Just a few words of explanation. Every month Darren at http://www.moviesreview101.com issues a challenge, to anyone who wants to take part, to post something about any movie on a chosen subject based on the alphabet, one day, one letter, one movie. This month’s chosen subject is The Nineties. I have tried to fulfil my end of the challenge with some of the best films of that decade (along with a couple that don’t quite fit that remit but are still interesting enough to be included), and, where I have not chosen a film that begins with the day’s corresponding letter, I have tried to used the director’s name instead.
A is for ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (Pedro Almodovar, 1999)
I hate all those “Easter Eggs” that directors throw into movies, the knowing references and nods that “Only real fans” can spot, speculate, bang on about and create endless online content about.
“But you love All About My Mother and that’s packed with them.”
True, but Almodovar is using those references in service of the story, rather than in service of the fans. His are not random in-jokes like old comic books laying around or lines of dialogue, his uses directly affect the plot or the characters or they play directly into the themes of the movie.
End of argument.
All About My Mother is, it’s true, a cineaste’s dream of a movie but it’s also so much more than that: First and foremost, it is a deeply moving story of loss and guilt and love and all the things that make us human; it is packed with Almodovar’s recurring themes of the enduring strength of women, of sexual and gender politics and the act of performance; of addiction and repetition and of fate; and, of course, motherhood. There is both pathos and bathos, a scene can transform from emotional highs to lows and from melodrama to dark, coruscating humour and back in the space of just a few frames. The acting is sublime from virtually everyone involved, especially Cecilia Roth as the central figure of Manuela, Marisa Paredes as the aging but still great actress Huma and Antonia San Juan as Agrado the trans prostitute with the obligatory heart of gold. I hesitate to call the film a masterpiece, but if it is not then it is surely a major work from a true master of his craft.
To outline the plot of All About My Mother is deny the first-time watcher the thrill of discovery (and almost impossible to do without spoilers), but briefly: Manuela (Roth) is a single mother living and working in Madrid, her life revolving around her son, Esteban (Eloy Azarin). When Esteban is killed in a traffic accident, Manuela travels to Barcelona to find the boy’s father, but to do so she must confront her own past. On her dark night’s journey into day, she will aid and confront a variety of characters until she can reach the faint glow of a dawn’s light and resolution. Along this voyage the viewer (depending on their cine-literacy) will spot many of the overt, along with the obscure, “Easter Eggs” Almodovar calls upon to create his movie. The event that sets the story in motion (the death of Esteban) is a pull straight from John Cassavetes’ Opening Night; there are multiple references to All About Eve (not the least being the title); A Streetcar Named Desire is not just the play in which Huma (Paredes) plays the lead but a cue to many of the roles, both seen and unseen, in the film’s plot; Fellini makes a fleeting appearance, Truman Capote and Breakfast at Tiffany’s pop in once or twice, the shadows of directors like Nicholas Ray, Cukor, Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder flit across the screen like technicolour butterflies. It’s a pastiche made from the thrills of Almodovar’s influences to create something altogether new and whole and engrossing and exciting. You don’t have to be a movie buff to enjoy All About My Mother, it’s a movie that’s outstanding on its own merit, but they certainly add texture and depth and, for those of us immersed in cinema, a huge, warm hug.
B is for Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
There are films that I hate. There are films that I find mildly distracting and forget almost immediately. Some films I actively love from their very opening shot and return to again and again with barely diminishing feelings. Of course, there is every thing between and then there are films like Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. Beau Travail hit me like a truck. For five or six days after I was barely functioning: I didn’t talk; I barely slept; I barely ate. I was consumed. My every waking moment I thought about it. I relived it. I drowned in it.The “kids” have a word for it: Shook. Dear reader, I was Shook.
Set in the former French colony of Djibouti, between Ethiopia and Somalia on the Horn of Africa, the film centres on a triangle of Legionnaires: Sentain (Gregoire Colin), the easy going, likeable, beautiful new recruit; Forestier (Michel Subor), the popular garrison Commander; Galoup (Denis Lavant), the prickly, hard-driving Sergeant who takes an instant dislike to the popular and friendly new arrival. When Sentain is reprimanded by Galoup, for handing a water bottle to a fellow recruit on punishment duty, the young recruit strikes his sergeant for his cruelty Galoup abandons him in the desert with nothing but a tampered-with compass. It is a death sentence. When evidence surfaces of Galoup’s spiteful revenge he is discharged unceremoniously from the corps by the only man the sergeant respects, Forestier. In the penultimate scene we see Galoup laid upon his freshly made bed with a revolver in his hand.
That’s what it’s about but it’s not what it’s about.
With its young men stripped to the waist, sweat drenched torsos tanning in the desert sun, performing drills and exercises in almost balletic routine, it is hard not to think of Beau Travail as a part of the Queer Cinema movement. The central triangle has an operatic quality to it, a melodramatic libretto worthy of any grand stage (this is no coincidence, Beau Travail is a loose riff on Herman Melville’s 1888 novella, Billy Budd which, in turn, became the basis of Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same name, parts of which are liberally sprinkled throughout the soundtrack), or maybe there’s more than a touch of Douglas Sirk to it. It’s hard to deny the film’s homoeroticism what with its sensual, tactile photography, its balletic, graceful direction and gentle, rhythmical editing but a film co-written and directed, photographed and edited by women? Surely, there is something deeper going on here (although if you read the film as a gay melodrama that’s fine, that’s what many of the film’s ambiguities lean heavily into)?
It could be argued that the character of Galoup mirrors the fate of the Legion, that it no longer belongs, that outside forces give it no place to exist anymore, that it is a relic. Personally, I think this interpretation comes close, but not close enough. I think Beau Travail, like David Fincher’s Fight Club or Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, is an exploration of that hoary, social media myth of “Masculinity in Crisis”. Galoup sees himself as “The Nice Guy”, the defender of the old values, the man to whom nothing comes easy but hard work and discipline will eventually get him everything he wants. Into his little world comes Sentain, a representation of everything he despises, the men love him, the local girls at the nightclub flock to him, his beloved commander praises him. Sentain is the chaos in Galoup’s ordered life. Does Galoup envy him? Hate him? Love him? Is Sentain the one thing he wants more than anything in the world or does he abandon him in the desert because he, like Edward Norton in Fight Club, “Felt like destroying something beautiful”?
Beau Travail is packed with ambiguities, not the least of which is the final scene. Galoup is back in the Djibouti nightclub, alone on the dancefloor, Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” is pounding. Slowly, Galoup begins to move, haltingly his movements start to match the song’s beat until he throws himself into the song without abandon. Is this his dream of release? A dream of belonging? Maybe it’s the moment the bullet enters his brainpan (Squish) and his own personal Heaven? I still don’t know.
I’m still thinking.
C is for Cyrano de Bergerac (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990)
Choosing the films for this list has been a labour, I admit, but a labour of love. I didn’t want to randomly pick Nineties films out of a hat, rather I decided to stick to movies I loved or, at least, admired from that decade because, well, it’s a lot easier (and satisfying) for me to write about those than just bang out a load of guff about things to which I feel indifferent. There was no thought of trying to find some thematic through-line or connection between them as I might compiling a mixtape, no, I just went through vast lists of films, scribbled down those I liked and then pared that (far too long) list down to twenty-six, one for each letter of the alphabet. Any connective tissue is purely accidental, I’m just not that smart.
I offer this explanation because, in thinking about Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s splendid and sumptuous adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, I began to realise that Cyrano and Beau Travail’s sergeant Galoup had something strikingly in common: They are both tremendous romantics, they are both yearning, not for the lives they are living but, for the lives they wish. In both character’s stories comes an easy going, handsome recruit who stands between our protagonist and the love or attention of that third point of the triangle they most admire. It is interesting to revisit Beau Travail with Cyrano de Bergerac in mind, it adds yet another layer to what is an already deep, complex and rewarding movie.
But onwards. If you are unaware of the story the I urge you to seek out a copy or a stream of Cyrano de Bergerac before reading further, from this point on: Spoilers!
Cyrano de Bergerac (Gerard Depardieu), a captain in the Cadets de Gascogne, poet, bon viveur, raconteur is madly in love with his beautiful cousin, Roxane (Anne Brochet), however he does not believe she will requite his feeling for he sees himself physically repulsive (mostly because of his large nose). When handsome and dashing recruit Christian de Neuvilette (Vincent Perez) confesses to Cyrano that although he too is in love with Roxane but lacks the wit or words to woo her, Cyrano decides to express his love vicariously via letters he will write in Christian’s name. It is Cyrano’s words that win fair maiden’s heart for she confesses to Christian that it is his soul she loves and not his looks. When the Cadets are called to the war with Spain, Christian demands that Cyrano confess his own love for Roxane for it is he, the beautiful soul, that she truly desires but before Cyrano can lay his truth before her Christian is killed in action. Cyrano writes one last letter for his companion and vows to himself that Roxane will never know the truth for it would destroy her and sully forever Christian’s memory in her heart. Roxane retreats to a convent where, for fourteen subsequent years, Cyrano visits her every week until one day he is victim of an accident in the street and mortally wounded. Despite protestations he continues to his appointment, where Roxane asks that he read her Christian’s last letter and it is only when she spies that Cyrano is reading not from the missive but from his memory and his heart that she finally realises the truth, that it was her cousin with the beautiful soul, not Christian, that she had loved all along. Tragically, Cyrano is not long for this world and in his final speech he confronts his internalised cowardice and declares the one thing he would be remembered for, not his courage or his heart, but his “Panache”. And, with that, he is gone.
Lusty, brawling, romantic, occasionally bawdy, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac is oft times as rib-achingly funny as it is heart-breakingly sad, as wilfully old-fashioned as it is strikingly contemporary, but it is always, always watchable. It’s not multi-layered or meta-textual, it’s just a great movie which is enough. Of course, it does no harm if you can watch the version that features sub-titles written by Anthony Burgess that hark back to Rostand’s original play with its “Sprung rhythm”, which lend the film extra texture. Along with co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere, Rappeneau completely deconstructed the acts of Rostand’s play, redesigned them and reconstructed them like master builders, managing to keep the feel of the original frontage whilst providing a completely new interior. The straight translation is good, but it is Burgess’ knowledge and use of language that makes the movie soar.
There have been many adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac before, most notably the 1950 version starring Jose Ferrer and the delightful 1987 Roxanne with Steve Martin but, honestly, the myth of Cyrano was beginning to creak, its power taken away by a thousand comedy skits. Gerard Depardieu – a great hulk of an actor who made his career playing roles that he was, “Just not right for the role”, and knocking every role he played out of the park – was tasked with breathing life back into Cyrano’s failing body. At points it is difficult to remember that it is the nose that is special effect, not the actor it is attached to so dazzling and perfect is his performance. It is expansive, funny, gross, dainty, and always humane. It’s a disciplined whirlwind of conflicting emotions that finds surprising new life in a theatrical antique.
Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, said, “I have made it one of my rules in life never to have anything to do with anyone who does not instinctively love Cyrano, and I am most at home with those who identify with him.” And I think it is difficult not to love Cyrano because there is a bit of him in all of us at one time or another, that bit we all feel conscious of or unlovable because of, the bit we’d all like photoshopped away. There’s a moral in there somewhere, it’s not hard to find.
D is for Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)
Sometimes a two-hour movie can feel like a four- or five-hour slog, an exercise in endurance because it is boring or slow or just fails to capture you. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust runs for just under two-hours but feels much longer because it is difficult to comprehend just how so much content it manages to cram into its one-hundred and twelve minutes. There is no conventional plot, no central character on which to hang its hat, no formal structure at all.
Daughters of the Dust is a tone poem, a lyrical history lesson, a family drama. There are moments of conflict, moments of melodrama, comedy, magical realism, surrealism, ugliness and beauty. It is the story of the past, the present and the future. The dialogue drifts from English to Creole to African, sometimes it is subtitled, sometimes it is not, but somehow every word is understandable because everything is communicated with feelings. Daughters of the Dust is a film about memories, hopes, history and belonging, about the old world and the new and, above all, it is about experience.
The plot, such as it is, is set at the turn of the Twentieth century and revolves around the multi-generational Peazant family, a matriarchal society of Gullahs – African Americans who settled in the lowlands of Carolina and Florida after emancipation, created their own language and hang on to many of their tribal traditions and rituals – many of whom plan to leave their home on St. Helena Island and forge new lives in the United States proper. Tangled into this central plot you can unpick the stories of Nana (Cora Lee Day), the living memory of African cultural and religious traditions that her own ancestors maintained and transmitted to her, viewed by some of the younger, more devoutly Christian, women as a pagan obstacle to their future success in urban(e) society; Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), one of the ambassadors come to the island from Philadelphia and Trula (Trula Hoosier), whom the family suspect to be her lover; Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), another ambassador from the North who arrives in the company of Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a photographer and amateur historian who wishes to record the migration; Eula (Alva Rogers) who has been raped by a white man and whose husband, Eli (Adisa Anderson), is tormented by the thought that the unborn child she carries is a consequence of the crime; The Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren) who appears only as an apparition and whose voice-over narration alternates with Nana’s; Iona (Bahni Turpin) who fears she may have to leave her Cherokee lover on the island; Bilal Muhammad (Umar Abdurrahman), one of the island’s Muslim community and its living historian. The film flits between all these characters and more, but it is never difficult to follow the different strands and within them Dash has collected the core of African American identity.
Daughters of the Dust is packed, not only with story and information, but with images of luminous beauty, a visual music that matches the film’s bold dramatic structure. So striking and memorable are many of the images a viewer of Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade, might well notice their influence in many of the shots, surely no coincidence.
Dash’s film was the first to receive a (US) nationwide release by a black woman and easily stands alongside Goodfellas as one of the best films of 1991, it should have been the herald of one of America’s great film makers, but studios being the timid and cowardly creatures they are, she has yet to make that second feature. To call Daughters of the Dust “One of the best and most imaginative films of the Nineties you’ve probably never seen or, indeed, heard of” would be close to the truth, although I’m obviously guessing here, and it would be unfair to call it “Undiscovered” or “Lost” (it had a 25th anniversary re-release, albeit limited, and played to packed audiences). It is a film that
deserves demands to be seen and I can only hope I’ve done it justice in this short piece. Find it and see it.
E is for Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
(Yes, yes, I know this a bit of a cheat and, yes, I know I could have gone with Atom Egoyan’s 1994 Exotica, but I decided to bend the rules of the game just a wee bit and I wanted to write about this film as well as the film I’d already picked for “S”. I don’t make the rules, I just break ‘em)
Told in non-linear chronology The Sweet Hereafter slowly unpeels the truths of a small, snowbound community in Canada where a terrible bus accident has taken the lives of fourteen of its children. Into the aftermath of this tragedy comes an ambulance chasing lawyer not looking for truth but searching for blame, all the while dealing with his own sense of loss. The lawyer’s investigations, though, push the community farther apart rather than pulling them together in their hunt for compensation or meaning.
Through the townsfolk and the lawyer Egoyan explores the seven stages of grief (shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction, acceptance and hope), each character displaying one or more of the phases. Viewers expecting a John Grisham-esque investigation of small guy versus corporate villainy will be left sadly wanting, The Sweet Hereafter is about as far from that kind of movie as you can get, rather it is an examination of frailty, loss and, possibly, redemption. It is quietly painful, gently raging and mournfully sad.
At the beginning of the film, we find the lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) trapped in his car in a malfunctioning car wash, an environment he has willingly driven into but is now caught in its chaotic embrace. He cannot escape the wash without getting soaked just as he will not be able to leave the town without being affected himself. Holm is wonderful in the role, a pain behind his eyes defies the gusto with which he attempts to sign the bereaved up to his lawsuit, he’s a man going through the motions whilst, internally, he is falling apart. It is through Stephens that we are gradually introduced to the rest of the townsfolk (an exemplary supporting cast including Maury Chaykin, Bruce Greenwood, Alberta Watson, Gabrielle Rose and Tom McCamus) and their truths and secrets. But it is Sarah Polley, as crash survivor Nicole, who will be pivotal to the story’s aftermath and the cause of much debate amongst the film’s viewers (Spoilers ahead).
Nicole and Dolores, the bus driver, are the only two survivors of the crash we meet. Dolores is the dependable mother hen, never ill-meaning toward anyone and hard-pressed to anger. Nicole is the princess of this grim fairy tale, she babysits, she shows kindness and love to those less fortunate and, ultimately ironically, she is the reader of Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin (crippled in the accident, she is the child left behind). But Nicole hides a dark secret: She has been sleeping with her father (I hesitate to say, “Abused by”, because the one scene that gives evidence to this fact, the act appears to be consensual, romantic and, dare I say it? Instigated by her). When called upon to give evidence at the pre-trial deposition, she lies and blames Dolores’ driving for the accident, thereby destroying any hope that the bus manufacturer might be held liable and kissing goodbye to the sought-after settlement.
The film ends with this ambiguity hanging in the air. Is Nicole’s lie revenge against her father or the town? Is it because she sees that money will change everything including her life, is she resisting that change? Or, maybe, she just wants to live her life undefined by the accident, a narrator of the tragedy as the crippled boy in The Pied Piper, quietly and peacefully in the sweet hereafter.
F is for Faust (Jan Svankmajer, 1994)
I thought Faust to be one of the best films of 1994 yet, at the same time, watching it I felt anxious, trapped and unclean. Favourite films are usually something you want to watch again and again; comfortable in their company; familiar with their ways and their turns. Faust, for all its originality, humour and brilliance feels like having to spend time in the company of a dog you don’t completely trust: One of those mutts that drops its toy at your feet, but only as a way of fooling you to lower your hand to savaging distance. There is something of the film that makes me wary and uneasy. It has a tactile quality but the kind that will put dirt under your fingernails and greasy smears on the thighs of your trousers and unknowable crumbs in your pockets.
We all have films that, while we recognise their magnificence, make us uncomfortable and wary of returning to. Jan Svankmajer’s Faust is mine.
Svankmajer pulls together many of the tellings of the Faust myth, the tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures and manages to make something wholly original and fresh. Using a mixture of live action, stop-motion, Claymation and puppetry he pulls together Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod, Murnau, Bulgakov and so, so many more and adds more than a sprinkling of Charles Addams’ wicked humour. Svankmajer’s Faust is no court philosopher or stately scientist though, rather he is a Czech everyman, a non-descript schlemiel (played by Petr Cepek) who is handed a photocopied map with no promises, no caveats, just a map with a hand drawn dot on one of the streets. Curiosity gets the better of him and he follows the map to its enigmatic destination, where he discovers a decaying marionette theatre which is seemingly dedicated to the Faust myth. Our Czech schlub willingly ventures further and further into the theatre until he reaches a point he can no longer retreat and throws himself headlong into the title role.
Jan Svankmajer was born in Prague in 1934, endured the second world war only to see his country taken over by the Soviet Union until the Velvet Revolution restored democracy in 1989. In the 1960’s he became an underground celebrity for mocking the occupation and its leaders with his puppet and marionette shows. He began dabbling in animation and was a part of the whole Czech surrealist (or New Wave) movement of the latter part of the decade which included director like Milos Forman, Jan Nemec, Jiri Menzel, Jaromil Jires and Vera Chytlova. He became known in the West for many of his short films, such as Dimensions of Dialogue, The Fall of the House of Usher, Jabberwocky and Leonardo’s Diary, his first full length film being Alice, an adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s timeless Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Faust became his most enduring work, though. Despite a couple of dramatically flat moments, it is an astounding work of imagination; an anxiety nightmare that refuses to go away; a remarkable moment in surrealist entertainment and, despite its muddy, slightly greasy, slightly stinky demeanour a really, really great movie*.
*Nail brush not included
G is for Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)
As Makhmalbaf’s film opens, we meet an elderly couple, squabbling and moaning as elderly couples do, comfortable in their complaints and used to one another’s ways. They are taking their Gabbeh (a colourful, hand-woven sleeping rug) to wash it in a pool. The rug is immersed in the clear, cool water and we see its design and that a small part of it depicts a couple riding the back of a pure white horse. “Who are you?” asks the old woman of the riders and a beautiful young woman steps from the rug to tell her tale.
Gabbeh is a fabular tale that, in the tradition of many of the simplest appearing stories, contains many twisted threads on its underside and a variety of hidden, or obscure, meanings. Mohsen Makhmalbaf is an Iranian film maker who had previously been imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Shah’s regime for crimes against the state (actually, he joined an anti-establishment movement and stabbed a policeman to death) but was released in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Upset by the country’s theistic rulership and the lack of freedoms imposed upon the people, his films became more and more critical to that point that the Tehran Government banned many of them and strictly controlled his output. Makhmalbaf made Gabbeh under the ruse that he was filming a documentary about the making of carpets and one must only witness a scene where girls are openly attending a school lesson, learning simple arithmetic, to understand just why the film upset the fundamentalists are quite so upset by it.
Gabbeh (Shaghayeh Djodat) tells the old couple (Hossein and Rogheih Moharami) her tale: Of her nomadic life with the Ghasghai people and how tradition dictated that she could not marry the young man she was in love with until her uncle had found himself a wife. The uncle (Abbas Sayah) is a happy-go-lucky sort, but he will only marry a woman he once saw in a dream – a woman by a spring who sings like a canary – and he is 57 already with no sign that he will ever find his dream lover. Meanwhile, the young man Gabbeh loves follows the family at a distance (farther than her father’s rifle can reach, we suspect) and expresses his loneliness and his devotion through the mournful howls of a wolf. Gabbeh waits for the single moment she and her lover might escape so that her story and her rug might be complete.
Gabbeh is a sense luscious film in which Makhmalbaf uses colour, character, fantasy, reality and spirituality to convey the mysteries of love, the ties of family, of creativity and ritual. It is poetic and picturesque movie celebrates the variety and beauty of the natural world, the art of weaving, and the unique ways that story gives life shape and meaning.
H is For Hyenas (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1993)
Although Djibril Diop Mambety made only two feature length films in his relatively short lifetime, both are shining gems of not just African but World Cinema – and that includes Hollywood. Touki Bouki (1973) is, I suspect, the film that he will most be remembered for and rightly so, the tale of a young Senegalese couple and their ever more complicated, ever more outrageous plans to get to Paris is a little miracle of a movie and deserves a place on any film-lover’s shelf. Hyenas runs Touki Bouki a very close second, very close.
Set in the once prosperous district of Colombane, on the outskirts of Dakar, Hyenas witnesses the imminent return of former resident, the elderly and staggeringly wealthy Madam, Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate) who had once left the town destitute and in shame but now comes home bringing her enormous wealth (“Bigger than the World Bank”) and a heart bent on revenge. She promises to whare her wealth with the town and its populace in return for a single favour: They must kill hen-pecked grocery store owner, Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf). As a girl Linguere had been seduced by the socially ambitious Dramaan and, upon revealing her pregnancy to him, he ultimately rejected her, hiring two men to claim they too had slept with her thereby destroying her reputation. She had left Colombane in disgrace whilst he had married into money.
At first the people balk at the idea of killing the silver bearded Dramaan, but a steady supply of consumer goods, fans, fridges, washing machines and cars, are displayed before them, along with an easy to access line of credit, and they start to find Linguere’s ultimatum easier to digest. Dramaan, meanwhile, rushes around the town trying to persuade whoever will listen of the innate silliness of his former lover’s request, but the chief of police has a new gold tooth, his priest is busy admiring his church’s new chandelier and even his employee has a new car.
Mambety took, as the basis of Hyenas, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1950’s play, The Visit, and adapted the much-renowned “Hell hath no fury” play (once filmed by Berhard Wicki, starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn) to a rural Africa and imbued it not only with local resonance and aesthetic expression but with an extra layer of his own brand of satire. Traditional oral traditions, themes of nature and wildlife underpin the film’s emotional and moral conflicts, at the same time Mambety continually criticises neo-colonialism and consumerism with an eye as sharp as it is witty. In the character of Liguere he is invoking an institution whose policies, like those of the IMF, would come to engulf African nations in pervasive economic turmoil and catastrophic social crises under the guise of financial assistance. If a hyena’s bite is enough to crush bones, then surely Mambety’s bite is just as lethal, if maybe slightly more subtle.
I is for Il Postino (Michael Radford, 1994)
Unashamedly sentimental and old fashioned, it’s easy to be a bit sniffy and sneery about Il Postino, but to do so is to overlook its greatest asset: Its great big heart. Michael Radford’s tale of friendship, poetry, isolation and love takes huge liberties with the truth, but name me any fantasy that doesn’t. Don’t give me, “Actually…” arguments because people who love this gentle little movie understand it’s a fantasy, we know none of this little fable is real (though, somewhere deep within, we kind of wish it were), that’s not the point, it speaks to the simple romantic in all of us, it gives us “The Feels” and in its simplistic truths we smile, laugh and cry.
The film opens in 1950 on a small, beautiful, sun-baked and unnamed island somewhere off the south-west coast of Italy. We meet Mario (Massimo Troisi), a disenchanted, middle-aged fisherman, living with his impassive father and dreaming of love and a drier future. Mario is handed the job of postman by dint of the fact that he owns a bicycle and one of his first jobs is to deliver mail to the island’s newest resident, the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). Mario notices that Neruda receives much communication from women and slowly befriends the writer as a means of finding his secret of wooing the fairer sex, for secretly he yearns for local barmaid, Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). Neruda takes Mario under his wing and helps the simple islander find the poet within and introduces him to ideas and political theory the island’s history of isolation has kept from its people. Slowly, a friendship grows between the two, although it may be more one-sided than Mario is observant enough to see.
With its gentle story, its scenes of pastoral beauty and its heartfelt acting, it is easy to fall in love with Il Postino and its central characters, but it is the story of the film’s ultimate tragedy, the untimely death of Massimo Troisi (who died the day after principal photography wrapped), that lend it an extra resonance. Indeed, it is difficult to untangle feelings about the film’s downbeat ending from the real-life tragedy that ensued, fact and fiction become one, it would take a heart of granite not to shed even a single tear. There is something enduring about Il Postino, something that touches my very soul, that makes me, at least, want to return to it over and over and to share with as many people as I can. I guess, other than being a terrific introduction to films in a foreign language, it does what all great stories should do, it demands that it be told to as many as will listen. Il Postino was nominated for five Academy Awards in the 1995 ceremony, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Massimo Troisi, nominated posthumously), but only picked up a single Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score for composer Luis Enriquez Bacalov. Best Film that year was won by Mel Gibson’s Braveheart; another movie that didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story
J is for Jacquot De Nantes (Agnes Varda, 1991)
Often criticised for not being a “warts and all” biopic or for showing life as too lacking in trauma and unhappiness, Jacquot De Nantes is rather a wife’s touching tribute to her dying husband or maybe the sort of story your nan would tell should you ask her what your grandad’s childhood was like? There is a warm and dreamlike quality to the film and, if it does look back to the past with rose-tinted spectacles (it does), who are we to criticise somebody making a film the way they want to and telling the story on their terms?
Jacqout De Nantes is a loose and breezy biopic of the French filmmaker, Jacques Demy, from his childhood to the point where he left his family and moved to Paris to realise his dream of going to film school. It’s a mix of traditional storytelling, intimate and personal video of Demy and clips from much of his oeuvre, stories recalled and related to his wife of 33 years, Agnes Varda to whom he entrusted with the telling of his story. The film covers his early years and is as much about the reminiscences that influenced his storytelling and his style as much as it is a straightforward summary of his childhood. The viewer will learn a lot about Demy, maybe glean a few bits and pieces of his character here and there, but not everything about him is overtly revealed because, honestly, that’s not the tale that we are offered.
The film opens with a contemporary Demy laying on a beach, sand slips through his fingers before we are taken back to his pre-war childhood. As childhoods go Jacques’ (or Jacquot as his mother calls him) seems rather idyllic, neither rich nor breadline. His father runs a garage in the city of Nantes in Western France and though the family live in a small, single bedroom apartment there is never any sense of frustration or tension amongst them. It seems everywhere around his home there is music whether that’s the sounds of his parents singing, gramophones playing records through open windows or the lady who sings with the local operetta practising her scales. His mother takes him to the marionette shows, the cinema, the operetta all of which the young Jacques loves and all of which make an indelible mark on the young child’s imagination.
The film follows his story through the occupation of the war years (mostly uneventful as Nantes was not seen as being of tactical advantage to either the allies or the axis, although a local munitions factory does lead to one night of heavy bombing and terror), through to his teenage years and his discovery of filmmaking. Although it suffers somewhat in comparison to something like Cinema Paradiso (much of whose footsteps it retreads), Jacquot De Nantes is a sincere and loving tribute to a man whose films are still influencing filmmakers today, just ask Damien Chazelle.
K is for Kolya (Jan Sverak, 1996)
Grumpy Man-baby is lumbered with the burden of looking after a cute kid. Grumpy Man-baby has no idea of how a cute kid should be looked after, tries to get shot of cute kid. Cute kid grows on Grumpy Man-baby… yadda yadda yadda, you know where this all goes, right?
Yep, Kolya is that movie you’ve seen a hundred times, usually starring someone like Walther Matthau or Adam Sandler or Ted Danson (?). So why am I including it on this list? Because it’s just so damn good, because it’s the details that work rather than the big “Hollywood” stuff and because it’s not really about a Grumpy Man-baby and a cute kid… Well, I mean it is… But it isn’t…
Set toward the end of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, Kolya centres around Louka (Zdenek Sverak), a confirmed bachelor and jobbing cellist who, with his Sean Connery looks, is still a bit of a rogue when it comes to pretty girls and avoiding responsibility. He needs his own car, public transport proving unsuitable for a man carrying a cello case, so he agrees to a sham marriage in return for a healthy cash reward. He meets his bride, a Russian citizen needing Czech papers (Irina Bezrukova), her chain-smoking aunt, her quiet five-year old son, Kolya (Andrey Khalimon), and a deal is struck. Unfortunately, Louka doesn’t enquire the reason why the girl needs Czech papers and, a few weeks after the awkward wedding ceremony, she skips off to West Germany leaving Kolya with her aunt. Even more unfortunate for Louka, the aunt is rushed to hospital and subsequently passes away (presumably from inhaling nicotine rather than air), leaving him as the sole remaining relative of the small boy.
As the plot unfolds, we keep track of the fall of the Soviet Union and the on-rushing Velvet Revolution via radio, television and newspaper reports and through the tale of Louka and Kolya we see how change disrupts comfortable, if unwanted, status quos, how new “normals” are found and how new beginnings, full of hope, can be celebrated.
Kolya uses gentle cynicism and almost imperceptible satire where a Hollywood equivalent would use knockabout humour and saccharin sentimentality thereby making it a hugely welcome feel-good movie in a tired, but successful, genre. Maybe that’s why it was so successful (it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in a Foreign Language)?
L is for The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992)
If Jacquot De Nantes can be viewed as a filmmaker’s childhood depicted as a, more or less, completed jigsaw puzzle, then Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes is a jumble sale bought puzzle, half completed, featuring many pieces of half a dozen other jigsaws whose knobbly bumps and pockets, loops and slots and keys and sockets fit perfectly with the original’s, creating something new and wonderful yet still recognisable as a single whole. It’s an autobiography made from quickly jotted notes on bus tickets, cinema stubs, chocolate wrappers and shopping lists; half-remembered tunes and wholly remembered lines of movie dialogue; faded photographs of lively neighbours and lost relatives; love and longing.
The Long Day Closes, the last of Davies’ autobiographical pieces (unless you count Of Time and the City, a documentary love letter to his native Liverpool), is set in a gloomy, rainy, post-war Liverpool, all terrace housing and narrow, cobbled streets. Eleven-year-old Bud (Leigh McCormack), the youngest of four siblings by more than a few years, is a shy, lonely boy whose only turns to solace are his mother (Marjorie Yates) and the cinema. The freedom of Bud’s childhood often outweighed by his lack of autonomy, the strictures and social structures of school, the church and the playground all cast weighted chains upon any carefree or idyllic dreams he may harbour. Bud’s feelings of isolation are exacerbated by the realisation of his burgeoning sexuality, in a pivotal scene early in the film he makes eye contact with a young, shirtless builder, an innocuous wink unleashing a flood of barely understood, terrifying emotions within him.
Fond memories – such as an evening visit to a funfair, gatherings with neighbours and family that, more often than not, result in communal sing-songs, frequent visits to the cinema – alternate with feelings of isolation, fear and bullying – name-calling, threats, classroom punishments and, perhaps, something worse inflicted by his absent father (a scene where Bud approaches the dark coal cellar with mounting horror hints something has happened here he’d rather not remember).
But The Long Day Closes does not approach Bud’s story in a traditional, linear narrative, rather it presents memories much as we feel them: from textures and smells, from associations and feelings, from moments distilled by light and darkness. Indeed, many hail the film as the greatest movie ever made about memory and present a case it would be difficult to argue against. Like memory, The Long Day Closes floats, drifting around the ephemera of its own being, quietly immersing itself in the moments conventional drama has no time for.
One of my favourite films, it may come as no surprise that The Long Day Closes was the first film on my list for this challenge, not pencilled in but firmly inked. Firmly inked.
M is for Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997)
A young man attends to his ailing mother. He gently brushes strands of her hair away from her exhausted face, patiently feeds her and, covering her with a large, warm coat, picks her up and takes her from the house. He carries her through a dreamlike landscape, an isolated countryside, down winding roads and tracks under a heavy, glowering Baltic sky. He stops occasionally and they softly murmur words of love to one another, she of nurture and memory, he of gratitude and regret. There is a great stillness to the environment, a deafening peace. Reminiscent of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the two stand in quiet contemplation against an expansive landscape. The son returns his mother to the house and gently lowers her onto her bed for a last time; he wanders alone for a time and when he returns his mother has passed.
Although a short movie, Mother and Son contains huge emotional and thematic breadth: It is a contemplation on love, on death, on spirituality, on dignity and, ultimately, man’s place not only in the natural world, but in the Universe. There is something of Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman about it, though it reminded me greatly of the experimental, expressionistic films of Stan Brakhage. The frame seems to bend and stretch before contracting like long, slow breaths, giddy with the weight of its own mortality or, possibly, immortality.
Mother and Son is beautiful, terrifying, heart breaking, elegiac, healing. But I’m not going to sugar-coat this, dear friends, if slow cinema is not your thing, then Mother and Son’s mere 73-minute runtime is going to feel like an eternity to you. It was Aleksandr Sokurov’s breakthrough film in the West, although he is best known to audiences for another dreamlike movie, the astonishing one-take docudrama, Russian Ark.
N is for No, or The Vain Glory of Command (Manoel de Oliveira, 1990)
Here’s a strange little oddity of a movie: A search for a nation’s identity via the meat-grinder of history that chooses not to celebrate victory, rather it focuses on defeat and loss. Astute and moving, Manoel de Oliveira’s film breaches conventions and ingeniously frames its use of battle re-enactments via a military platoon’s reflections en route to carnage to grasp a philosophy of their country’s history, its mythical beginnings, its reflections on the compensations of its cosmopolitan ethic of peace.
The film opens with a long shot of an enormous tree, its trunk rising straight and true before exploding into countless limbs, branches abundant with bright green life. The shot is not static, we appear to be moving around and past the tree, much like history we appear to be watching from an ever-shifting viewpoint. The film now cuts to a long shot of a convoy of military trucks, the flatbeds of which are occupied by soldiers sitting in rows all in quiet contemplation. From the visual evidence presented we can assume that the landscape through which the convoy passes is Angola, the very last vestige of Portugal’s colonialist dreams and that this must be the early to mid-1970’s (Angola declared independence in 1975) and that these Portuguese troops must be on their way to attempt to put down one of the many Communist insurrections of that time.
On the back of one of these trucks an erudite lieutenant attempts to keep his men occupied by relating to them great battles from Portuguese history (although the wisdom of telling tales in which their ancestors were slaughtered seems… unwise). He tells of the assassination of the legendary Lusitanian warrior, Virithia, of The Battle of the Three Kings – in which the dream of an Iberian Peninsula united under a single crown died with the accidental death of Prince Alfonso – and of the disastrous Battle of Alcacer-Kebir, which would result in, not only, the disappearance of King Sebastien but also plans of a North African Empire.
The lieutenant interweaves these tales with the poetry of Luis de Camoens (think Shakespeare, Virgil, Homer and Dante all rolled into one as a national figure, one so influential that the Portuguese language is often referred to as the Language of Camoens), especially his greatest work, The Luciads. There is one sequence that recalls the passage often recited as The Island of Love, best described as a fantastical pantomime in which nymphs and dryads skip and frolic.
Manoel de Oliveira was Portugal’s most celebrated filmmaker, an international treasure whose movies are rarely seen in the UK. He made his first film in 1931, his last (shortly before his death at the age of 106) in 2015. He is the only filmmaker whose career has spanned the Silent Age right through to the Digital Age. I have only watched No, or the Vain Glory of Command three or four times, but when I see that opening shot and that tree I always think that, in some way, it is representative of de Oliveira and his incredible output.
O is for One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)
A trio of criminals – Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), Pluto (Michael Beach) and Fantasia (Cynda Williams) – inveigle their way into a house party, their plan is to find the whereabouts of a local drugs kingpin and to rip him off. What follows is a brutal home invasion, the kind of violent set-up that so many of the era’s big crime-action thrillers depend on, but what follows that is possibly not what you expect. Relying on character rather than action as its propulsive force One False Move is one of the best (and slyest) thrillers of the decade, it’s the kind of movie you wish Hollywood made more of: Slick and intelligent, brimming with character development and betrayals, thematically bursting and, all the while, carrying the viewer on a rising wave of tension toward the dark, inevitable shore of a climax that is as thrilling as it is satisfying.
Now on the run, betrayed by an act of mercy, the trio attempt to escape the city, sell their haul of drugs and disappear but a brief snippet of conversation (caught on a video recording the party) reveals their ultimate destination to the Los Angeles police. Two officers are dispatched to the small Arkansas town of Star City to await the criminals’ arrival and to liaise with the local police led by Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (Bill Paxton). At first the both the big city cops and the viewer see Dixon as a bit of a rube, a hick who’s watched too many tv shows and is a little starstruck by the duo but, as the story progresses, this aptly named force of nature is slowly revealed to be more involved with one of the gang than anyone could imagine.
While the plot twists and turns with the brutal noir inflections of someone like Jim Thompson, the film examines the dichotomies of race, class and location but never overtly, never at the expense of story. One False Move is a thriller in which everything works, there’s a lot of moving parts but each is perfectly oiled and running smoothly (with the exception of, possibly, the soundtrack which seems stuck in soft-rock Lethal Weapon mode).
Co-written by Thornton and directed by Carl Franklin with control and an eye for detail, One false move, unlike its characters, never puts a foot wrong. A really strong movie that deserves far more attention than it has ever received.
P is for The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
When the BBC ran a poll of critics (in 2019) to find the top 100 films directed by women, Jane Campion’s The Piano won with nearly 10% of the total votes. It’s not difficult to understand why, The Piano is a masterpiece: Mysterious, evocative, fragile, beautiful and, occasionally, terrifying.
Ada (Holly Hunter), a widow(?) and an elective mute since the age of six and her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) find themselves and their meagre possessions abandoned upon a New Zealand shore, Ada’s father having arranged a marriage for her half a world away from her native Scotland. Her soon to be husband, Alasdair Stewart (Sam Neill), and his Māori porters find the pair and prepare to convey them to the island’s interior and their new home but refuse to transport her most prized possession, her piano, claiming it to be too awkward and unnecessary. Amongst Stewart’s retinue is his neighbour, Baines (Harvey Keitel) a rough-hewn man, a former sailor who wears the Ta Moko (Māori face tattoos), although it would be reductive to simply explain him as a man, “Gone native”.
Stewart introduces Ada and Flora to their new home but his new bride’s thoughts are filled with the fate of her piano, she persuades Baines to accompany her back to the beach where, upon hearing her playing and noticing her passion, he devises a plan to possess both: He will exchange the piano for a parcel of land and exchange the piano, one key at a time, for “favours” from Ada.
Campion’s film is constructed very much like the interior of a piano, tuned to ringing perfection – a string here too loose and it strikes flat or a string too tight there and it will snap and, all the while, those strings, those threads, are hammered by multiple outside forces to create a work that resonates with harmony, melody and countermelody. Without one single piece, a single tappet or screw the film would fall in on itself, simply collapse under its own complexity and ambition. The plot of The Piano may be driven by the male characters, but it is through Ada and Flora that its story flows, Jane Campion’s script allows both Hunter and Paquin the agency to create characters that are proud, complicated and real.
Glowering skies, claustrophobic forests, candle-lit interiors and even the bright, cyan blues of underwater are all captured beautifully by Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography, but it is probably Michael Nyman’s soaring score with which The Piano will always be associated (unless you’re an Academy voter). The score swirls, rising and falling, in Nyman’s recurring theme the right hand of the piano is accentuating a beautiful, lyrical melody, the left is creating a mesmerising minimalist texture underneath, creating a sense of unease. It is a wonderful suite of music and, quite understandably, it sold by the bucket-load.
The Piano is not the mannered, uptight, Merchant & Ivory, Downton Abbey period piece you were looking for. It is gothic and transgressive, it is beautiful and heart-breaking, it is sensual, it is provocative, it is stunning, and it is deserving of everyone’s attention. A brilliant, brilliant work of genuine art.
Q is for The Quince Tree Sun (Victor Erice, 1992)
A documentary about the artistic process, especially one that moves at an almost glacial pace, is never going to appear on the “Must Watch” lists of mainstream, supermarket-friendly cinema magazines and, running at nearly two and a half hours, this quiet, slow, meditative movie might well fail to garner many column inches in the more arthouse publications as well. But to dismiss The Quince Tree Sun as just some “slow-tv special” about a bloke attempting to paint a fruit tree in his back garden is to completely miss just what it is that makes this film so damn special.
Effortlessly transcending the term ‘documentary’, Victor (Spirit of the Beehive) Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun follows painter Antonio López as he meticulously and slowly labours over a painting of a quince tree in his garden. That the task takes him months is of interest in itself, but where the film scores is in its fleshing out of its subject through conversation with friends, wife, admirers, and builders at work on his house, a strategy that simultaneously contextualises López and puts his bizarre, even limited conception of artistic endeavour into perspective. There’s a rather banal conversation about half hour in that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor and never missed, but the rest is visually extraordinary, funny, touching, and quite unlike anything else.
Lopez is a fussy and dedicated artist. As the camera leisurely watches his activities we come to share his love of the shape, colour, texture and play of light upon the ripening quinces. His obsession with precisely positioning himself and the tree with markings (that eventually cover the tree like bird droppings) is justified by his explanation that he is trying to combine reason with intuition. The final irony is that Lopez cannot capture the tree on canvas. The light is always changing, and he can’t complete his work despite all his methodological, organisational and imaginative powers. This is an on-going struggle with interpreting nature and the essence of life itself, as such the canvas will never be completed to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all the artist’s.
R is for Riki-Oh: Story of Ricky (Lam Ngai Kai, 1991)
Well. I bet you didn’t expect this.
The joy of Riki Oh: Story of Ricky is in its campy acceptance of its own limitations: At no point does it bog itself down with ideas of being anything but over the top, gory, ridiculous entertainment. Even moments of extreme bodily harm are so outrageous and (with no disrespect to the practical effects guys) cartoonish as to render them hilarious and goofy. Shocks come not with gasps of horror but howls of laughter and, whether intentionally or not, that is what makes this movie so much fun.
The story, such as it is, is standard revenge fare: After his girlfriend is killed escaping drug dealers, Ricky Ho (Fan Siu-Wong), is sent to prison for killing their leader (there’s a whole plot point about prisons being privatised which is quickly discarded/forgotten, presumably for getting in the way of the action). Once inside the prison Ricky falls foul of one of the “Gang of Four” (inmates who each run one of the four prison wings – inventively called North, East, South and West), Hai (Frankie Chin) who has been bullying an older inmate awaiting probation (another plot point discarded/forgotten is that the old man may be Ricky’s father). Much blood and gore and silliness follows as Ricky discovers the prison is a front for opium manufacture and that the Governor, his deputy and the Gang of Four are the kingpins of Hong Kong’s drug trade.
But really, all this plot(?) is secondary to the action, very little of it makes any sense, it’s as flimsy as a wire coat-hanger but it (sort of) serves its purpose as something upon which all the action and fighting desperately hangs on. There is a gleeful Tex Avery abandon to the storytelling with people pulling ever more extravagant “Macguffins” from their pockets, props that make zero sense (such as the deputy governor’s fake eyeball in which he carries his breath mints) and ludicrous characters (like the inmate serving solitary confinement for eating the governor’s horse).
It’s a stupid, stupid film but, as stupid movies go, it is definitely one of the most entertaining. Not so such a film to watch but a film to gawp at in amazement.
S is for Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1994)
Somebody, somewhere (with much more time and infinitely more patience than myself) worked out that the modern blockbuster action film with the mean average running time of 125 minutes features somewhere in the region of 3,000 individual shots. This means that the average shot length is something like 2 seconds (of course, some are longer and many are much shorter – fast, snappy edits can create much kinetic excitement and still be able to tell a story boldly and efficiently, see Mad Max: Fury Road for example).
Bela Tarr’s Satantango weighs in at a humungously lengthy 7 hours and 19 minutes, take away the opening and end credits as well as the title cards for the film’s 12-chapter structure and that’s (roughly) 425 minutes of movie. Now consider the fact that the film only contains a mere 156 individual shots, that means the average shot length is something like an astonishing (for this day and age) two and a half minutes. It is a film I have sat through several times, often being accused of some form of “Movie Masochism” and being informed that I was partaking in some sort of feat of endurance (often by people who will gleefully sit through the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, extended editions, in a single day – running time somewhere in the region of eleven and a half hours).
Satantango is the story of a former Hungarian farming collective, a community farm set up under the auspices of the Soviet Union, now subject to the winds of change brought about by the dissolution of the state. It charts the village’s gradual decline into entropy as various locals plot to appropriate the community funds for themselves and how, eventually, a tough but stable existence succumbs to the chaotic forces of greed. The score a soundscape of weary accordion and resounding bells that balance the sacred and profane spheres. The camera moves laterally, back and forth, swinging slowly between Tarr’s influences of the claustrophobic intimacy of early Cassavetes with the vast, rigorously choreographed grace of Andrey Tarkovsky and Miklos Jancso, and all the while it is indisputably Tarr’s vision.
Allegorical yet historically precise, it builds to a powerful, rhythmic climax of breakdown and withdrawal. It is part anti-authority satire, part metaphysical take-down, part bucolic soap-opera but always, always magnetically fascinating.
Satantango was voted 36th in Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All-Time list. Just saying.
T is for Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)
Through the Olive Trees is the third instalment in what has become known as Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, a trio of films that is quite unlike any other. The first instalment, Where is the Friend’s House? is an anxiety dream brought to life as a young boy, with only a passing knowledge of his schoolmate’s home location, attempts to return his friend’s schoolbook to him. Following a massive earthquake in the region where Friends House was filmed (the Koker region, some two hundred miles north of Tehran), And Life Goes On is a documentary in which the director attempts to discover the fates of the troupe of actors and locals he had enlisted for that first film. Through the Olive Trees is a fictionalised account of one of the stories he encountered during the making of Life. Don’t worry, it all makes sense if you watch the trilogy, it is infinitely more eloquent than my clumsy attempts at a synopsis and infinitely more enjoyable as well.
It’s the story of an extra who falls in love with the actress who plays his wife, but the girl rejects his advances creating an awkward atmosphere on the film’s set. It’s a witty, poignant, illuminating film about the problems that affect movie makers faced with intractable reality, about cinema’s potential as a unifying force, and about the determination and the ability of people to survive tragedy, poverty, injustice and the vicissitudes of love. Get used to the long takes and what at first appears to be an inconsequential narrative, and pretty soon the many levels of intellectual and emotional meaning will work their magic.
Iranian cinema works its own kind of magic, there is something beautiful yet intangible about it that the majority of Western film seems unable to replicate. The reasons for this are (probably) two-fold, firstly the Islamic Revolution banned two of the things most depicted in Western cinema – namely sex and violence – which meant Iranian filmmakers had to focus on other regions of the human spectrum and, secondly, Iran has no real history of prose fiction or novels, historically storytelling in that part of the world is founded in poetry. Through the Olive Trees flourishes because of these facts, finding beauty in harsh landscapes shaped by war and natural disaster and, all the while, heading toward its suitably ambiguous ending with Kiarostami’s steady hand and assured footsteps.
This is one of World Cinema’s most cherished gems, see how it sparkles.
U is for Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
The story of an aging western gunfighter entering the fray once more because *reasons* is hardly new, in fact it seems to have been a sub-genre within Westerns since those good ole yarns’ve been spun on the big screen. There’s always some former sheriff or outlaw heading out into the street for that one last showdown whether it be John Wayne in The Shootist, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove or Richard Farnsworth in The Grey Fox. What makes Unforgiven so special, though, is the weight of regret that Clint Eastwood’s character, Will Munny, carries about him, that he wears like an oversized Winter jacket. It is a regret for his younger, violent, alcoholic self; regret that so many men died because he knew no other way; regret that he cannot provide for his children and, maybe even, regret that the world is changing and that he can see no future for himself within it.
The 1990’s witnessed Eastwood at his zenith as a filmmaker, artistically and intellectually it is, without doubt, his greatest decade in the breadth of ambition and delivery of quality in his career. Bird, the biography of Charlie Parker soared. White Hunter, Black Heart is flawed but hugely enjoyable and provoking. A Perfect World is one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated films of the decade. But it is Unforgiven that stands as his greatest achievement (as noted by The Academy who favoured it with both the award for best director and best motion picture), and the high watermark against which his entire oeuvre will forever be judged.
I can bring nothing new or fresh to the table regarding the film, much has been written about it by far greater writers than myself, so I will just leave this short entry here, mosey on down the road aways and be thankful that even cowboys sing the blues.
V is for Agnes Varda’s Les Cents et Une Nuits de Simon Cinema, or The One Hundred and One Nights (1995)
You may have forgotten or even be unaware that a century of cinema and the moving image was celebrated in 1995, one hundred years since the brother Lumiere debuted ten short films, each lasting less than a minute and featuring an approximate film length of 17 metres, to an audience attending a conference on the latest developments in photography (the famous short L’arivee d’un train en Gare de la Ciotet did not send audiences scuttling for cover until the following year, prompting much debate among the film buff fraternity many of whom claimed that the following year should be the real anniversary, fortunately Twitter did not exist yet and so everybody agreed to disagree with amicable equanimity).
Now listen, One Hundred and One Nights is not a great film, everybody agrees on this, but it is a great time, ninety minutes of nostalgia and nonsense, fun and frippery all thrown together around a silly little plot by the magnificently whimsical Agnes Varda and (seemingly) many favours called in. It’s the movie equivalent of a joke greetings card and even features cinema’s most famous fart (from La Grande Bouffe) in the middle, it’s rather disposable but it delivers a huge grin on the face of the viewer whilst it is opened.
Centenarian Simon Cinema (Michel Piccoli, he of that most famous fart) hires a young, pretty film student, Camille (Julie Gayet) to be his companion for (obviously) one hundred and one nights so that he may talk about his favourite subject: Himself (for he is Cinema, after all). In his extravagant, elaborate and colourful mansion he regales her with tales of his triumphs, his loves, his innovations and eclectic history using film clips, audio clips and bizarre impersonations (at one point he appears as Gloria Swanson and his butler as Erich von Stroheim). Throughout, he is accompanied by his best friend, Marcello Mastroianni (as himself) and is visited by many well wishers including Alain Delon, Robert De Niro, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau, Hanna Schygulla, Gina Lollobrigida, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Jean Paul Belmondo and the list goes on… There’s a bit of an unnecessary subplot about Camille and her boyfriend scheming to defraud Monsieur Cinema to fund a movie project, which essentially wastes time that could be better spent wallowing in reel-time reminiscences, but c’est la vie.
One Hundred and One Nights is Varda at her most playful and whimsical, definitely not her greatest work or even her most fun, but for movie enthusiasts it’s a really enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half in great company.
W is for The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995)
Jafar Panahi’s marvellous debut-feature, The White Balloon, is a child’s-eye adventure that plays out in real time on the eve of the Iranian new year. Co-written with Panahi’s mentor, the late, great Abbas Kiarostami, there is more than a fleeting glance toward Where is the Friend’s House? in both story and structure.
Seven-year-old Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) sees a beautiful ‘chubby’ goldfish she wishes to buy for her family’s pond but there are only ninety minutes before the shops all close for the Iranian new year and her mother wants to get home. Once home Razieh persuades her brother, Ali (Mohsen Kafili), to petition her mother for the money and, eventually, she hands over a 500 Toman note (the family’s last money) and tells the girl to bring back the change. Razieh takes the cash and an empty jar in which she can transport the fish and disappears off into the market. A series of misadventures follows as Razieh not once but twice manages to lose the money, first to a pair of snake charmers and then she accidentally drops the money through a grate. She pleads with shopkeepers and stranger to help her retrieve the money from the drain until, eventually, with the help of a young Afghan boy selling balloons the note is finally returned to her.
Tethering the movie to the child’s point of view (both literal and metaphorical), Panahi absorbs us so entirely into his heroine’s delicate, enquiring world, that the loss of her money and her separation from her brother create an atmosphere of suspense as gripping as that of any Hitchcock thriller. The White Balloon is a film of small incident, minute, telling observations, and enormous heart and intelligence. As with Friend’s House, there is a sense of growing anxiety, though in this instance it is played out in breathless real-time.
Another real gem of a movie, make sure you add this to your ever-growing list of must-see wonders.
X is for Pola X (Leos Carax, 1999)
I’d like to think this entry as more of a compromise than a cheat. You see, I have seen neither of the films beginning with the letter “X” released in the Nineties (I have never been able to sit through even the first episode of the tv series The X-Files, so that rules the first spin-off movie from that out and, although I have always been intrigued by Maggie Chen’s directorial debut, Xiu Xiu, I’ve never been intrigued enough to actually bother tracking it down) and I thought this movie would lend my list an interesting symmetry (almost).
Based on the Herman Melville novel (see Beau Travail entry if you wish to understand the “Symmetry” comment), Pierre: or the Ambiguities (the first part of Carax’s title is an acronym of the French title Pierre: ou les Ambiguites, the “X” refers to the tenth draft of the screenplay), Pola X is the story of a disgraced diplomat’s son, Pierre, who has become a famous novelist working under the pseudonym “Aladdin”. Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) lives an idyllic life in the family chateau with his somewhat louche mother (Catherine Deneuve), until a somewhat bedraggled and dark-eyed waif, Isabelle (Yekatarina Golubeva), reveals that she is his sister. Pierre decides to leave the chateau and go on the road with Isabelle, falling into poverty and destitution and finally taking residence in an abandoned Parisian factory squat run by musically anarchic terrorists.
Even by Carax’s standards very little of this film makes any sense and the many, many questions it raises are never sufficiently answered. Pola X is very much a film whose ambition is far greater than its actual ability. As the follow up to Les Amants du Pont Neuf it absolutely bombed at the box office and was mauled by critics, one can only surmise that those who did go see it were intrigued by the promise of a graphic (and very unsexy) sex scene. Packed with incestuous affairs, grime, unpleasant rich people and even more unpleasant poor, decay and ambiguity (on all levels) it leaves me wondering if, maybe, I should have given the X-Files movie a chance (nah).
Although, having said all that, there is a level I do kind of like Pola X for and I’m not even sure if it is intentional. Structurally Pola X reminds me of Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights starting, as it does in warm sunlight and grassy meadows before the eye is drawn to the darkness of Hell if one views it from left to right. Sin is ever present in the painting, even in those sunlit meadows, and in the eternal darkness of self-induced pain and suffering there is still the search for salvation and redemption.
Pola X is by no means the worst movie ever made and, when held up against much of the dreck produced by Hollywood that decade, it’s pretty watchable in a Leos Carax as L’enfant Terrible kind of way but it’s not a patch on Holy Motors or the brilliant Annette.
Y is for Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Loosely based around a recollection of youth murder by director and co-writer, Edward Yang, A Brighter Summer Day is a tale of “youth gone wild”, of passion and murder, of families and gangs through which Yang recounts the modern history of Taiwan (but that’s only there if you are bothered or interested enough to look for it, without it this is still one of the best movies of the last fifty years, with it comes an extra layer of understanding and appreciation).
Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen) is struggling at junior high school and is forced to attend night school to help his grades but, bunking off, one night he sneaks into a movie studio, steals a flashlight from a guard and spies two students making out. All this indirectly leads Si’r to becoming involved in The Little Park Boys, a gang of teen hoodlums and thugs whose leader, Honey, is in hiding after killing a member of the rival 217’s over an incident with his girlfriend, Ming (Lisa Yang). As Si’r becomes more intimate with The Little Park Boys so he and Ming become friends, she though is not as innocent and discrete as he, at first, believes and his growing affection toward her will ultimately lead to tragedy.
Set in 1960, a time when Taiwan is still recovering from occupation by both the Japanese and the Chinese communists and still has its own form of oppressive, militaristic government, A Brighter Summer Day (the title taken from a line in the Elvis Presley song, Are You Lonesome Tonight, incidentally) looks both backward in time and forward, and examines how pivotal to the country’s future that particular time period was: There still exists ancient Confucianism and the influences of occupation but it looks to the West and the growing effect capitalism and Rock and Roll culture had on the young.
Along with Edward Yang, filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Wu Nien-jen (amongst others) represented what has become known as the Taiwanese New Wave and, although an intimidating four hours long, A Brighter Summer Day is a great place to start exploring the movement, it is a film the viewer can easily get lost in with plenty of gang intrigue, violence, lighter moments, romance and tragedy, this one has it all.
Z is for Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1995)
You might come to the documentary film Crumb looking for a fun and goofy portrait of Underground Comix pioneer, Robert (R.) Crumb. You might think it’ll all be tits and giggles. After all, you say to yourself, this is the guy who draws the nerdy losers with their outsized, flaccid genitalia, the statuesque women with their small breasts and huge butts, the guy who created “Keep on Truckin’”, Fritz the Cat, did the cover for the Big Brother and The Holding Company’s last album, Cheap Thrills, before Janice Joplin went solo…
Okay. So, there is a bit of that, but Terry Zwigoff’s documentary is so much more. It’s not a testimonial or a valentine but it is as darkly funny and energetic as one of Crumb’s creations, it is unpredictable, galvanising, it’s empathetic but, mostly, it is the story of one family’s emotional imprisonment and dashed illusions of suburban dreams. Other than R., his wife Aline and son, Terry, we meet his mother and his two brothers Charles (a forty something virgin, still living at home with his mother, a repository for seemingly truckloads of prescription anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs) and Max (an ascetic, an American Sadhu, living either in squalor or on the street, prone to epileptic fits and forever passing a thirty-foot length of material through himself in an effort to clean his bowels). The viewer is drawn slowly yet decisively into the Crumb family’s chaotic background, and we witness the mental scars it has marked them with. Through these stories we witness how Robert has used his pain to shape his art and not, as we may have suspected, vice versa. By the end of the film the viewer may be profoundly startled to find just how much Zwigoff has obliged us to invest in this family emotionally and, when a final revelation is proffered us, just how much of a gut-punch it is to say goodbye.
Crumb was filmed over nine years, much of that time Zwigoff was living on about two hundred dollars a month, suffering such pain from a back-injury that he slept with a revolver on his pillow, never far from taking his own life. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them,” both Zwigoff and R. Crumb have produced less and less work in the twenty-five years since the movie was released and, I want to believe… I hope it is because they are both happy and fulfilled.