Review of the year

Top films

  1. Roma
  2. Disobedience
  3. Shoplifters
  4. The Shape of Water
  5. A Fantastic Woman
  6. Cold War
  7. Annihilation
  8. BlackKklansman
  9. The Other Side of the Wind
  10. The Hate U Give

Top TV

  1. The Bridge – series 4
  2. Come Home
  3. Wanderlust
  4. Press
  5. Black Earth Rising
  6. McMafia
  7. The City and the City
  8. Hidden
  9. The Plague
  10. Bodyguard

Top films seen last year

  1. Roma
  2. Our Little Sister
  3. Blade Runner 2049
  4. Children of Men
  5. Pan’s Labyrinth
  6. Disobedient
  7. Night Train
  8. Shoplifters
  9. The Sound of Fury
  10. Panic in the Streets

Top Albums

  1. Bruckner: Symphony 8, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks – Jansons
  2. Remain in Light, Angelique Kidjo
  3. Belem and the Meckanics, Belem and the Meckanics
  4. Sviridov: Canticles & Prayers, Latvian Radio Choir – Klava
  5. The Invisible Comes to Us, Anna and Elizabeth
  6. J-Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz from Japan 1969-1984
  7. Nodding Terms, Ketan Bhatti
  8. Violin Muse, Madeleine Mitchell; Nigel Clayton; Cerys Jones; BBC National Orchestra Of Wales; Edwin Outwater
  9. Rautavaara: Works for cello, Tanja Tetzlaff, Gunilla Süssmann
  10. Welcome Strangers, Modern Studies

Top Books

  1. At Hawthorn Time, Melissa Harrison
  2. America City, Chris Beckett
  3. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People, Reni Eddo-Lodge
  4. Lament for the Fallen, Gavin Chait
  5. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
  6. Journey’s End, RC Sheriff
  7. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker
  8. Golden Hill, Francis Spufford
  9. The Underground Railway, Colson Whitehead
  10. Tightrope, Simon Mawer

Top live

  1. Natalie Merchant – King’s Hall, Ilkley
  2. Anna and Elizabeth, Howard Assembly Rooms – Leeds
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, Theatr Clwyd – Mold
  4. Tchaikovsky/Korngold/Mussorgsky, RLPO – Petrenko, Town Hall
  5. Birds of Chicago – The Live Room, Saltaire
  6. Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings – Victoria Hall, Saltaire
  7. Life in Motion: Egon Schiele and Francesca Woodman – Tate, Liverpool
  8. Orchestra of Opera North – Dalia Stasevska – Town Hall, Leeds
  9. SeaLegacy/Turning the Tide, Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeir, Fotografiska – Stockholm
  10. Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra – Michale Balke – Concert Hall
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Violent Playground (UK, 1958)

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Young people today!

Basil Dearden is renowned as a director of ‘social problem’ films (see his Sapphire); though I remember the late Victor Perkins complaining about his abilities as a director. Violent Playground focuses on juvenile delinquents (what’s happened to them?) and draws upon Liverpool police force’s pioneering use of a ‘juvenile liaison officer’. That’s the reluctant Stanley Baker who, of course, falls for the sister of prime delinquent (David McCallum).

The location shooting is effective but it’s striking that there’s only one Scouse accent on show (a very young Freddie Starr) though the focus is on an Irish family. The staging of the siege at a primary school at the film’s climax, though, is farcical. The high drama of the scene is constantly undermined by PC Plod behaviour and John Slater’s weatherworn face, for example, never changes expression whether he’s facing a crazed gunman or asking for a cup of tea. Peter Cushing appears as a priest casting reassurance about him even as he’s been pushed off a ladder.

Baker’s his usual intense self but his modernity, as a male role model of the era, is strikingly compromised in a scene where the youngsters are driven into a trance like state by the ‘moronic’ rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. Rarely has a scene encapsulated the older generation’s inability to understand the zeitgeist; the transformation of youth into zombies, complete with violent tendencies, dramatises the filmmakers’ incomprehension of what we now to be one of the most significant cultural influences of the 20th century. Baker’s as dumbfounded as the filmmakers but his desire for the sister makes him an understanding character.

As in Sapphire, the film is an excellent example of the mores of the time. It includes named ‘Chinese’ characters and black faces are purposely included to show the multicultural basis of the community. This shows Dearden and his filmmakers to be more in tune with the zeitgeist than the current Conservative candidate for the major of London who thinks multiculturalism is a bad thing. Fancy being more outdated than a middle-aged ’50s filmmaker!

Noose (UK, 1948)

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A melange of tones: Landis, Patrick and Calleia

This is a strange film that veers from expressionist noir to knockabout comedy throughout. The noir is brilliantly done but the ‘comedy’ distracts. Part of the post-war ‘spiv’ cycle were the bad guys are those who had a ‘good’ war economically by running the ‘black’ market, Noose doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in its material. Maybe the director decided to have some fun by messing about with camera angles and lighting whilst indulging in occasional slapstick. Edward T Greville’s direction veers between the brilliant and daft. At times it seemed like a bargain basement Citizen Kane: when a character looks at a dance floor through cut glass we see the fragmented images. The opening is a bravura shot of Bar (Nigel Patrick) arriving at work (it’s not quite one take but that was clearly the intention) and, to indicate the inebriation of a character who hiccoughs, the camera tilts left-right-left-right.

This film’s also interesting for the female protagonist played by Carole Landis in her last film before committing suicide. She’s a feisty American fashion reporter in London who decides to expose Joseph Calleia’s black market racket. She’s somewhat blasé about what’s she’s doing and BFI’s Screenonline piece is worth reading as it points out the narrative’s opposition between the ‘bad’ foreigners and the ‘good’ British criminal fraternity. I disagree about Nigel Patrick, however, who the piece suggests is over-theatrical; I found his performance entirely engaging. It was one of his first films and he became a stalwart of British cinema.

Noose (The Silk Noose in America) is an unusual example of a film that mixes its styles in a rather haphazard way which is a pity as many of the noir scenes are compelling.

Puzzle (US, 2018)

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A puzzle as why Kelly MacDonald isn’t a bigger star

I had my doubts as to where this melodrama was going near the start of the film. I wasn’t fussed by the unusual milieux (jigsaw puzzle contests) just worried I’d seen it all before: mousy, downtrodden woman finds her voice. It’s not that that’s not an important narrative arc but it is well weathered so needs freshening up and this remake of the Argentinean Rompecabezas (2009) does just that.

Even if it hadn’t the performances are enough to make the film worthwhile. MacDonald is sensational as Agnes and Irrfan Khan’s charisma carries him a long way. David Denman, as Louie Agnes’ husband, is also very good and his character never becomes a simple sign of patriarchal repression. Cinematography (Christopher Norr) is great too: light floods into Agnes’ home which, nevertheless, remains gloomy. The film is about a darkness of the American Dream.

Spoilers ahead: but what makes the film stand out is Agnes who doesn’t take long to develop into an independent woman. Instead of a slow burn of realisation she gets it quickly and acts accordingly. MacDonald’s brilliance is that she convinces us of the fairly rapid transformation.

Superbly made, director Marc Turtletaub produced Little Miss Sunshine (US, 2009), this made me almost want to do a jigsaw.

Cold War (Zimna wojna, Poland-France-UK, 2018)

Love in a divided climate

My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.

The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.

As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.

There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant.  The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).

A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage.  Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.

Is one of the best films of the year so far.

 

Deadfall (UK, 1968)

Not quite as bad as its tagline
This is an interesting period piece: a genre movie with pretensions of art. That’s not to say I believe genre texts are not art, of course they are, but writer–director Bryan Forbes was obviously trying to channel the French ‘new wave’; with a dash of existentialism, and the shadow of the Nazis, to spice up the narrative. Michael Caine plays his laconic protagonist as a cat burglar drawn into a sort of menage a trois with Eric Portman’s gay patriarch who has Giovanna Ralli playing his wife. Stylistically Forbes tries to enliven the material with distinctive compositions and often uses a zoom lens to pick out details; a technique fashionable at the time. One burglary is cross-cut with a performance of a guitar concerto (which the owners of house are attending) directed by the film’s composer John Barry. The sequence lasts about 15 minutes and I’ve no idea what the purpose of the cross-cutting was as it can’t be ‘will he crack the safe before the concert ends?’ could it…? If so it is a perfect example of how not to generate tension. Another ‘arty’ technique is the extended lap dissolves during a post-coital conversation with a crossed 180-degree line. The credit sequence, with animated graphics, was graced by a belter by Shirley Bassey and seemed to suggest a Bond-type film. Caine had just come off the third and final Harry Palmer film, Billion Dollar Brain (UK, 1967), and I’m guessing audiences didn’t get what they expected from Deadfall. Another eccentricity is the casting of Nanette Newman as – in ‘swinging ’60s parlance – ‘the girl’. Apart from a brief early appearance, the film’s well into its second half before she gets much screen time and she’s listed fourth in the credits (being the director’s wife may have helped). The eccentricity is not the casting as such, Newman does ditzy well (another ’60s characteristic of attractive young women) but she is entirely unimportant to the narrative. Maybe that’s the point and Forbes was playing with filmic convention. Deadfall may not have seemed good when it was released, Roger Ebert was not impressed, and it certainly hasn’t dated well.

The Damned (UK, 1962)

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Couldn’t make it up

Director Joseph Losey is sometimes lauded as Brechtian, he drew attention to the artifice of film in order to estrange the audience and get them thinking, however the fractured (and somewhat estranging) narrative of The Damned comes from the messy way it was scripted. Losey didn’t like the original script, an adaptation of The Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence, and he brought in Evan Jones to rewrite, with Losey, which went on throughout the production. So it’s not surprising the film’s narratively disjointed. The children, who are being experimented upon by the British government and so are the centre of the narrative, don’t appear until around half way through. The first part of the narrative focuses on Teddy Boys terrorising Weymouth with Oliver Reed relishing the role of the deranged delinquent not unlike Malcolm Mcdowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange (UK-US, 1971) a decade later.

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Brooding doesn’t cover it

A rather insipid Macdonald Carey plays a middle aged American living out a mid-life crisis before being entrapped by an unlikely femme fatale (Shirley Ann Field), sister of Reed’s thug. Swedish actor Viveca Lindfors plays the free-spirited (she’s foreign) sculptor in contrast to Alexander Knox’s deranged civil servant who’s administering the tests on the children.

It is a strange film but that’s perfect for world at the time where nuclear war seemed, to some, inevitable. It’s certainly worth watching for Reed’s turn alone and I’m surprised it took so long for him to become a leading man after it but that probably reflects the lack of box office success of the film.

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In America it was marketed as These Are the Damned and the poster is a compete misrepresentation of the children; the tagline more describes the British civil servant played by Knox. The uncompromising ending is excellent.