My Year in Film 2014: Tarr, Tsai and more…

Having already taken part in a poll for the top films of 2014 elsewhere (See CineVue Top 20 Part One and Part Two), which included any film having a received a world or UK Premiere, an annual review on Cinematic Investigations will take a different approach to reflecting on this year’s highlights. Based purely on this writer’s cinema-going habits, I will pick out the top ten experiences in a cinema, regardless of premiere or release date. These are ordered chronologically, 10 being in the early part of the year and so on.
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10. Her | Spike Jonze

Two days after dreaded Valentine’s day, I saw Her, a gorgeous, intelligent, moving portrait of contemporary communication and relationships. Jonze presented a world where a kind of uniform aesthetic sensibility existed without comment – everyone and every environment seems lush, and clean and clear, and yet the streamlining of individual lives through personalised operating systems with artificial intelligence simply reveals what we know about ourselves already – we humans with our fragile bodies are flawed, imperfect and irrational.

It For Others

  1. Postcolonial Cinema Weekend | AV Festival | Newcastle upon Tyne

At AV Festival for the month of March, the theme of Extraction allowed for an exploration of the raw materials that comprise our experience of the world, with a film programme that included such lesser-seen much praised works as Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2002) and Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale (1971). Over the 7-9 March, artists and filmmakers gathered to share their films addressing the outcomes of decolonialisation. Highlights were a screening of Statues Also Die (1953) by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais from 35mm followed by Turner Prize winning It For Others by Duncan Campbell, who was present to talk about the influence of Marker and Resnais, and his representation of the commodification of objects through contemporary dance.

Stray Dogs

8. Stray Dogs | Tsai Ming Liang

‘In anger my hair stands on end and when the rain stops, I launch a shrill cry at the heavens.’

I saw what would become my no. 1 film of the year at Edinburgh International Film Festival, which actually turned out to be host to other of the year’s highlights. Stray Dogs is incomparable however – a heart breaking tale of a man earning a living as a human signpost advertising luxury accommodation, whilst living with his children at a dilapidated semi-sheltered building. Technically exemplary and acutely observed, Tsai’s film left me speechless, but not for the last time this year…

Journey to the West

  1. Journey to the West | Tsai Ming Liang

… as Journey to the West also screened at EIFF. Comprised of fourteen shorts held still as Lee Kang-sheng moves with a barely perceptible slowness throughout Marseille, dressed in red monk robes, becoming the focus of attention – or more frequently not – to passers-by. Performer and director having collaborated on the same gestural performance capture five times previously, Journey to the West includes a contribution from French actor Denis Lavant, who enacts his own slow walk too.

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  1. Interrupted Revolution: Iranian Cinema, 1962 to 1978, EIFF

At EIFF I also had the pleasure of seeing four films in their Iranian retrospective, including in the programme, ‘Truths Beyond Truth: Three Masterpieces’; Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962), Kamran Shirdel’s The Night it Rained (1967) and Amir Naderi’s Waiting (1974) and Ebrahim Golestan’s The Brick and the Mirror (1965). Ninety-two year old (!) Golestan was present at the screening to discuss the film’s production, and their energetic approach to filming in the streets of Tehran. An afternoon of rarely screened Iranian classic cinema was an opportunity too special to miss.

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  1. Guardians of the Galaxy | James Gunn

It being one of the most hyped and anticipated films of 2014, and being a fan of some superhero films (X-Men, Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and the talents of Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement around Guardians. Of course it was silly, and of course it was predictable and derivative, but it was damn fun too.

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  1. Locke | Steven Knight

Since seeing Knight’s tremendous sound film, the phrases ‘I am driving’ and ‘I have made a decision’ have stayed with me, as expressed by Tom Hardy’s Richard Burton-esque Welsh intonation. A gripping, sad and witty thriller, and one of this year’s best.

Alluvion

  1. Alluvion | Sasha Litvintseva

At Aesthetica Short Film Festival, I traversed the cobbled streets of York, between historic and contemporary venues, taking in what would become eighty-three short films, in genres as varied as experimental and fashion. A real highlight was Sasha Litvintseva’s Alluvion, a piece of ethnographic/poetic geographical interpretation that expresses the tension of the family holiday and touristic/working environments. Litvintseva’s aural landscape is as complex yet deceptively simple as her visual compositions.

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  1. Sátántangó | Béla Tarr | 1994

Screening at Filmhouse from a 35mm print sourced by those intrepid Scalarama folks, the chance to finally see reportedly one of cinema’s great masterpieces was truly unmissable. At seven hours and twelves minutes, Sátántangó is one of the longer examples of what might be deemed ‘endurance cinema’ and in its depiction of a run-down village, the inhabitants of which are attempting to survive during unrelenting autumn rain, it’s not a cheerful film either. However, the sheer tenacity and confidence of the framing, the length of the shots and bravery of the performances, make it one of the most memorable cinema experiences I’ve ever had.

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  1. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras

The third in a trilogy of films about post 9/11 America, the first two of which My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) were about the Iraq War and Guantanamo respectively, Citizenfour is remarkable in many ways. Following an invitation from an anonymous source through a secure connection, to meet in order to share information, Poitras travelled to Hong Kong with Glen Greenwald in 2013 where they found themselves in a hotel room listening to revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programme from Edward Snowden himself. What’s remarkable about the film beyond what turned out to be a high stakes intelligence leak, are the moments Poitras captures that show just how ordinary Snowden is. Despite a justified reluctance to reveal too much about himself lest his story become one of personality obscuring the facts, what can’t be obscured are the urgent, unplanned moments in that hotel room, as covert travel plans are made. Snowden seen attending to a stray hair nervously before leaving the building, or thinking and rethinking his message to the media via the hotel conceirge show him as an ordinary person, who, despite having taken great risks to share what he knows, doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing at all times. Rather, he has his priorities straight – a steadfast commitment to challenging the accepted dismantling of privacy regulations in the name of national security appears deeply, chillingly logical.

Beyond these most memorable cinematic experiences, my personal favourites from 2014 also include:

Exhibition | Joanna Hogg
The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson
A Touch of Sin Jia Zhangke
Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski
Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev
Concerning Violence | Gören Olsson
Winter Sleep Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Boyhood | Richard Linklater
Blue Ruin | Jeremy Saulnier
Under the Skin | Jonathan Glazer
We Are the Best!  Lukas Moodysson

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Investigating the Cinema of 2011

It’s January again, a time for planning the New Year’s activities, films to watch, ones to look forward to and also a time for reflection. Unsurprisingly I have been thinking about the films I’ve seen this year – of which there are hundreds when I include cinema outings, DVD’s rented, films watched online and special ones bought or borrowed.

In order to narrow down my review of 2011 however, I am going to concentrate merely on cinema experiences; represented here by pictures of the tickets I have archived for the year. They include those of re-released classics, as those moments when the lights go down and the curtain pulls back are truly ones worth investigating!

Pina by Wim Wenders

In no particular order then, I begin with Wim Wenders’ Pina, a 3D documentary about the late choreographer Pina Bausch. Featuring interviews with dancers and collaborators as well as archive material of Pina herself, some of the real pleasure of this film came from the new performances of her work. Whether on stage or taken outside into the landscape or urban space, the intangibility of the digital created a wonderful tension, as movements appeared indiscernible from one dancer to the next and leapt from the screen.

Le Quattro Volte, on the other hand, directed by Michelangelo Frammartino also contained one scene that seemed choreographed like a dance, although so precise as to utterly convince as an hilarious accident, involving a dog, a truck and some goats. An almost wordless film, philosophical in intention – I’m stuck as to other films I’ve seen recently that so perfectly combined form and content. I didn’t want it to end.

In total contrast to that I really enjoyed Attack the Block, the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, one half of comedy team Adam and Joe(the other being Adam Buxton, of course). Wearing its horror and sci-fi influences firmly on its sleeve, Attack the Block gloriously celebrated the underdog and the delights of analog effects. The simplicity of the creature design – a beast with seemingly impenetrable black fur and the wittiness of the dialogue combined for a truly refreshing and hilarious British film.

Speaking of darkness – never has it been put to such startling use than in Béla Tarrs’ Turin Horse. Bleak in tone, repetitive in its plot and seemingly negative overall – I was captivated. Not one to see if you require your films to have explosions, or character development or a happy ending but if, like me you appreciate a unique world view about humanity and survival, then I wholeheartedly recommend you seek out this film. Especially as Béla won’t be making any more – as he said himself at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011: this film expresses all he has to say, and being about ‘apocalypse’, is a fitting end to a near 40-year career.

Also at EIFF last summer I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000). Having spent some time working through the feature films of this most marvellous Thai director I was excited to see his early work on screen – a rarity for sure (discussion of those can be found elsewhere on this blog). ‘Joe’ as Apichatpong likes to be referred to, had sent a video introduction in his absence at the screening, and he described how the conditions of making the film were so unique and special they could never be repeated – something that can certainly be said of his other works. An impression is given of a truly magical filmmaking process and a film that seems to evolve instinctively rather than being planned down to the last detail. If you ever get the chance to see any of Joe’s films at the cinema – take it!

In a similar vein there was another retrospective title that has proven itself one of the more memorable screenings of 2011. I have read a lot about Terrence Malicks’ The Tree of Life being the top of ‘best film’ lists for last year (notably in Sight & Sound) but if was the restored version of Days of Heaven (1978) by the same director that really affected me. Projected at Filmhouse in glorious 70mm this was the perfect cinema experience. The story concerns a family of sorts who work as farm labourers – Bill (Richard Gere) and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), pose as brother and sister to be more respectable, whilst keeping Bill’s sister Linda (Linda Manz) under their care. Their seemingly simple, tough but somewhat idyllic life becomes disrupted when the land owner (played by Sam Shepherd) falls for Abby. Malicks’ technique of using only natural light is never more spectacularly demonstrated than in the scenes of the cornfields at dusk, and sitting in the dark I was mesmerised.

Margaret

Moving back into the 21st century one of the last films I saw last year was also the best. Being someone who has championed Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000) for many years, I was keen to say the least to see his latest film Margaret. The film was actually made in 2005, but due to disagreements with the films’ financiers Camelot Pictures and Fox searchlight (that Lonergan failed to fulfil the terms of his contract, having gone over budget and failing to deliver a film of the agreed length, and on time) the film is only now seeing the light of day – and only just. In an attempt to ‘bury’ the film, Fox gave no press screenings and only after demands from London critics and twitter/Facebook users to give the film more screenings has it gotten a wider release in the UK – an example of social networking being put to good use.

This is all only important because the film itself deserves to be seen. It has obvious flaws – its length, how messy it is and a central character (Anna Paquins’ astonishing performance as Lisa) that is very difficult to like. At the core though is a portrait of New York – damaged and traumatised post- 9/11 and portrayed beautifully by Lonergan as a place where traffic is constant, but only occasionally do people really relate to each other.

There were many more fantastic films released in 2011, and some of them I only managed to see on DVD, but they are too numerous to mention here. I’ve already had one most memorable experience this year – Raúl Ruiz’s four and a half hour epic, Mysteries of Lisbon, which proved itself to be a true feast of cinema. I hope the year’s cinematic treats provide more opportunities for investigation.

Béla recommends…

Whilst working for Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Béla Tarr (actually ‘pleasure’ is perhaps too weak – compared to the other film related events in my life last year meeting Tarr was probably the high point). Tarr was at the festival for his own film, the incredible Turin Horse, but he was also there to introduce a selection of films he had chosen as a guest curator. One of the enigmatic directors’ selection was The Round Up (Szegénylegények, 1965) by fellow Hungarian filmmaker, Miklós Jancsó. I watched as Tarr described how highly he regarded Jancsó, and said very simply that his films were wonderful and everyone should see them. This humble introduction was all I was able to see of the screening however as my work held my attention elsewhere. Fortunately Second Run DVD re-released The Round Up in their box set The Miklós Jancsó Collection alongside My Way Home (így jöttem, 1964) and The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967) so Tarr’s recommendation hasn’t withered into to the ether of hundreds of other films that I intend to see and then never get around to…

My verdict, having now seen these three beautiful films is much the same as Tarrs’ – that everyone should see them. There is a lot I could say about Jancsó’s framing of the Hungarian landscape, the despair and portrayal of absent morality – but this might not be adequate enough to persuade you to watch them (but of course I’ll try anyway).

My Way Home follows the misadventures of a teenage Hungarian attempting to escape the oppressive regime of the Russian military. Falling in and out of freedom, our protagonist eventually ends up in the care of another young man tasked with farming dairy for the army in an area of land surrounded by mines. Despite their language barrier, a sense of compassion grows between the two, wrought out of their mutual captivity on the farm. My Way Home introduces Jancsó’s thematic preoccupations whilst presenting a sometime charming portrayal of unlikely friendship.

The Round Up, however offers an entirely bleak perspective on humanity as prisoners of the Austrian occupation in Hungary in the mid-nineteenth century are arbitrarily treated with an almost total lack of dignity. The round up of the title refers to the collection of suspected members of a gang of resistance fighter’s lead by Sándor Rózsa, who are thought to be in the prison. Peeling individuals away from the group – the soldiers promise leniency if a prisoner can name someone who has killed more than they, hoping it will reveal allegiances and eventually the gang itself. Jancsó handles the movement of characters like a slow dance or chess game, each moved here, there, backward and forward around the prison. This drawn out game of sorts establishes the films tension but through lack of a use of close up, denies any emotional investment giving an overall mood of negativity. It is due to the masterful way that Jancsó directs that the film made such an impact in terms of innovation on its first release.The Red and the White is demonstrable most overtly of Jancsó as a political filmmaker. Detailing the fighting between the Hungarian volunteers who supported the ‘Red’ revolutionaries against the ‘White’ counter- revolutionaries, the film displays the wider implications of decisions made by the powerful over the weak, and how unstable and that power can be.

These three films will stay with me; their images are hard to shake – for their tragedy, beauty, even for the occasional moments of humour but mostly for the unique and stunning vision of director Miklós Jancsó.

Jancsós’ theme throughout these first extraordinary films is the fragility of humanity in the face of war, trauma and poverty. With such grand and serious ideas being dealt with – these are not beautiful films in a simple aesthetic way – they are beautifully about the human condition.