Review of 2020

It was a strange year as I suddenly lost my interest in fiction (films and books) in the middle of it; doubt that this was related to COVID-19 but… So, much of these ‘best 10s’ refer to the first six months of the year.

Films of the year

  1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  2. So Long, My Son
  3. Lillian
  4. Parasite
  5. The Truth
  6. Bacurau
  7. Weathering With You
  8. Little Women
  9. Lovers Rock
  10. Kuessipan

Films seen this year

  1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  2. The Searchers
  3. Blade Runner 2019
  4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  5. Casablanca
  6. Children of Men
  7. Under the Skin
  8. So Long, My Son
  9. Lillian
  10. Parasite

Books of the year

  1. Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford
  2. Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout
  3. Miles Davis, Ian Carr
  4. Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan
  5. The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910, Stephen Johnson
  6. Wagnerism, Alex Ross
  7. The Blue Moment, Richard Williams
  8. A Theatre for Dreamers, Polly Sansom
  9. The Nickel Boys, Colston Whitehead
  10. Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell

Albums of the year

 

  1. Debussy-Rameau, Víkingur Ólafsson
  2. Part, Macmillan, Vasks, Clare College, Cambridge, The Dmitri Ens – Ross
  3. Rava, Herbert, Guidi, For Mario
  4. Vasks: Viola Concerto; Symphony 1, Rysanov – Sinfonietta Riga
  5. Barbarians, Young Knives
  6. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schmidt, BPO – Petrenko
  7. Gogo Penguin, Gogo Penguin
  8. Beethoven: Symphonies 1-5, Le Concert Nation – Jordi Savall
  9. Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde – Het Collectief, Yves Saelens, Lucile Richardot – de Leeuw
  10. Jehnny Beth, To Love is to Live

Top Live Events

  1. Beethoven: Rasumovsky No3 and Op. 131 quartets, Elias String Quartet, Square Chapel – Halifax 
  2. Celtic Connections: Nitin Sawnhey, Fruit Market – Glasgow
  3. Celtic Connections: VILDÁ and Fatoumata Diawara, Tramway – Glasgow
  4. Celtic Connections: Anaïs Mitchell and Bonny Light Horseman, Fruit Market – Glasgow 
  5. Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Yann Pascal Tortelier, Town Hall – Leeds
  6. Cries and Whispers, Manchester Collective, Town Hall – Leeds
  7. Alaw, The Live Room – Saltaire
  8. Rossini, Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Beethoven, Apple, Childress, RLPO – Petrenko – Leeds
  9. Beethoven and Bruckner: Yeol Eum Son, Liverpool Philharmonic – Andrew Manze, Philharmonic Hall – Liverpool
  10. Oscar Marzaroli, Street Level Gallery – Glasgow

The Truth (La vérité, France-Japan, 2019)

Returning with trepidation

I pretty much avoid reading anything about films I want to see but still felt the a sightly negative vibe about Kore-eda Hirokazu’s first non-Japanese film. Having read some reviews now they’re certainly not negative but they are also not ecstatic, which they should have been. Kore-eda is a master at portraying family dynamics and transplanting his aesthetic to Paris has not mattered at all. Indeed, the casting of Catherine Deneuve allows for a reflection on acting and stardom that is likely to have been more appreciated in the west than if he’d used a legendary Japanese actor. I’m sure the film isn’t about Deneuve herself, though there is a poster for a fictional film Belle de Paris that obviously references Belle de Jour (France-Italy, 1967), but the driven egotism, and its costs, that is (or may be?) required to be at the absolute pinnacle of any field is the central theme of the film. In recent films I’ve felt Deneuve relies too much on her charisma for the performance, she’s not exactly ‘dialling it in’ though maybe the roles weren’t challenging enough – for example, Potiche (France, 2010). She’s certainly prolific, making an average of two films a year in the last decade, but in The Truth she is sensational; maybe being cast with the great Juliette Binoche led her to raise her game?

Binoche plays Lumir, the slightly-estranged daughter of Deneuve’s Fabienne whose just-published autobiography appears to be anything but its title: The Truth. The long-running tensions that, to an extent, bind families together are brilliantly shown, usually through facial expression. Ethan Hawke, slightly underused but that’s the role, is also excellent as the ‘second-rate’ actor husband of Lumir who remains affable despite Fabienne’s occasional jibes.

Fabienne is making an SF film where she plays the daughter of a terminally ill woman who remains ‘forever young’ by travelling into space and returning every two years for a short while. It’s a brilliant concept (apparently based on something by Ken Liu) that facilitates a meditation on age and a child’s relationship with their parents. The film is investigating, though not to any great philosophical depth, the nature of truth and if that sounds heavy the film is also very funny in an off-beat way.

As always in Kore-eda, the direction of children is magnificent. Lumir and Hank’s daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), serves as an intermediary between the not-quite warring adults without pretension. Lumir is a scriptwriter and gives her daughter some great lines to flatter Fabienne who earlier asked for lines to smooth over conflict with a miffed personal assistant. How often in life do we think of lines to say before an encounter?

Kore-eda’s ‘dislocation’ from Japan has been seamless and he even manages to include trees, though not in blossom as in his Japanese films, as emblems of a time of life.

Transit (Germany-France, 2018)

On the road to nowhere

Transit is a fascinating and disorientating adaptation of Anna Seghers’ WWII novel based on her experiences escaping the Nazis via Marseille. Daringly, scriptwriter-director Christian Petzold sets the film in the present day with some period touches (such as a typewriter and retro-clothing) so drawing parallels between the fascists of then and the increasingly fascistic now. This Brechtian aesthetic reinforces the Kafkaesque influence on the novel which includes the protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) taking on the identity of a dead writer to try and escape and when he has to prove, to the authorities, that he wants to leave in order to be granted leave to leave. In addition, the writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), mistakes Georg for her husband briefly a couple of times and their lives become entangled.

One indisputably modern element is the African migrants who Georg befriends which adds to the difficulty he has in leaving due to the emotional bond he forges with a youngster, Driss (Lilien Batman). In one superb scene he returns to his friend’s address to find it populated by bewildered migrants; Driss and his mother have gone. Marie, meanwhile, is involved with a doctor who needs to leave but is incapable of doing so without her and she is waiting for her husband and doesn’t believe Georg when he tells her he’s dead. The characters are caught in a liminal space which is, as shown in a parable told by Georg, hell.

Petzold brilliant captures the constant anxiety of living on the edge as police sirens disrupt the soundscape and raids are commonplace. Beer channels Nina Hoss’ (a Petzold regular) distanciated acting style: she’s there but not there which can be seen in a number of Petzold’s films; for example Phoenix and Yella. Both Beer and Rogowski are brilliant in their roles of people trying to act normally in extraordinary circumstances.

Kafka may be the novelist of our time as politicians insist that lies are true and people act as if nothing is seriously wrong in the world (be it Covid-19 or climate catastrophe); Trump suggesting that left wing fascists are a threat is his latest idiocy and Johnson blames care home for deaths that was the fault of his government. But as Kafka (and TS Eliot) showed, human beings don’t have a strong grip on reality so most people don’t seem to realise we’re on the ‘road to nowhere’; which, incidentally, is the Talking Heads song that plays out Transit.

Another Brechtian dimension to the film is the suggestion that what we’re seeing is fiction (which of course it is). A voiceover narrator (who is revealed to be the manager of a restaurant where Georg leaves the manuscript), it is suggested, is reading the novel left by the writer (which Georg takes and which, apparently, is Seghers’) and there’s occasionally a mismatch between what is said and what we see; exactly like today’s world then! James Latimer, in Cinema Scope, is worth reading after seeing the film which is on MUBI.

The Day After I’m Gone (Israel-France, 2019)

So near yet…

This is writer-director Nimrod Eldar’s feature debut and an accomplished one it is. The opening is a beautiful shot of a fairground ride slowly revolving and it lasts so long it’s clear it has some symbolic value. It’s a daring start, not seeking to engage audiences immediately into the narrative and the film itself takes a distanced view of the dysfunctional daughter-father relationship of Roni and Yoram. It’s the subject of melodrama however Eldar dials back to emotions to reflect the numbness felt by the protagonists who are superbly played by Zohar Meidan and Menashe Noy.

Yoram works as a vet in a safari park (he’s better with animals than with people?) though the scenes there reveal little of his character and one encounter with ‘stupid visitors’ seems pointless. Similarly, we only see Roni when she’s with her Dad and though it’s clear that the characters are withdrawn because of the loss of a mother/wife there’s no sense Yoram was any better at connecting before their tragedy. There’s one intensely dramatic scene which is shown ‘from a distance’, from the father’s perspective, but is nevertheless effective. However, the film would have benefited if both characters’ ‘back stories’ had been given a little more detail.

Even though we see his failings as a dad, at least Yoram tries to do something to resolve the crisis and they visit their extended family headed by a racist patriarch. This allows Eldar to, tangentially at least acknowledge, the constant crisis Israeli lives are overshadowed by: their subjugation of Palestinians. However, as the film is about family and not politics it’s understandable that the issue is not dealt with in detail. There’s also a scene were youngsters ‘perform’ the song ‘I love Israel’ and the expressions of the protagonists tell us all we need to know what they think about the sympathies of this right wing family. Even though Yoram may have had good intentions he can’t get through his male stupidity and it seems he feels the victim rather than his 17-year-old daughter.

Eldar’s direction is subtle, for example there are long takes of the protagonists in a car which require the leads’ strong performances as they wordlessly wrestle with their difficulties. Sound is important too, simple things like a cheering football crowd in the distance are given resonance, and the tricky, because potentially sentimental, ending is handled very well.

If some areas are under-developed there’s more than enough to thoroughly engage us in the private grief of two alienated individuals.

Da 5 Bloods (US, 2020)

Taking the knee

Spike Lee  is one of the most interesting film directors working today not only because he brings an African American perspective to the world but also he doesn’t let convention stifle his message; he’s always been a Brechtian filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman even saw Lee getting Oscar recognition (not that I believe it is an arbiter of what’s good just a signifier of what’s acceptable in the mainstream) and there’s a great line in Da 5 Bloods about the Klansman in the Oval Office. Lee doesn’t pull punches and even if he sometimes goes ‘over the top’ it’s always in a good cause. But what to say about this film which feature four vets returning to Vietnam apparently to bury a lost comrade?

By the end I hated it; it was like watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the brilliant representation of racism is curdled by the stupidity of the final scenes. It’s not just Da 5 Bloods ends badly but it’s totally misconceived; Kermode hits the mark:

‘What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’

That said, he quite liked the film but the mis-steps, for me, overwhelmed all that’s good. It’s not as if mixing Sierra Madre into the politics of the Vietnam War couldn’t have worked but it is ineptly done. It’s a failure at the level of the script which was written by Lee and Kevin Willmott based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; I surmise that whatever the merits of the original it doesn’t work with what Lee and Willmott introduced. Too much of what we see is risible: the land mines; Paul’s (Delroy Lindo) madness; Otis’ (Clark Peters) discovery. It’s not as if any of the narrative threads are impossible just they are not integrated comfortably into the whole.

There is much to like in the 155 minute running time: Newton Thomas Sigel’s brilliant cinematography that captures the beauty of Vietnam and, in the flashback scenes, uses 16mm to give the feel of documentary footage from the time. Lee throws in numerous references to Apocalypse Now!, the helicopters in the sun and The Ride of the Valkyries in particular, and uses footage from Civil Rights police violence and numerous black voices including Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. All these work brilliantly but I was so alienated by the film from the time they find the gold that I had to force myself to keep watching.

Redoutable (Le Redoutable, France-Myanmar, 2017)

A wife’s revenge or Godard unmasked?

I’ve found it increasingly difficult to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films but am not sure whether that’s a comment upon me or Godard. Others seems to like them but maybe the fans haven’t moved on; from what I can tell Godard hasn’t moved much in recent years but it must be incredibly difficult to recapture what was seen as youthful brilliance during his heyday of the French ‘new wave’. Director Michel Hazanavicius’ script is based on Anne Wiazemsky’s memoir Un an après, which was about her marriage to Godard in the late ’60s (though they didn’t divorce until 1979 they had been separated for nine years) and so the film shouldn’t be taken as a straight rendition of what happened; however, I was fairly convinced.

In the film Godard himself (played brilliantly by Louis Garrel) says he’s finished at 37 years old and there is a sense that he was out of his time. His brilliant debut À bout de souffle was made in his 30th year, not quite in the ‘hot fire’ of youth, and when May ’68 erupted he was nearly 40. The film portrays him as trying to keep up with the youthful rebellion but not belonging despite the reverence with which he is held by the youngsters. Incidentally the May ’68 demos are brilliantly staged in the film.

Godard’s films steadily moved away from commercial cinema, not that he started in its midst anyway, and by the start of Redoutable he’d just made La Chinoise (1967) which didn’t hit the zeitgeist though the follow-up, Week End (France-Italy, 1967) did; the latter doesn’t get a mention as the film covers only a few weeks in May including the abandoned Cannes film festival. He’s seen meeting Jean-Pierre Gorin with whom he formed the Dziga Vertov group; they went on to make the excellent Tout va bien (1972, France-Italy) with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. One film of Godard’s from the era I’d like to see again is Le gai savoir (France-Germany, 1969) which I remembered enjoying in the halcyon days of the UK’s Channel 4, in the 1980s, when they screened truly alternative texts.

Hazanavicius uses a Woody Allen gag when a fan asks Godard when he’s going to make funny films again (as against the serious political stuff) and though Godard didn’t make straight comedies (or straight anything) there was a lightness of touch to many of his earlier films and Redoutable takes its cue from that. One scene, in particular, is hilarious when Godard and his confederates had managed to get Cannes cancelled the General Strike means there’s no transport back to Paris other than a packed car in which he can’t help but be his argumentative self; its superbly staged and performed.

There are more gags in the Godardian touches such as the use of intertitles and the self-reflexive scene were Godard and Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) discuss having actors perform nude gratuitously in film: of course, they are naked. In fact Martin is often naked in the film though it’s a stretch to suggest that Hazanavicius is satirising the misogynist tone of many of Godard’s films. The portrayal of Godard does show him to be an entitled male even though he is one who understands his entitlement he can’t resist using it. At the end of Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places a planned reunion with Godard fails to happen because he isn’t home showing him to be mean spirited.

I particularly liked Christian Marti’s set design that emphasises red, white and blue, colours that often featured in the director’s films. I think those who know Godard will enjoy the film more than those who don’t but there’s enough for the non-aficionado too. Any Godard fans want to have a go at the question, ‘Redoutable is the best film featuring the name Jean-Luc Godard for many, many years’. Discuss?

 

An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China, 2018)

No light at the end

With a running time of nearly four hours (full disclosure: I did it in two sessions), Bo Hu’s directorial feature debut, and his last film, is a gruelling, grim near masterpiece. Bo committed suicide, aged 29, before the film was released and as scriptwriter and editor, it’s clearly his vision which if it isn’t quite nihilist certainly borders on it. It’s unlikely that the awards the film garnered would have encouraged Bo to prolong his stay but his talent has been wasted.

Its realist camerawork, constantly (except for the final shot) handheld with natural lighting only (taking a Dogme95 edict to the letter), portrays a day in the life of four characters all of whom are having a bad time. The lighting means there is, fittingly, little of beauty in the film; though the above still is an exception. In addition, it’s not always easy to see what’s happening and the almost-guerilla style filmmaking on the street often necessitates a low angle, medium shot behind a walking character to avoid seeing the immediate environment in detail; even then one bystander can be seen waving at the camera. So aesthetically there is some frustration, however the impact of the narrative and superb performances (Wang Yuwen, Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu and Wang Jin) make this a film worth suffering through.

The setting is an unnamed city in North East China and, hopefully, Bo chose the shittiest areas to shoot because it looks like hell on earth and its inhabitants deserve to live there. Of course, the latter isn’t true as living conditions, both actual and social, have a massive influence on personality. It reminded me Jia Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wuwhich was banned in China on release as it gave such a negative representation of the country; An Elephant Sitting Still tops it by some degree! From a western perspective, at least, much of what we see is shocking: a boy is injured at school but the Vice Principal refuses to call the police as he says the family will take their own retribution. Nobody, and that’s nobody, is nice to anybody else, with one exception of a loyal friend and that doesn’t end well; the housing is dreadful; I could go on. The cross cutting narratives resemble a soap opera as does the family conflict that intensifies any TV drama grief ten-fold.

Taking the film as a distinct representation of a desperate worldview, it is a superb rendition of hopelessness. Hence the title, the story of the elephant in a nearby zoo, who sits and won’t move, appears throughout the film. The elephant, it seems, has given up; the film’s characters don’t but it seems they might as well do so.

Kuessipan (Canada, 2019) – CIFF6

Friends for life?

My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.

I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fotaine and Verreault, states:

‘Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.’

This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.

Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.

An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.

Rounds (V krŭg, Bulgaria-Serbia, 2019) – CIFF5

A night in the life of

Director and co-writer (with Simeon Ventsislavov) Stephan Komandarev’s last film, Directions (Posoki, Bulgaria-Germany-Republic of North Macedonia, 2017), centred on taxi drivers in Sofia. In Rounds it’s the turn of cops and he hopes to complete the trilogy with ambulance workers. ‘Hopes’ reflects the difficulties he had in getting the small budget for Rounds and the film was shot, incredibly, in 12 days. It won the Cineuropa Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Best Actress jury prize for Irini Jambonas who plays the only female cop. Rounds is a brilliant mix of mordant humour and social commentary. It’s set the night before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and some of the conversation is about the debate whether the Red Army statue should be removed or not.

Clearly Bulgaria is a divided country between those who celebrate western ‘freedom’ and those who pine for the days of Soviet ‘tyranny’. As one character says (I paraphrase), “I used to live on Class Struggle Street and they renamed it European Way; it hasn’t changed”.

The narrative follows three pairs of cops who are linked only by moving a corpse over a precinct boundary so they won’t have to deal with it. Komandarev said in an interview they used stories from actual cops and the absurdity of encountering grave vandals who claim their names are Rocky, Rambo and Sylvester give a sense of the surreal nature of some of their work. The darker side of dealing with those on the margins is seen when searching for an AWOL Alzheimer’s patient who turns out to be an ex-teacher that had ‘saved’ the cop from a life of crime. The glimpse we get into the ‘care’ home is quite chilling and the cop faces the moral dilemma of what to do in such circumstances. Another thread includes a young lad beaten up by neo Nazis.

Understandably the takes are long and the camera is often positioned in the back of the car giving it a documentary feel that is entirely appropriate. The performances are all believable and it is some feat of filmmaking to produce such a superbly made film under such limitations. This ‘night in the life of…’ gives us the good and bad and an insight into what post-‘Communism’ is like in a former eastern bloc country. It’s a clear sighted view of division which is important in divided times. The current ‘culture wars’, from the right wing perspective, is all about taking sides and if you’re not for them you are against them.

The film is still available at the Cheltenham online festival here.

Stitches (Šavovi, Serbia, 2019) – CIFF4

Haunted by the past

According to imdb the lead of Stitches, Snezana Bogdanovic who plays Ana, was a leading classical actor in Yugoslavia and her brilliant performance is crucial to the success of this delve into Serbia’s murky past. The narrative centres on the fact that hundreds of children were sold into adoption when their parents were told they were stillborn. Stitches is ‘inspired by true events’ and investigates the emotional fall-out of not being sure about a child’s fate. Ana’s child was taken from her at birth and though it’s 18 years later she is still seeking evidence about what happened, even if it’s only grave at which to mourn. Even though she now has a daughter, Ivana (Jovana Stojiljkovic), Ana’s emotional lockdown means she’s alienated from both her and husband Jovan (Marko Bacovic).

Bogdanovic plays Ana as a dogged pursuer of truth and if, occasionally, a plot point seems to be missing (Ana’s sister, for example, seems to change her mind suddenly) it doesn’t detract from the powerful story. Everyone from the police to health authorities and her family have told her give up her search. It’s not until Ana makes progress that the emotional dam starts to break that we see how good Bogdanovic’s performance actually is. Ana has been almost a blank page throughout the film and Bogdanovic is careful to avoid histrionics as she nears her goal; indeed Ana’s desire is not one we might expect..

The film was directed by Miroslav Terzić (script by  Elma Tataragić) and the camera follows the relentless Ana as she works her way through each day. In one rare scene where she isn’t present Jovan is urged by the police to curb his wife and so we see the misogynist hurdles she has also had to combat. Similarly, in Argentina the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still await justice – as dramatised in The Official Story.

Her husband is a security guard who has unsocial working hours and there is often some confusion about what time of day it is. This emphasises that, to Ana, nothing other than finding out about her child’s fate is important; she is just going through the motions of life to the detriment of Ivana, whose alienation from her mother is readily understandable. Ana’s existence is economically portrayed as almost dream world or, more accurately, a nightmare. It’s another good film available at the Cheltenham online festival here.