Films of 2011

30 12 2011

Now I’ll be the first to admit that my film ‘blogging has become a little bit… well, shall we say ‘sluggish’ this past year. Travelling, film-making and working in an office have all played their part in slowing the once Amazon-like flow of words from my keyboard to a trickle as has, it must be admitted, a streak of laziness running through my bones like words through a stick of rock.

On the other hand, my film-going habit has continued apace and at various points this year I’ve found myself spellbound, surprised, shocked and staggered in the cinema. Below then is my selection of the finest films released in the UK in 2011. 

As for 2012, well I can only promise to redouble (or perhaps even re-quadruple) my efforts in the new year, and to endeavour to share some thoughts on cinema with you much more often.

My Top Six

Le Quattro Volte / The Four Times (Michelangelo Frammartino)

A story of goats, goatherds, charcoal-makers and burly men who cut down trees. Set deep in the Calabrian countryside, Michelangelo Frammartino’s film straddles a fine line between fiction and documentary. Its four stories are based around observations of Italian peasant life and loosely correspond to Pythagoras’ ideas about the different states that the soul passes through during transmigration (or reincarnation): mineral, vegetable, animal, man.

There’s hardly any dialogue yet the film contains some of the most dramatic and involving scenes that I’ve witnessed in the cinema all year. A baby goat becomes lost from the flock and wanders bleating over the winter hillsides; a sick old man gathers dust swept up from a church floor and mixes it with water to drink as a medicine; a towering fir tree is chopped down in the forest, hauled into a medieval hilltop town and re-erected in the market square for a local festival.

Particularly staggering is a 10-minute scene featuring a Passion play, a sheepdog, a pick-up truck and some escapee goats, miraculously choreographed in one unbroken shot. An antidote to Terrence Malick’s overblown Tree of Life, this is a piece of work that should be sought out by film-makers, students of film and anyone else interested in the poetic power of cinema.

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Taking the Broad View

18 07 2010

Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, White Material

'White Material'

 Why are there so few female film directors? That’s a question that’s long been chewed over by critics, academics and the viewing public alike. Does the film industry, consciously or otherwise, marginalise female talent? Is it hopelessly macho and sexist? Or is the very act of film-making – arranging people, lights and cameras, ordering and categorising the world – one that speaks to male needs and neuroses much more deeply than it does to those of most women?

Beats me. But in a way, a more interesting question is: what kind of films do female directors make when they get the chance to do so? And are the stories that they choose to tell qualitatively different from those of their male contemporaries?

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Difficult, Difficult, Lemon Difficult: British Film Today

15 10 2009


Alan Parker famously once said that he would leave the UK if Peter Greenaway were allowed to make another film. This was back in the Eighties, when threatening to leave the country was something of a pastime for the rich and famous, but it did reflect a frustration that Parker and others had about the direction in which the British film industry was going.

We make too many artsy films, they argued, the kind of films that confuse the man in the street and do little to promote the growth of the domestic industry. Instead we should be focusing on lively and entertaining cinema, films that pull in the crowds and tell a good story well.

Since then the British film industry has too often operated with these extremes in mind, unable to commit to one or the other. For much of the Nineties and Noughties we saw, on the one hand, self-consciously populist films that proved to be far from popular at the box office and, on the other, serious films that didn’t quite have the balls to take any serious risks artistically. Despite occasional successes (The Talented Mr. Ripley, My Summer of Love, Trainspotting, Ratcatcher) the overall mood was one of gloom, compromise and squalor.

Imagine my surprise then, when coming back to the UK in August after almost a year away, to find the country in the midst of a mini cinematic boom and myself with a whole lot of catching up to do. Ingmar Bergman in his later years reportedly watched every metre of new Swedish film that was released, and I found myself trying to do the same with DVDs, tracking down as many of the key works of this new British renaissance as I could find.

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Leave It to the Non-Professionals

10 09 2009


Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

There’s a story that when Luchino Visconti was filming La Terra Trema, his 1948 neo-realist study of the lives of Sicilian fishermen, he tied fishing wire to the toes of his actors. This wasn’t, as you might imagine, anything to do with keeping them inside a boat or preventing them from wandering off. No, the wires were there so that the director and his crew could pull on them to give a prompt whenever it was time for an actor to speak.

You see, the actors in La Terra Trema were all non-professionals, real-life fishermen who Visconti had selected for their hard-worn looks and thick Sicilian dialect. The fishermen certainly looked the part, but often had difficulty remembering lines or knowing when it was their turn to speak. Visconti was finding out the hard way that working with non-professionals is not always as straightforward as it might seem.  

Since then, hiring non-professional actors has become the trademark of directors searching for a certain kind of authenticity in their work, almost to the point of cliché. Everyone from Gus Van Sant to Shane Meadows is at it, the former casting his 2007 film Paranoid Park through an advert on My Space.  

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