My Year in Film: 2015 in 21 memorable moments

There’s been more than enough pieces written on the best films of 2015, including two lists (which include Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, pictured above) to which I already contributed – Sight & Sound and CineVue – so here at Cinematic Investigations, we’ll refrain from adding further to what was considered ‘best’* last year. Instead, this annual review will focus on the complete year’s viewing, including television, films re-watched and those seen at festivals and at home. In a year in which I attended 10 film festivals, viewed 262 films, of which 68 were short and 125 were new** features, this is a way of considering what was personally most memorable, and not necessarily the films themselves, but the whole experience of viewing, discussing, sharing and thinking about film.

  1. Filmmaker interviews at IFFR 2015

As I reported back in January, I was selected to be part of International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics. A great honour that allowed me to meet some brilliant people, and conduct interviews with Remy Van Heugten via Skype about his film Gluckauf, in person with Ingo Haeb about The Chambermaid Lynn, on the phone to Martin Radich to discuss Norfolk and via email with Nicolas Steiner for his remarkable documentary, Above and Below.

  1. Tired Moonlight at IFFR and EFG

Britni West’s enthralling, ambiguous Tired Moonlight was the last of 31 films I saw at IFFR. By that point I was exhausted and longing for my own bed, and West’s Super 16mm shot ode to her hometown of Kalispell, Montana gradually lifted me from apathy to pure joy. When I screened it for the Edinburgh Film Guild audience in December, it temporarily made us forget there was a freezing downpour going on outside.

  1. Family cinema trip: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

My favourite ‘Come and See’ screening at Filmhouse in 2015.

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The Tribe

  4. Brutal cinema part 1: The Tribe

Being a fairly miserable Ukrainian drama in which the only dialogue is un-subtitled Russian sign-language, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe was a hard sell to the friends I asked to accompany me, but I suggested it could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. It certainly proved more divisive than anything else, sparking a heated debate about whether such depictions of violence are deliberately and unnecessarily provocative.

  1. Orange is the New Black series 3

Particularly episode four, Finger in the Dyke written by Lauren Morelli and directed by Constantine Makris, in which Big Boo’s (Lea DeLaria) backstory is revealed; where an initially playful persuasion by her father to get her to wear a dress as a child, develops into complete parental rejection of her lesbian identity. This series frequently deals with characters struggling with who they are, and this episode showcased DeLaria’s ability as a performer to convey someone who courageously asserts herself, in the face of those who would prefer she pretend to be someone else.

  1. Experimental film and rolling hills – nice one, Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival.

  2. Amy

Asif Kapadia’s expertly made documentary about Amy Winehouse just about broke me.

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I stay with you (me quedo contigo)
  1. Brutal cinema part 2: I stay with you (me quedo contigo) at IFFR and EIFF.

At IFFR, I saw Mexican artist Artemio Narro’s I stay with you, a deliberately deceptive, willingly provocative experiment in putting female violence on screen and right in the viewer’s face. In an upcoming issue of the Slovenian journal KINO!, I discuss the film and violent women generally with fellow writer Tina Poglajen, but on first viewing I really didn’t know what to make of it. When EIFF Artistic Director, Mark Adams, selected it to screen at EIFF, I looked forward to meeting with Narro again and talking more about the film, having allowed its brilliance and flaws to fully sink in. Narro proved to be one of the best guests at the festival – he’s certainly aware of the challenging nature of the film, and was prepared to lose a good proportion of the audience during the screening.

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With Artemio Narro during the Q&A at EIFF

At his Q&A, I asked him about the film’s wider reception, about his intentions for the film, and the audience too, quizzed him on the random appearance of a horse (actually a unicorn, Narro loves them, even has a unicorn tattoo, which went down well in the country for whom they are the national animal), and the film’s unsettling tonal shifts. It was a film that inspired what any artist can hope for – passionate, thoughtful (and in this case, angry) engagement from the audience.

  1. EIFF’s Doc of the Day: Stand By for Tape Back-Up and other special events, including Haskell Wexler himself.

As programme coordinator at Edinburgh International Film Festival last year, I had the pleasure of planning and delivering a lot of truly special events; a gig reuniting legends of the Scottish post-punk/indie music scene following Grant McPhee’s Big Gold Dream; a Skype Q&A with the Angulo brothers, subject of Crystal Moselle’s incredible The Wolfpack, and In Person events with Neil Innes and Barry Purves. One of my films of the year however turned out to be Ross Sutherland’s Stand by for Tape Back-Up, an autobiographical, semi-experimental documentary that plays with time and memory and incorporates The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into musings on the afterlife. It’s a film that’s now deeply embedded in my mind as one of the most intriguing and moving I’ve seen.

Also at EIFF, I met again with award-winning cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (High Fidelity, Atonement, The Avengers, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Godzilla) who had brought legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler to the festival to discuss his work and the issues most important to him. Wexler wanted to spend most of his onstage time praising Seamus, but the latter carefully persuaded him to share some of his experiences from his life’s work, which includes One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Medium Cool. Sadly Wexler passed away in December aged 93, I’m privileged to have met him.
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10. Cats Are Cinema: Noel Marshall’s Roar

In which Noel Marshall and wife Tippi Hedren spent eleven years bringing to the screen a film they were sure would raise awareness of the poaching of African big cats and the unfair treatment of big cats in captivity. The result was a shoot with over one hundred cats – lions, tigers, jaguars etc. – seventy injuries to the crew and several near death experiences. The film itself is a completely bonkers and terrifying tribute to the cats, and Marshall and Hedren’s foolhardy commitment to their cause. A late night at EIFF, in which I laughed long and hard.

11. There’s how many teaspoons of sugar in one tablespoon of ketchup?! The influence of That Sugar Film.

There’s four. Four teaspoons of sugar in one tablespoon of tomato ketchup. Thank you Damon Gameau for making That Sugar Film and forever changing my feelings about the sweet stuff. When I met Gameau at EIFF I learned I was the eighty-fifth person to host a Q&A with him – he said I did a good job. What a pro.

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12. Family Cinema Trip: Magic Mike XXL

My sister was ssshhh’ed for whooping during the opening credits – those Edinburgh Cineworld audiences take their fun seriously! And it was, seriously fun.

13. Singing and crying: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Filmhouse

Only the second time I’d seen John Cameron Mitchell’s cult musical (the first being a Blockbuster video rental sometime around 2002) but this time it was a sing-a-long screening and I soaked up the film’s emotion and wit, impressed by my friends lyrical knowledge and shared sensitivity to Hedwig’s identity crisis.

14. Live narration: Miso Suchy whispers in my ear at Bratislava International Film Festival!

15. Endings: The West Wing

Finally finishing The West Wing brought with it the satisfaction of seeing it through and the sadness that there were no new episodes to see. When we first started it, we found W.G. Snuffy Walden’s score unbearably patriotic (what did we expect?!) but by the end it felt triumphantly appropriate. Other highlights of viewing: assessing Josh’s hair, loving and then missing Sam Seaborn, doing impressions of Bruno’s ‘kelp’ speech, noticing which episodes had a Parks and Recreation version, saying ‘Blues explosion’ during the credits when John Spencer appears.
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16. Jess-i-caaaaaaaa!!!! Jones

A superhero show in which the villain is literally the patriarchy? Yes please. A thousand times yes.

17. All in one night: Master of None

So many brilliant episodes in this series, I loved how each was themed, I loved the compassion and honesty of it, I loved its representation of friendship and millennial anxiety. I loved that it was flawed.

18. Aniston forever and ever and ever

In case you didn’t know, 2015 brought you the blog series you’ve always wanted: a critique of the megastar that is Jennifer Aniston. Watching her films has so far been a mix of irksome, joyful and hilarious, more coming soon.
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19. Carol

I summarised what makes Todd Haynes’ latest so special, and my film of the year, for CineVue, so I’ll simply quote myself here: ‘That it’s so highly lauded is assuredly deserved, as Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have created a richly realised depiction of romantic love that envelops the viewer completely in its characters’ world. Both Rooney Mara as shop clerk and aspiring photographer Therese, and Cate Blanchett as the titular married woman, falling in love in 1950s New York, give exceptional performances, and have a chemistry palpable in every glance. The result is a film the very texture of which, highlights Carol and Therese’s relationship as one defined by both their unnameable intimacy and the distance between them, agonisingly reconciled in the film’s last, brilliantly tense final scene.’

20. Finally saw Frozen and understood its genius (see video below)

21. Best Christmas film: Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

 

 

 

 

*For the record my official Top Ten, offered to CineVue is:
1. Carol
2. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
3. Spotlight
4. Stand by for Tape Back-Up
5. Dreamcatcher
6. It Follows
7. Arabian Nights
8. The Forbidden Room
9. Anomalisa
10. Force Majeure
** Any film that had its first screening in 2015, internationally.

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Highlights of Edinburgh Film Festival 2014

Journey to the West
Journey to the West

It’s been a while since I updated this blog, and if you peruse my index page you’ll see why – my recent film writing has been in the form of contributions to other outlets, mainly Sight & Sound online and award winning site, CineVue.

Under the Heath Lamp an Opening by Zachary Epcar
Under the Heath Lamp an Opening by Zachary Epcar

For both I reported from Edinburgh International Film Festival, writing daily reviews (CineVue) and a look at the Black Box experimental programme (Sight & Sound), which was consistently excellent, and, along with Tsai Ming Liang’s Journey to the West, and Stray Dogs, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, Ebrahim Golestan’s 1965 masterpiece, The Brick and the Mirror, and the shorts programmes I caught, my highlight of the festival.

Club Sandwich
Club Sandwich by Fernando Eimbcke

I’m hopeful that EIFF’s commitment to experimental film will only grow, as this year more than ever I embraced the unique and concentrated experience of screenings of daring and creative work, within an enthusiastic and welcoming audience environment. My full report can be read here

Of the films I reviewed for CineVue, my favourites were To Kill a Man and Club Sandwich, both subtle and carefully paced character studies, one a thriller, the other a tender mother-son coming of age tale.
Coming soon on the blog, I’ll review the latest DVD release from Second Run, and perhaps indulge my long gestating investigation into Anna Faris.

EIFF 2013, thanks for the memories….

Its that time of year again – I’ve said goodbye (or avoided doing so *sniff) to my Edinburgh International Film Festival colleagues and I’m looking forward to the next job, more films and new experiences. EIFF 2013 was such a great success however that I don’t want to let it pass without reflecting on the fantastic films in the programme and personally, the amazing filmmakers I had the privilege to meet.

White Epilepsy by Philippe Grandrieux is a challenging, experiential film and the first part of a trilogy of works collectively titled, Unrest. Using the vertical, rather than traditionally, horizontal frame, Grandrieux asks the viewer to think of cinema as an event – dispensing with narrative – instead presenting two bodies, one devouring the other. Our two Q&As were fascinating, with Philippe expressing his distaste for such banal filmmaking devices such as script or shooting schedule and describing the dark nights over which filming took place.

Philippe Grandrieux at White Epilepsy Q&A. Photography by Shona Wass, courtesy of EIFF.
Philippe Grandrieux at White Epilepsy Q&A. Photography by Shona Wass, courtesy of EIFF.

Next came Virginia Gilbert’s A Long Way From Home, starring James Fox, Brenda Fricker, Natalie Dormer and Paul Nichols. The film had its world premier at EIFF on 20th June, but on Saturday 22nd, I had the pleasure of hosting a Q&A with Virginia and Natalie Dormer, who were both intelligent, witty and courageous in the way they shared their experiences of making the film.

Virginia Gilbert (centre) and Natalie Dormer (right) at Q&A for A Long Way From Home. Photography by Pako Mera, courtesy of EIFF.
Virginia Gilbert (centre) and Natalie Dormer (right) at Q&A for A Long Way From Home. Photography by Pako Mera, courtesy of EIFF.

The film itself is a very thoughtful and mature piece not only about ageing and desire, but the nature of transitions throughout life, bolstered by excellent performances from the whole cast.

The Berlin File by Ryoo Seung-wan is an exciting, brilliantly choreographed espionage thriller, with a complex plot that even its director admitted, is hard to follow. Director Ryoo was an fantastic presence, modestly claiming that his success can only be attributed to the talented crew he continues to work with.

Director Ryoo Seung-wan (centre) and interpreter Jean Noh (right) at Q&A for The Berlin File. Photography by Shona Wass, courtesy of EIFF.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan (centre) and interpreter Jean Noh (right) at Q&A for The Berlin File. Photography by Shona Wass, courtesy of EIFF.

Rusudan Chkonia proved insightful and confident at the Q&A for her film, Keep Smiling – a dark comedy/tragedy about the absurdity of televised talent contests.

Rusudan Chkonia at Q&A for Keep Smiling. Photography by Pako Mera courtesy of EIFF.
Rusudan Chkonia at Q&A for Keep Smiling. Photography by Pako Mera courtesy of EIFF.

Die Welt is a beautifully inventive exploration of an young, Tunisian man experiencing an identity crisis, where cultural, political and personal themes are brought together with wit and sensitivity by director, Alex Pitstra.

Alex Pitstra at Q&A for Die Welt. Photography by Lloyd Smith, courtesy of EIFF.
Alex Pitstra at Q&A for Die Welt. Photography by Lloyd Smith, courtesy of EIFF.

My final Q&A hosting was for Before You Know It by PJ Raval, a stunning portrait of three elder gay men as they face the various challenges of age, illness, family and love. Raval truly committed to his subjects, gaining from them (over the course of three years) total trust to reveal their inner lives, the result being a warm and affectionate tribute to their courage and uniqueness. Audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, which made it a truly special end to my festival experience.

PJ Raval at Q&A for Before You Know it. Photography by Lloyd Smith, courtesy of EIFF.
PJ Raval at Q&A for Before You Know It. Photography by Lloyd Smith, courtesy of EIFF.

If there’s one thing I feel is particularly unique and important about programming film, its that you get the opportunity to be an advocate for the film and its makers, celebrating the successes of the work, even in cases where the whole work might not have achieved its intention. By looking at the elements of a film that are exciting and inventive – showing the ambition inherent in creating new work that pushes the definition of cinema – there is the opportunity to promote and encourage true artists and future masters of their craft.