There’s nothing more subjective than ‘Best Of’ lists. Mine simply reflects the ten films which had the greatest impact on me as a cinemagoer and projectionist throughout the year.
In the spirit of a fractured narrative, let me begin by revealing my eleventh and twelfth favourites, The Predator and The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. (Now there’s a double feature. More on double features in a minute).
And what of the disappointments? Well, there were a few. The misfire that was The Happytime Murders springs to mind. Despite the hype, Mission Impossible: Fallout was downright boring. And I’m still recovering from what they did to Lisbeth Salander in Girl In The Spider's Web. I’ve no more opinions left of the Marvel cinematic universe. Like all universes, It will continue to expand, until it inevitably collapses. But the world is so disappointing these days, let’s get on with the uplifting.
Tony Zierra’s documentary covers the story of Leon Vitali, the one-time television and film actor who gave up his promising career to serve for decades as the right arm to one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Vitali played Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s mostly Irish-shot Barry Lyndon: Kubrick left such an impression on the twenty-something actor, that he devoted himself to the director throughout the decades that
followed, until Kubrick’s sudden death in 1999. Vitali himself left such an impression on filmmaker Tony Zierra while he was doing interviews for his upcoming doc on the making of Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, he parked that project and made a film all about Vitali himself. You’ll watch this for the priceless anecdotes and leave with a lasting impression of the Zen-ness of the man who has absolutely no regrets abandoning his own art for somebody else’s.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
In a nutshell: A traumatized veteran, played by a bearded and pot-bellied Joaquin Phoenix, tracks down missing girls for a living. When his latest job starts spinning out of control, he begins to accept his end is coming and there is no redemption. Lynn Ramsey’s adaption of the novella by Jonathan Ames (creator of the underrated TV show Bored To Death) is more feverish and dreamlike than its spititual cousin Taxi Driver, but the sheer presence of Phoenix and his wielding of a hammer on a cast of horrible individuals who bring this hell upon themselves is almost cathartic. You’ll possibly watch this for the righteous payback - the violence is undressed and unsexy, though not constantly explicit - and you’ll leave wanting to Spotify the soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood.
Despite essentially having the plot of all Paranormal Activity movies rolled into one, Ari Aster’s film proves once more that, especially in the horror genre, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Artist, Toni Collette (Annie), and school teacher Gabriel Byrne, (Steve), recover from the sudden loss of Annie’s secretive mother, Ellen. Their kids, Peter and Charlie (an utterly unforgettable performance by Milly Shapiro), each struggle with their school life, while their mother tells of seeing an apparition of their late grandmother in her workshop. At a support group for bereaved, Annie reveals the history of mental illness and death that has haunted her family. That’s about all I want to tell you without spoiling anything. The tone of the script is one that often skirts black humour in how it depicts its horror, so much so that some audiences have found themselves laughing more than gasping. An absolute wealth of great performances all around, along with some shockingly original depictions of death and its aftermath - nobody laughed at my packed screening.
Woody Allen’s latest film was the victim of a token release when it hit the screens earlier this year, as it got bogged down in controversy relating to the accusation of his estranged daughter, Dylan and the counter claim by his son, Moses. You can catch up on that family matter here. Lost in all this was the sumptuous Wonder Wheel, Allen’s first digitally shot picture - and the first for legendary cameraman, Vittorio Storaro - who convinced Woody over the phone to take this great leap into digital filming with him. Almost nobody got to see Allen’s and Storaro’s work in its intended form, ie on a 4K digital projector, when it received what felt like a token contractual release in a handful of cinemas in this part of the world. It was everybody’s loss, as I can say it was one of the highlights of my cinema-going this year at the IFI to experience its enveloping visuals and trademark Storatto shadows on its intended canvas. Allen’s Tennessee Williams-inspired dip into the lives of four people living and working in Coney Island's amusement park during the 1950s is conscious of its own familiarity and subtly comments on itself as it unfolds. Starring Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and James Belushi, all on top form. In future Allen’s retrospectives, this will be ripe for rediscovery.
On the surface, Jeune Femme is very straightforward: Paula, a Parisian in her early thirties, broke and rudderless, struggles to find a place and some consistency in her life in the bustling French metropolis. Maybe it would be a bit glib of me to call this film - from director Leonor Serraille and played wonderfully by Laetitia Dosch - Amelie in real life. But I will. We all know people like Paula, and all too often we are her: every corner we turn, there’s a fresh crisis waiting to happen. But we fight on, overcome and do our best, often despite our own worst enemy: ourselves. Some may find the sometimes scattershot editing and resolution-free ending off-putting, but life only offers up broken comedy, not neatly resolved drama.
Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest opus was another picture for the ages. I projected this film throughout its release at the IFI in every format, Digital, 35mm and 70mm, and grew so very fond of Daniel Day-Lewis' ‘hungry boy’ Woodcock, famous dressmaker to the rich and elite who finally meets his match when he encounters waitress Vicky Krieps in a restaurant near his seaside home. Inspired by the director’s bout of illness, in which he was nursed at home by his wife, Maya Rudolph, Andersen began musing on that nurse/patient relationship. This was the seed for the unconventional dynamic that the characters eventually discover in each other. As is common with a lot of his work, I find PT Andersen’s films do not reveal themselves fully on first viewing, but get better and better the more they are experienced. In that way, his work is constantly a gift to projectionists. Seeing this every day for months was nothing short of nourishing to my soul. It is also hilarious. Woodcock’s tantrums just keep getting funnier with every viewing.
The solitary resolve of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, translated to some as a somewhat cold fish in space in this 50-50 Armstrong biography and moon-shot story. I was not one of those people. Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land was one of the Hollywood highlights of the year, offering up both the personal and the spectacle in the form of Ryan Gosling’s take on the famously cool, calm and collected Armstrong. It’s easy to forget what a huge jump for mankind the Apollo missions were, both culturally and technologically (they used only a percentage of the computer power I’m using to write this on a laptop). Training will only get you so far. In the end, due to tragic circumstances, ultimately the right man was chosen to lead the mission. Chazelle’s and screenwriter Josh Singer’s choice to always stay with Armstrong’s point of view leads to some original takes on otherwise over-familiar sequences. Once the rocket takes off, we never again cut back to a sweaty mission control or nervous family members - in this case, a great Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet. We stay with the astronauts in the claustrophobic capsule, all the way until Armstrong opens the door on the moon, and then voilà - IMAX. The walk on the moon is literally an airless wonder to behold. Cinema was invented to do justice to a story like this. Better than Apollo 13? Absolutely.
How does one even approach a film starring an off the hook (is there any other kind) Nicholas Cage, an utterly committed Linus Roche (son of Bill ‘Coronation Street’ Roche) and written and directed by Panos Cosmotos, whose father directed Rambo: First Blood Part II? Whatever your expectations might be you’ll abandon all barely ten minutes into this phantasmagorical tale, chronicling Cage’s reaping of revenge for the murder of his wife, the titular Mandy, played by Angela Riseborough. Her death is so horrific that you can’t keep your eyes off it, executed as it is by some of vilest human beings ever to grace a cinema screen. And despite appearances to the contrary, ultimately Cage’s performance could even be called ‘restrained’ contrasted with
the myre of atmospheric madness from the first frame to last. This film is a complete transcendental vision from which you will get a contact high whenever you think about it afterwards - which will be often.
Pawel Pawlikowski, Polish master of the black and white 4:3 film ratio - which he proved a couple of years ago by winning a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida - sneaks up on us again with this bittersweet love story of a couple, so made for each other, but struggling to find their place together in the fractured world of post-World War Two Europe. Spanning decades across Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, actors Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot own this film as a composer and singer, who despite their choices and punishments from history always seem to come back to each other, even if it takes years and the shifting of politics and armies. The narrative choices made by the screenplay - each time encountering each other, history seems to have shifted further against them - have a powerful cumulative effect on you, to the point where you don’t blame them for their sometimes frustrating choices, and realise their fate could ultimately be no other. Kulig and Kot are smoldering. The art-house word of mouth hit of the year. You will want to watch this film more than once.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
The new film from Orson Welles. A sentence no cinephile ever thought they would write. In fact, I would go further: this is a sequel to Citizen Kane. We now have the makings of the ultimate double bill: the greatest movie ever made, followed by the answer to the greatest movie ever made. Now THAT’S how you book end a career - and from beyond the grave no less. Shooting through much of the 1970s, Welles' legendary final work was never completed, with hundreds of 8mm, 16mm and 35mm reels languishing in copyright ownership hell - unlikely as it sounds, mostly due to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Things changed only two short years ago, when Welles' partner Oja Kodar - one of the stars of the film - - finally signed a contract handing over the footage to the producers - and there are seventeen credited producers on this picture, which GoFunded for funds to complete the edit (to which yours truly was delighted to make a contribution). Ultimately Netflix stepped in, paying the balance for its completion and thus ensuring the widest audience possible for Welles multifaceted story of an old Hollywood director, Jack Hannaford, played by actual Hollywood director John Huston, and his attempted return from semi-exile to complete his last movie. Narratively self-reflective, two
movies in essence, with a constantly shifting picture ratio and format. Orson Welles final work could well be his most pure, reminding us to the end exactly what he’d always called himself: the constant experimenter. Tip: watching the companion documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead beforehand (it's also on Netflix) is recommended.