with a snowbound football kick around played to the strains of Abba’s SOS.

I caught up with some more Hammer films, including The Revenge of Frankenstein, the first of many sequels. This one managed to generate considerable pathos around its experimental subject, largely due to the performance of Michael Gwynn. There was also The Gorgon, Terence Fisher’s gorgeous 1964 fairy tale, which gave Barbara Shelley the chance to give a performance of great subtlety and restrained sadness in the central role. Needless to say, Peter Cushing was excellent in both. A gorgon also turned up in Harry Kumel’s delirious 1971 fantasy Malpertuis, which was utterly spellbinding. The 1973 Amicus compilation From Beyond the Grave was always a favourite, and I enjoyed seeing it again after all these years. The Pinteresque tale featuring Donald Pleasance’s down at heel war veteran and his strange daughter (played by Angela Pleasance) playing host to Ian Bannen’s repressed office worker had a real, clammy creepiness to it, and embodied the seedier side of the post-war period, which 60s modernism passed by. The story with the old antique door, installed by Ian Ogilvy in his new home, but which has a tendency to open not onto his stationery cupboard but a 17th century necromancer’s chamber, flooded in blue light, was well done. I also confess to immensely enjoying, after all these years, Hawk the Slayer and At the Earth’s Core, and I don’t care who knows it. The 60s films Dr Who and the Daleks and Dalek Invasion of Earth 2150 were also bright and gaudy Saturday morning picture show fun, although hardly Who in the proper sense. Watching Lionel Jeffries’ The Railway Children and his Edwardian/Victorian ghost story The Amazing Mr Blunden payed fitting tribute to the actor and director, who died earlier this year. Supernatural fare of a different kind was provided by three 70s tv series and plays which I was particularly excited to be able to see again: Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke’s direction of David Rudkin’s complex script), Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s follow up to Children of the Stones, Raven, and The Changes, with its England turned violently against any form of technology.

70s futures - Fassbinder's World on a Wire
There were some great anime films, such as: Paprika (great theme tune) with its endless festive parade; The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, blending SF and high school drama; Ocean Waves, a Studio Ghibli film about high school reminiscences; Miyazaki’s Ponyo, a charming story of a mer-creature willing herself to become a very lively young girl; and Tales from Earthsea’s uneasy translation of some of the later books in Ursula le Guin’s sequence. I revisited some classic 50s SF, watching Forbidden Planet (those scenes in the Krell city are still amazing), Howard Hawks’ The Thing (which manages to generate considerable tension without ever fully exposing its monster for more than a few seconds), and When Worlds Collide. The latter is 50s SF at its most blandly wholesome, with concluding biblical quote offered up as heavenly choirs swell in the background. Rainer Werner Fassbinder provided a more jaundiced view of the future with his tv series World on a Wire, his contribution to 70s concrete dystopias.

Having read Donald Spoto’s Alfred Hitchcock biography, I watched a good many of the master of suspense’s movies. I started with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, then moved on through The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Stage Fright, Spellbound, Marnie, Torn Curtain and Frenzy. Hitch himself appeared in Johan Grimonprez’ ingenious work of collage and impersonation, Double Take, which used many of his appearances from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.

Of the relatively few films I saw at the cinema, The Kids Are Alright and Mike Leigh’s Another Year were both good dramas centred around family homes. Leigh’s film was surprisingly bleak, despite the warmth of the central couple played by Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, with its portrayal of non-communication and human isolation. The Illusionist was Sylvain Chomet’s animated adaptation of Jacques Tati’s bitter sweet script about a failing stage conjurer, who tries to maintain an illusion of success for the benefit of a naïve young island girl who travels with him to Edinburgh. The city is beautifully realised by Chomet. It’s another comedy with a melancholy heart. Gainsbourg was an eccentric and dissolute biopic worthy of its subject, centred around the women in his life (Greco, Bardot, Birkin and Bambou), with Serge’s wayward alter-egos represented by gangly puppet grotesques. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff was an immensely likeable portrait of the veteran filmmaker, and was followed by Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which offered the chance to see his luminous photography and expressive Technicolor palette up on the big screen.

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