Review of 2021

Still finding films non-compulsive; indeed books have gone the same way to an extent (partly to do with eye problems thankfully fixed). Gigs limited, of course, but for what it’s worth:


Reigns over the books
  1. Mozart: The Reign of Love, Jan Swafford
  2. Tchaikovsky The Man and His Music, David Brown
  3. Benjamin Britten: A Live in the Twentieth Century, Paul Kildea
  4. The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, eds. Alain Frogley & Aidan Thompson
  5. George Gershwin, Robert Greenburg
  6. Jean Sibelius, Guy Rickards
  7. Dmitry Shostakovich, Pauline Fairclough
  8. Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his fifteen quartets, Wendy Lesser
  9. Leonard Bernstein, Paul Myers
  10. The String Quartet: A History, Paul Griffiths

Films seen this year

Evergreen ‘twilight’ great
  1. The Last Picture Show
  2. The Godfather
  3. Gravity
  4. Tekkonkinkre
  5. Spiral – season 8 (also rewatched the whole series – brilliant)
  6. The Shining
  7. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  8. Stan & Ollie
  9. The Edge
  10. Silent Voice

Albums of the year

  1. Shostakovich: Violin Concertos, Alina Ibragimova, State Academic Symphony 
  2. Paris, Hilary Hahn
  3. Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Patricia Kopatchinskaja
  4. Fly or Die, Jaimie Branch
  5. Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 4 & 6, LSO – Pappano
  6. Diana Jones, Song to a Refugee
  7. Lokk, Erlend Apneseth Trio
  8. Ysaye: Sonatas for solo violin, James Ehnes
  9. Plaisirs illumines, Kopatchinskaja, Gabetta, Camerata Bern
  10. Whither Must I Wander, Will Liverman, Jonathan King

Top Live Events

  1. Mahler: ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, Orch Opera North – Walker, Leeds Town Hall
  2. The Little Unsaid, The Live Room – Saltaire
  3. Bach/Shostakovich/Schubert: Brodsky Qt, Assembly Room – Leeds
  4. Musicport, Whitby
  5. Britten, Elgar, Shostakovich, Orch of Opera North – Walker, Huddersfield Town Hall
  6. The Breath, The Live Room – Saltaire
  7. John Boden – The Live Room, Saltaire
  8. Boo Hewerdine, Heidi Talbot, The Live Room – Saltaire
  9. Olcay Bayir – The Live Room, Saltaire

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

Cheltenham International Film Festival

Needs-must has placed the Cheltenham International Film Festival online this year and it looks a good line-up. It started yesterday and it’s the familiar online rental terms of 48 hours once you’ve started watching and available for seven days in total (though at least one seems to be less than that). There are links below to three of them I saw in Glasgow and I’ve booked to see six others which I’ll try to blog promptly.

Review of 2019

Films of the year

A heart in a heartless world

  1. Capernaum
  2. System Crasher
  3. Spiral – season 7 (TV)
  4. Sunday’s Illness
  5. A Twelve Year Night
  6. Woman at War
  7. Monos
  8. Happy as Lazarro
  9. Joker
  10. Ordinary Love

Films seen this year

’60s masterpiece

  1. The Shop on the High Street
  2. Maborosi
  3. Capernaum
  4. Our Little Sister
  5. Disobedient
  6. Mandy
  7. Blade Runner 2049
  8. The Man in White Suit
  9. Sunday’s Illness
  10. Beauty and the Dogs

Films of the decade

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Roma
  3. Black Swan
  4. Capernaum
  5. Under the Skin
  6. Even the Rain
  7. Our Little Sister
  8. Shoplifters
  9. I, Daniel Blake
  10. Disobedient

TV of the decade

  1. The Bridge
  2. 1864
  3. Spiral
  4. Borgen
  5. Godless
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale (season one)
  7. Happy Valley
  8. The Night Manager
  9. The Fall
  10. The Missing

Books of the Year

  1. The Overstory, Richard Powers
  2. Beneath the World, A Sea, Chris Beckett
  3. The Snakes, Sadie Jones
  4. Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. A Ladder to the Sky, John Boyne
  6. XX, Angela Chadwick
  7. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine
  8. Searching for John Ford, Joseph McBride
  9. Electric Eden, Rob Young
  10. Native Tongue, Suzette Hayden Elgin

Albums of the Year

  1. Bartok, Beethoven, Debussy, Innovators, Benyounes Qt
  2. Sibelius: Symphony 1, Gothenburg SO – Rouvali
  3. Daniel Pioro, Dust
  4. Schubert: String quartets, Chiaroscuro Qt
  5. Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other
  6. Debussy: Les Trois Sonates, Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov et al
  7. Shake Stew, Gris Gris
  8. The Little Unsaid, Atomise
  9. DC Fontaines, Dogrel
  10. Lisa O’Neill, Heard a Long Song Gone

Top Live

  1. Gigspanner Big Band – Falmouth and Saltaire
  2. Mahler: Symphony 5, BBC Philharmonic – Joana Carneiro – Leeds
  3. The Rite of Spring, Seeta Patel – Bradford
  4. West Side Story – Manchester
  5. Tao of Glass – Manchester
  6. 3hattrio – Saltaire
  7. The Centre is Everywhere, Manchester Collective – Leeds
  8. The Little Unsaid – Saltaire
  9. Lonesome Ace String Band – Saltaire
  10. Mama’s Broke – Saltaire

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

Violent Playground (UK, 1958)


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)


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)


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.