Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan Stars Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan, Firat Tanis Turkey/Bosnia And Herzenogivina 2011 Language Turkish (with English subtitles) 2hrs 30mins Colour

Bleary-eyed shaggy dog story

Some years ago, a film called Uzak came out. It got great reviews, made several end of year lists. So I saw it, and was left baffled and angry. Baffled because I couldn’t see what anyone could have liked about it. The characters were unappealing and dull, nothing happened, it looked early ’80s European TV drama. Angry, because I felt swizzed. Worse, I felt like a Daily Express columnist, the kind convinced that critics only pretend to like this foreign toss while watching Richard Curtis films when no one is looking.

So anyway, time passed and the director of Uzak, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, had another film out that was lavishly praised. Not wanting to be suckered twice, I avoided Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. But lots of sane people liked it, including some who assured me they had hated Uzak, too, and now I’ve finally watched it.

And two-thirds of turns out to be very good indeed. It starts out as a macabre shaggy dog story, two cars and a jeep driving endlessly around the empty Anatolian landscape looking for the body of the murder victim. Each time they stop and come up empty handed, the main suspect changes his description of the place slightly, and they’re off again.

We travel in the car with Kenan (Firat Tanis), the suspect; Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), the volatile police chief; the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner); Arab Ali, the put-upon driver (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan); and one other cop. What we get is the mixture of banter and squabbling you would expect of any bunch of tense, tired people stuck in a vehicle for hours. At times it reminded me of Homicide: Life On The Streets or even the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos. The one who doesn’t talk much is Kenan, often haloed by the lights of the car behind so that he looks like a Byzantine icon.

The other main character is the preening prosecutor (Taner Birsel), proud of his resemblance to Clark Gable and wearing the sharpest coat this side of Michael Fassbender in Shame.

Deep into the night, the whole team descends on the home of a village mayor, a sequence in which – by candlelight after a power cut – weariness slips into drowsiness into dreams…

For almost two hours this film is dark and funny and hypnotic. Without pushing it, Ceylan nudges us to noticing how weird digital cameras and laptops can seem in a place that feels like time has stopped for hundreds years. The idea of an area so rooted in the past might feel powerful and moving, but in practice, as the mayor says, it means that most of the people at all capable of so doing left for Istanbul or Germany decades ago.

The problem with this film is one it shares with many noisy Hollywood blockbusters – it doesn’t stop soon enough. If it ended as the cars come back into town, it would almost flawless. Unfortunately, the final section is a huge letdown. Instead of it being an ensemble piece, the moody doctor – the big city guy exiled in the sticks – is suddenly the central character. Worse, various things the characters hinted at, out on the road, in the dark, are clangingly made explicit, with Ceylan grasping desperately for the BIG POIGNANT MOMENT. And trying to balance that with a classic arthouse end move. It’s not good, not good at all.

So here’s what I suggest – do watch this film, even if you saw Uzak and hated it as much as I did. But turn it off the moment they hit town. You won’t miss anything worthwhile, I promise. You’ll only gain.


A Damsel In Distress

Director George Stevens Stars Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Fontaine USA 1937 Language English 1hr 38mins Black & white

Burns & Allen meet Fred Astaire in a castle

If films were like Fantasy Football, and the name of the game was simply to accumulate the maximum amount of talent you can afford, then A Damsel In Distress would be one of the greatest films ever made. Ladies and gentleman, the man with the gravity-defying feet, Mr Fred Astaire! America’s premier male-female comedy duo, Burns & Allen! The charming Miss Joan Fontaine [but note that fourth spot in the cast]. Written by Britain’s funniest wordsmith, Mr PG Wodehouse! Original songs by George* and Ira Gershwin! Plus the finest supporting character actors RKO has at hand!

Ah, but… do those elements mix seamlessly? Not exactly. Miss Fontaine (only 19 at the time) is pretty and sparky as an independently minded English rose, but the studio soon realised she wasn’t much of a mover. So she only has one dance with Fred, wandering through the woods – his big set pieces are with George and Gracie instead. And endearing as he is, if Fred can’t seduce a girl manoeuvring her effortlessly across the floor, then he’s just a funny little chap with a huge forehead.

Miss Fontaine’s second problem comes from Mr Wodehouse’s plot. In his work, girls are always ending their engagement with one chap and promising themselves to another later that afternoon. Which is fine when the story has to end with the preservation of the Wooster-Jeeves household, but not so much in a Hollywood romantic comedy, where the heroine should (hopefully) be more than a gear in the plot mechanism.

So, that plot: it’s driven by Albert (Harry Watson**), a scamp working for the aristocratic Marshmorton family, who is determined to win the sweepstakes on who Lady Alyce (Fontaine) will marry. He’s got Mr X – i.e. anyone not yet mentioned – and so does his best to ensure Alyce follows her whims rather than get hitched to Reggie Byng (Ray Noble***), as favoured by her domineering aunt (this is Wodehouse, after all) Lady Caroline (Constance Collier), despite his jazz-loving tendencies. Alyce, pursued by Albert and Keggs the steward (Reginald Gardiner) nips off to London to meet up with her secret boyfriend, an American ski instructor, but accidentally ends up in the cab of visiting star Jerry Halliday (Astaire). Jerry has a reputation as a lothario that’s been entirely fabricated by his press agent, George Burns (er, George Burns). Albert contrives for Jerry, George and Gracie (Gracie Allen) to turn up as paying visitors at the Marshmorton’s Tottney Castle and we’re off…

There’s a lot for the film to accommodate – a hectic plot, dance sequences and sizable chunks of Burns & Allen’s routine. The idea is that Gracie says lots of clueless things, but occasionally reveals herself to be sharper than she normally lets on. Gracie: ‘It’s lots of fun having fun even if you don’t enjoy it.’


Jerry: ‘I can’t go now, she needs me. She’s in trouble.’

Gracie: ‘Oh, Jerry, don’t be pessimistic – maybe she’ll still be in trouble when you get back.’

Sometimes, they are funny, other times it just seems like their vaudeville material has been crammed into the film and slows it down. They could dance, though – George (pretty unrecognisable for anyone who only was aware of him during his late career boom) especially keeps pace with Fred. The three of them share the film’s centrepiece, a big dance sequence in a funfair (through the hall of mirrors, down slides etc) – it’s terrific.

A Damsel In Distress is a film with lots of good stuff in it, not least a what would become a couple of the Gershwins’ best-known songs, Nice Work If You Can Get It and A Foggy Day In London Town, but it’s also a bit of mess, thoroughly unbalanced by Fontaine’s inability to dance and the effect that has on everything else. The early scenes are very clunky, although it does better as it goes on. I enjoyed it**** but I’m a real sucker for this stuff. Better Astaire films are available.

*Just in case you were wondering, because I did, George Gershwin had been dead for four months by the time the film was released.

**Move over Dick Van Dyke – Watson’s attempt at an English accent is genuinely baffling.

***Noble? He wrote Love Is The Sweetest Thing. As I said, the level of talent involved in this movie is staggering.

****Even so, an additional warning that the sound quality in the first quarter was bad in the version I saw.



Director Alfred Hitchcock Stars Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce USA 1941 Language English 1hr 39mins Black & white

Could Cary kill?

Born To Be Bad

Director Nicholas Ray Stars Joan Fontaine, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan, Mel Ferrer USA 1950 Language English 1hr 34mins Black & white

Beware the butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde

It was while I was watching Born To Be Bad that I learnt that Joan Fontaine had died a couple of days earlier, at the age of 96. She had been one of the last stars left from Hollywood’s golden age*, but she still didn’t manage to outlive her bitterest rival, her older sister, Olivia de Havilland. So in her honour, I’m taking a look at a couple of her films.

Fontaine’s most famous performance is as the second Mrs de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, made in 1940. A year later, she was back together with the director for another story of an insecure young woman in the world of the English upper classes. Here she’s Lina McLaidlaw, bookish and romantically inexperienced. A chance encounter on a train (the film’s best scene) brings her into contact with Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a posh but penniless rogue. She’s soon aware of his bad rep (but not of his parlous financial state), but that doesn’t put her off. Very quickly they’re a couple, with Johnnie disarming Lina by being apparently truthful. When she asks if he’s kissed many girls before her, he says:

‘I’m afraid so. Quite a few. One time when I couldn’t fall asleep, I started to count them – you know, the way you count sheep jumping over a fence. I think I passed out at number 73.’

They elope, and she starts to grasp quite how unreliable he is. That begins to shade into a fear that his financial chaos is going to encourage him into doing something very bad indeed, and the film reflects her mindset – Johnnie keeps looming darkly into view, large and menacing. It’s clear Lina is losing her grip, whether her husband is a killer or not…

Grant playing a potential wife-murderer was both then and now the main selling point of the film. It’s not enough – he’s fine, Fontaine is good, as is Nigel Bruce as Johnnie’s easily steered best friend, Beaky Twaite, but it’s all pretty slight, and – something I rarely think – could have done with another plot twist or two. It’s an awfully long way from the greatness of the other Hitchcock/Grant collaborations (Notorious, To Catch A Thief and North By Northwest).

Considering the apparent age of the characters she plays, Fontaine should have made Born To Be Bad before Suspicion, not some nine years later. In practice, now blonde and fuller of face, she doesn’t look any older. This, in turn, was her chance to try to escape typecasting as a psychologically fragile good girl. The title suggests a film noir, a genre director Nicholas Ray was certainly comfortable with. But although some of the elements are there, this isn’t a thriller. Fontaine plays Christabel, an orphan from a powerful family who has been living in a dull small town with an elderly aunt. Now she’s arriving in big, exciting San Francisco to stay with her uncle’s PA Donna (Joan Leslie). It turns out that this innocent-seeming young woman from the sticks is a fast learner, hooking up first with macho novelist Nick Bradley (a perfectly cast Robert Ryan) and then making moves on Donna’s wealthy fiancé, Curtis (Zachary Scott). Hovering around them all is artist Gobby Broome (Mel Ferrer), a friend of the ladies rather than a ladies’ man**, who says things like, ‘I have no friends, only creditors.’

Probably the best reference point is All About Eve, with its scheming anti-heroine and epigrammatic dialogue. Slightly surprisingly, the bulk of the good lines go to Ryan’s Nick: ‘How many times do I have to tell you how much you love me?’ and ‘Someone should’ve told the birds and the bees about you’ being just a couple.

Fontaine is good as the outwardly simpering but heartless Christabel – in fact, the casting all round is terrific. And it’s definitely entertaining – it probably has suffered critically because the film Ray had out next was In A Lonely Place, which is astonishingly good. I liked Born To Be Bad, and I’m going to make an effort to watch some more Joan Fontaine films.

*When Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011, a lot of ridiculous newspaper stories mourned the passing of the final star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Obviously, Taylor was a big star in the movies and an absolutely massive star in the wider media (by which I mean that like Angelina Jolie today, she was famous to lots of people who had never seen one of her films). But Taylor was a child star at the very end of the classic Hollywood era, and outlived by two of her much-bigger-at-the-time contemporaries, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, plus those who been grown-up stars of the late ’30s and early ‘40s like Fontaine and De Havilland, huge if not that well-remembered now box-office draws like Esther Williams, and Lauren Bacall. And if you’re talking the peak of Taylor’s adult career, the ‘50s into the early ‘60s, then we still have with us (at time of writing) Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier, plus massive international stars like Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot (both just two years younger than Taylor).

**For those interested in the gay presence in old Hollywood movies, both films are worth seeing. In Suspicion, Lina and Johnnie go to a dinner hosted by what it is pretty impossible to view as anything other than a lesbian couple (the younger one is wearing a tie, for christsakes). As for Gobby in Born To Be Bad, if he isn’t gay, the way all the other characters treat him makes no sense at all.



The Fallen Sparrow

Director Richard Wallace Stars John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Slezak USA 1943 Language English 1hr 34 mins Black & white

Nazis agents loose in NYC!

Meet Kit McKittridge. His body is back from the war more or less intact, but his mind may not be. Out in Arizona trying to heal, he learns that his best friend has died. Suicide is the official theory, but he knows better, and comes home to NYC. He’s an unusual chap, this Kit, a fast-talking tough guy who knows how to dress for dinner, product of an accidental social experiment: ‘I was a mug until I was 14, then they made me a gentleman, then some of the boys made me a mug again.’ His father was a cop who left the force and made it good. Played by the great John Garfield, he’s a fairly compelling character, an interesting variant on the damaged war vet, which became a noir staple a few years later.

The difference here is that this film came out in 1943 and is set in 1940. Kit isn’t back from France, Italy or the Pacific, he’s back from Spain, where he was captured and brutally tortured by the Germans. Almost 3,000 Americans fought during the Guerra Civil in the (Communist Party-affiliated) Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and it’s hard not to suspect that one of the subtexts of this film is saying, ‘Some of us knew we would have to take on the fascists long before Pearl Harbor’. Garfield would become one of the most high-profile victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s Hollywood witchhunt, and died of heart attack at only 39.

Anyway, so Kit’s suspicions quickly fall on a group of posh refugees who have been warmly embraced by his Manhattan high-society chums. He decides that the weak link might be Toni (Maureen O’Hara), and in one of the film’s best scenes, turns up at the exclusive hat shop where she works as a model and makes her try on an endless series of fancy headwear until she finally agrees to talk to him.

She’s one of three dames he (in true noir fashion) is both attracted to and yet suspects might be involved in the murders. He’s as brusquely effective with them as Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep. To one, he says, ‘You’re a pagan and always have been.’

‘Don’t talk like that.’

‘There’s only way to talk to you,’ he replies, and kisses her brutally. Of course!

But although Kit tends to storm into rooms, he’s not sure he’s in his right mind. Everywhere he hears the shuffling sound of a foot being dragged he associates with a terrifying Gestapo officer in Spain, and he needs to crack the case before he unravels entirely.

The Fallen Sparrow is all intensity, and little coherence. The plot races ahead, and then everything stops several times for Kit to give an extended speech. Director Richard Wallace has no grasp of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin theory, and wrenches the plot into all sorts of odd shapes for something that only needs to be a mechanistic device. Or maybe he’s trying to say Kit really is unhinged… The film is based on a novel by Dorothy B Hughes – another of her books was adapted for the stunning In A Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

Maureen O’Hara is miscast as a mysterious European aristocrat – it’s just not her. Garfield, on the other hand, is terrific, especially in scenes with women and with the cops, and there’s some fine German Expressionist-influenced camera work from Nicholas Musuraca, who also shot The Cat People and the film a lot of people reckon is the best noir of all, Out Of The Past. All of which is enough to make this plenty enjoyable, if not quite as good as Garfield’s presence deserved.



American Hustle

Director David O Russell Stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner USA 2013 Language English (with a tiny bit of Arabic) 2hrs 18mins Colour
Entertaining character study set in at the grubby end of ‘70s decadence

Let us stop to celebrate Christian Bale’s gut in American Hustle - it’s wonder of cascading blubber that works as a metaphor for David O Russell’s pleasingly big, messy movie about messy lives. Because although this is a story about con artists, this isn’t a con-artist movie - those are tight, plot-driven things usually in love with their own sleight of hand and that thus often end up arid and smug.

So here’s Irving Rothsfeld (Bale), owner of that belly and also a mesmerisingly mad hairpiece/combover combo. An ambitious boy from the Bronx, he’s got fingers in a half dozen pies, and awful lot of front (literally and not), but he’s also vulnerable, surprisingly easily bruised. And here’s Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a classic 1970s self-inventor, who sweeps into Irving’s life and spurs him on bigger scams. And Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a pushy, insecure FBI agent. And Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a stroppy, demanding housewife with untapped skills. All of them end up involved, one way or another, in Abscam, the FBI fake sheikh operation that took down a number of middling senior American politicians as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s. Central among the targets is Carmine Polito* (Jeremy Renner), a visionary and idealist mayor from New Jersey who might be just a little too pragmatic in his attempts to fund his admirable dreams.

That’s a dizzying mix of desire, ambition, greed, crime, lies, politics, sex. Yes, and ‘70s fashion at its worst (a lot of people were dialling it down by 1978, when the core action of the film takes place. Not this lot). The obvious reference points for American Hustle are Scorsese (there are multiple first person narrators, like Casino, which I think this resembles more than Goodfellas) and also, I think, the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson. But it’s also consistently funny, funnier by a long way that Russell’s last film, Silver Linings Playbook, which was meant to be some kind of comedy, apparently. I saw a headline that described it as ‘Scorsese played for laughs.’ I think that was meant to be mildly damning, but that’s exactly what I like about it.

There are lots of bits that stuck in my mind: Irving and Sydney entwined inside the loop of an electric clothes rail in the dry cleaners, clear bags half-draped over them; Richie’s micro hair curlers; a cautionary anecdote resumed many times but never finished; lines like ‘I thought you were mysterious, like my mother, until it turned out that mysterious meant depressed.’ This is a film where the actors get a lot of leeway, something that I’m normally sceptical about, but it works here.

I think Bale and Lawrence are terrific, Adams is too apart from maybe one or two false notes. Cooper is well cast – his name on a film poster still makes my heart sink a little, but he’s always better than I think he’s going to be. Praise is due to Jeremy Renner, doing something a bit different here, Louis CK as the superior who can’t rein in DiMaso, and Shea Whigham as one of Rothsfeld’s associates/marks. The only disappointment is Jack Huston, so extraordinary as damaged veteran Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire**, who plays the blandest gangster you’ve ever seen.

It’s a long film, but it earns it. There’s a lot here to tell. Several little bits about Cooper and Lawrence’s characters especially are just left as passing hints. Russell, whose career seemed dead in the water after the notorious I Heart Huckabees (which I liked), is now on a roll. I think this the best of his recent run (much better than Silver Linings Playbook, ultimately more satisfying than The Fighter) – he’s turned into one of the best (broadly) mainstream directors around.

*The disclaimer at the start of the film says ‘Some of this actually happened.’ Polito is apparently based on a man called Angelo Errichetti, but clearly not closely enough to keep his name.

**As well as Whigham and Huston, plus the issue of the rise, fall and at this point – hoped-for rise again of Atlantic City, the other connection here with Boardwalk Empire is that one of that show’s (based-on-real-life) characters is a major off-screen presence here.



12 Years A Slave

Director Steve McQueen Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o USA/UK 2013 Language English 2hrs 12mins Colour

That title is a bit of a hint, don’t you think?

What do you want from 12 Years A Slave? A powerful, gruelling story that takes us – via the story of a cultured free black man from the north kidnapped by slavers – into the heart of an insane institution that was psychologically damaging both to its perpetrators and victims? It’s certainly that. An impressively unshowy performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor in the central role of Solomon Northup, and a higher voltage one from Michael Fassbender as the sadistic plantation owner on whose land Solomon spends a large chunk of those dozen years? You get both of those. Appearances from a host of cult favourites and one superstar (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch*, Michael Kenneth Williams, Scoot McNairy and, yes, Brad Pitt, very much looking his age)? All present and correct. It’s superbly filmed, and reasonably well-paced considering the inevitably episodic nature of a story that takes place over such a long span. If it wins a bag load of awards in the coming weeks, that will be broadly a good thing.

But if you, like me, mostly wanted to see 12 Years A Slave because it was made by Steve McQueen, then it might be a mild disappointment. McQueen has been one of the most interesting, and surprising, visual artists that Britain has produced over the last couple of decades. His first two feature films, Hunger and Shame, were both genuinely unsettling pieces of work, uncomfortable to watch (in a good way), and felt unlike anything else around. And 12 Years A Slave doesn’t, really. Let me be clear, this isn’t anything like the alternative version that was playing in my head, Steven Spielberg’s 12 Years A Slave. The music is restrained, you never feel that you’re being milked for tears, and it’s quite clear from the start that the situation means that Solomon will have to make any number of moral compromises – anyone trying to do the right thing would have been soon dead.

Nor, though, is it anything like as stylistically radical or original as McQueen’s previous work. There’s only moment that comes close, when Solomon is the victim of an attempted lynching – his life is saved, but he isn’t rescued, left with the noose around his neck and just able to keep himself alive by standing on tiptoes. The scene goes on and on, with plantation life continuing as normal with Solomon struggling and no one daring to intervene. About a third of the way in, the audience might reckon they’ve got the point, but McQueen clearly thinks we haven’t even begun to grasp it.

It’s possibly, reasonable even, that McQueen felt the subject matter demanded a slightly more conventional approach for this movie. And maybe he’s right, but I can’t help wishing that he had pushed the film a bit further.

*Given that I instantly change channel every time Cumberbatch appears on TV, he’s reasonably harmless here in what is a fairly brief appearance in any case.


My favourite films of 2013

Maybe it was just the films I saw, but 2013 didn’t seem to be a great year for movies, especially mainstream ones. Next year looks better already. The standard disclaimer: these are the films I enjoyed most of the ones that got a first release in British cinemas in 2013 – so no place this time around for the wonderful We Are The Best! or the excellent Inside Llewyn Davis (which will be out here on 24 January). And as ever, there was an awful lot I didn’t see – Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Muscle Shoals being the films I most regret not catching, and I know I should probably watch The Hunger Games movies at some point.


1. Before Midnight

I’m not going to lie: the third and by far the best part of Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s Before… trilogy is very, very talky and about middle-aged discontentment (maybe it’s my equivalent of those John Updike books my father failed to convince me to read). But crucially, there’s humour along with the regret, anger, paranoia etc etc… as the two characters (now a couple) are coming to the final day of a family holiday in Greece. And, easily forgotten because it often does feel like Delpy and Hawke are just talking rather than acting (any distance between them and the characters appears to have evaporated), it’s skilfully, indeed elegantly directed by Linklater. Full review here…


2. Après Mai (Something In The Air)

What could be worse than some old hippy grabbing your lapel, Ancient Mariner-style, and saying, ‘Man, we was wild then’? But Olivier Assayas’ autobiographical drama about the kids who just missed out on the ’60s proper but tried living the dream in the early ’70s is terrific, mixing the charged political atmosphere of the time with plenty of sex, drugs and droney psychedelic rock. And lots of good stuff about cinema itself. As it has nods to both beat poetry and the movies of Doug McClure, I ended up with the feeling the intended audience for this film is me at the age of 19. But I liked it plenty now, anyway. Full review here…


3. The Act Of Killing

This was the most gobsmackingly strange thing to appear in cinemas this year, while being oddly similar to a major trend in popular culture. Because, like, say, Geordie Shore and Made In Chelsea, this features grotesque real people who are prepared to say and do extraordinary things when the cameras are running. But unlike TV’s permatanned northerners or dim sloanes, some of the men featured in this film may possibly have killed 1,000 people each, and certainly took part in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, the slaughter of a million (maybe more) alleged communists in Indonesia following a (Western-backed) coup in 1965. Documentary maker Joshua Oppenheimer persuaded some of these men (and younger members of a powerful paramilitary group) to film re-enactments of the torture and killing in the styles of their favourite movies – war films, gangster movies, horror, westerns and musicals. The result is an unsettling mix of laughs at terrible acting and kitsch scenarios and moments that are terrifying and sickening. You have to keep reminding yourself that the central figure, a charming old guy called Anwar (who looks curiously like Nelson Mandela), really did garrote dozens, maybe hundreds, of people. I sometimes wondered about the balance between humour and seriousness, and also about the lack of context. Still, it’s an extraordinary, if massively, depressing film.


4. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Set in the early 1970s, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints could have easily been filmed back then, too – both in its look and its unheroic main male character (US indie’s favourite weed, Kevin Rowland-lookalike Casey Affleck). It’s slow, moody, understated and beautiful, and Rooney Mara is very good. Full review here…


5. A Field In England

Of the films that made up 2013’s (very welcome) mini black & white revival, A Field In England was the most beautiful, a surprise from director Ben Wheatley, whose previous films were determinedly ugly. This trippy meander on the margins of the English Civil War is a weird mood piece rather than a fully developed story, but it stayed in my head for days… Full review here… 


6. All Is Lost

A quote on the poster describes Robert Redford’s performance in this film as a ‘tour de force’. I think that’s exactly wrong – what makes blonde Bob such brilliant casting for this film about an elderly sailor running into trouble alone in the Indian Ocean is his lack of intensity as an actor. So many stars would have tried to do more, to show more emotion. Redford plays a guy who – unlike 98% of movie characters ever – keeps doing the sensible thing, and when there’s nothing useful to do, sleeps. There’s almost no backstory, no staring at family snapshots, no cursing god and no bits where he talks to himself to fill us in on what’s going on (unlike the film at number 8!). The message is counter-Hollywood – even when you do everything right, even when you are incredibly well-prepared, you may well be screwed, and no inspired bit of improvising is going to get you out…


7. No

Glib ad man uses his all-singing, all-dancing bag of tricks to take on Margaret Thatcher’s favourite mass murdering buddy. Combining a gripping (true-ish) political drama, comedy and, less pleasingly, a dose of I Heart 88, this Chilean film could be called the Latin American Argo. Full review here… 


8. Gravity

The film I’ve struggled most with slotting into the right place on this list. On the one hand, I have little time for 3D and have always been suspicious of films where people come out raving about the special effects – but Gravity is a technical marvel, compensation of sorts for the last five years of annoying scenes where stuff happens solely to justify what you’ve been charged for the rubbish shades. It’s also gripping for its 91 minutes – there might not be a better film this year while you’re actually watching it.

But, well, that was kind of it for me. Some highbrow critics, like J Hoberman, love it – it’s pure cinema, it brings you back to the term ‘moving pictures’. But I feel that as a ‘Can you hear me, Major Tom?’ movie about the loneliness of space, it’s got nothing like the emotional sock of 1972s Silent Running or its satirical sibling Dark Star. And as a ‘How the hell are we going to get out of this alive?’ film, it’s not Touching The Void or indeed All Is Lost. I liked it, but I really hope it isn’t the future of movies.


9. Lore

This is not a film well served by a two-line plot summary, so instead I’ll say it’s about a teenage girl who has all the standard sources of confusion you’d expect – and then a hurricane of others most of us never had to deal with. And director Cate Shortland has come up with the visual language to match how impossibly intense everything is for Lore. Full review here… 


10. La Grande Bellezza

Huge parties on the roof, flamingos, a 100-year-old nun, a giraffe, a bizarre high-turnover Botox clinic, weird performance art and Rome in its crumbling beauty… No film I saw this year had so many brilliant images. I’m still not sure that there was a coherent point to this tale of decadent Italian high life, other than a whopping great tribute to legendary director Federico Fellini, but I’m glad saw it. Full review here… 


11. McCullin

Photographer Don McCullin used his talent to escape from the grimness of late 1950s Finsbury Park – and then found his way to the most fucked-up places of the late 20th century. This documentary pays full credit to McCullin’s courage and skill, as well as the personal cost of doing a job like that and the lingering sense that it might all be futile. It also works as a refresher course in the horrors of the last 50 years, some endlessly mythologised (the Vietnam War), others half-forgotten (Biafra).



12/13. The Place Beyond The Pines/Spring Breakers

Ryan Gosling is providing some sort of service to young women whose hormones insist on drawing them to boyish-looking men but whose taste demands the opposite of a One Direction video. He’s become the soft-voiced pin-up for artistically justified ultra-violence. The final part of The Place Beyond The Pines delivers its message with a clang so unsubtle it threatens to undermine the rest of what is an involving, occasionally surprising crime drama, in which Bradley Cooper is actually OK. A mention, too, for Gosling’s other film, Only God Forgives, which story-wise is cobblers, but it’s astonishing beautiful, breath-takingly bloody cobblers.

More Disney alumni (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens) – and more cobblers, many argued – in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. I liked it – I think it’s art posing as exploitation. Full review here… 


14. Drinking Buddies

Demands its place on the list because: a) it’s about a craft brewery, which makes it the most 2013 film of 2013, and b) it’s an another reminder than you should never, ever volunteer to help someone move house (in the words of How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, ‘Asking someone to come see your play is like asking for a ride to the airport, or to crash on someone’s couch or to help you move. Call a cab, book a room, hire some movers and, repeat after me, friends don’t let friends come see their crappy play!’)*. Full review here…

Plus, the best old films I saw on the big screen


Easy Living (1937)

The best thing I saw in the BFI’s wonderful screwball comedy season – a delirious 88 minutes of inspired chaos about a poor girl getting an accidental taste of the high life, written by Preston Sturges, one of my favourite filmmakers ever, and with some inspired set design. Along with We Are The Best!, my joint favourite thing I saw in a cinema this year.


My Man Godfrey (1936)

Another treat from the screwball season, another film playing with the gulf between rich and poor at a time when the Great Depression seemed to have embedded itself for good. This one starts with an awesomely tasteless upper-class game, and rolls on from there, with a pretty unbeatable cast (William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette).


The Chase (1946)

Deliriously nuts noir full of strange goings-on in Miami and Havana, and a top turn from Peter Lorre. Full review here… 


What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2005)

By capturing something that was about to disappear – the pre-Olympic Lea Valley –Saint Etienne’s semi-documentary was almost bound to gain a poignancy and power a few years on. But that’s not to detract from the skill and style this film has. Full review here… 


The Naked Kiss (1964)

Weirdly relevant to Britain in 2013 for reasons I won’t go into, this Samuel Fuller movie starts like a full-bore shocker and then slows down, but stays weird. Full review here…

*With due apologies to people whose not-at-all crappy plays I have come to see, and indeed, enjoyed. And also to people who have given me rides to the airport. Ahem.



The Look Of Love

Director Michael Winterbottom Stars Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Anna Friel, Chris Addison UK/USA 2013 Language English 1hr 41mins Colour and black & white

Billionaire filth merchant lovingly recalled

You know the old George Best joke: football reporter comes into the player’s room at the Ritz. The room is strewn with the latest fashionable togs, empty bottles of Bolly, and bank notes in assorted currencies. George is in bed, with a naked Miss World draped over him. ‘George!’ comes the anguished cry of the man from Fleet Street, ‘Where did it all go wrong?’

So here’s Paul Raymond, the richest man in Britain, having put the profits of sin into the yet more lucrative property, and one with limitless access to sexually willing, attractive young women. And yet, like the dark irony the grim final decades of Best’s life added to that joke, it’s still all going to end badly.

As well as being something of an old-fashioned morality tale (although not told in the style of one) Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan’s fourth collaboration is a look at a man who symbolised Britain’s rapid passage from a country where naked women weren’t allowed to move on stage to one in which Winterbottom himself made a (dismally dull) film with unfaked sex for mainstream cinema release (9 Songs), and respectable young women take pole-dancing classes.

After a prologue, we join Raymond (Coogan) in the ’50s (filmed in lovely crisp black and white), already in the business of naked female flesh, and fast becoming, with wife Jean (Anna Friel), a favourite of the more populist newspapers. Soon we are into the ’60s and colour, as Raymond, the King of Soho, benefits from the loosening of the censorship laws.

This was Steve Coogan’s project – he took the idea to Winterbottom. But he’s the weak link here – his Raymond is a slightly blanker variation on standard indie Coogan, not helped by familiar lines like ‘Oscar Wilde said that’ and, yes, an impersonation of Connery as Bond (I’m sure he regards this as a true measure of acting – that Coogan-as-Raymond-as-Connery-as-Bond is clumsier, to a precise degree, than Coogan-as-Connery-as-Bond. But all you actually think is, oh, another Coogan impersonation).

Fortunately, the film is anchored by two compelling but very differently pitched performances – Tasmin Egerton is light and charming as the aspiring model/actress who becomes, several name changes on, Fiona Richmond*, a massive star in Britain’s smutty ’70s**. Imogen Poots is much rawer as Debby, the daughter who became pretty the sole recipient of Paul Raymond’s love and hopes, something that created an unbearable burden for her.

I also liked Chris Addison as Raymond’s publishing guru, Tony Power. This isn’t really a comedy (although it has funny moments, and doesn’t treat all its characters terribly seriously), but as was 24 Hour Party People, it’s packed with familiar sketch show and sitcom faces, mostly appearing fleetingly, apart from (alas) David Walliams as the Soho vicar.

Casting aside, it’s a conventional modern biopic, with none of the formal playfulness of 24HPP. There is, appropriately, an awful lot of nudity as Raymond stage shows and magazine photoshoots are loving recreated, with the effect that, like the Soho regulars in the film, you hardly notice it after a while. Like most Winterbottom films, this is a good-looking piece of cinema – there can be a false opposition between directors who care about visuals and those collaborate with their casts, but Winterbottom exists happily in both camps.

I think this is the least effective of the Coogan/Winterbottom projects, but then I really enjoyed A Cock And Bull Story and loved 24 Hour Party People and The Trip. It’s still sharp and entertaining and – thanks mainly to Poots – even moving.

*Richmond has said she doesn’t like the film – but likes Egerton’s performance. It’s not hard to see why.

**During the time of playboy manager Malcolm Allison, Richmond paid a visit to a Crystal Palace training session, and shared a bath afterwards with the team. This, sadly, is not recreated in the film.




Director Pablo Larraín Stars Gael García Bernal, Antonia Zegers, Alfredo Castro Chile/USA/France/Mexico 2012 Language Spanish (English subtitles) 1hr 58mins Colour

Skateboarding yuppie ad guy vs grim old bastard dictator

Here’s a quick (inevitably politically biased) background to the events of this film: in 1973, the democratically elected but struggling far-left government in Chile was overthrown in brutal CIA-backed coup. What was put in its place was an experiment: a military regime headed by an old-fashioned strongman, Augusto Pinochet, under which academics from the US were allowed to treat the country as a lab for increasingly fashionable economic experiments. These were felt by their sponsors (and others) to be as a success, as although it had a terrorised population, extreme inequality and high levels of poverty, some of Chile’s economy and parts of its public services definitely worked better than those in other Latin American countries at the time. Despite this, by the late ’80s the Americans were a bit embarrassed by Pinochet’s lack of legitimacy, and warned him not to fix a scheduled referendum about whether he should carry on as president.

And that’s where this film starts, with slick, hip young ad exec Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) being asked to help out with the No campaign’s nightly 15-minute broadcast during the lead-up to the vote, the only opposition presence on TV. When shown their current work, a stark film with the numbers of killed, disappeared etc over footage of protesters getting beaten by the army, he asks, ‘But what are you trying to sell me?’

That’s the crux of the film – Rene trying to convince the No campaign they have to sell democracy just like you sell cola. For people who have had family and friends tortured and killed, and have finally been given a voice after 15 years, Rene’s suggestion of airbrushed positivity seems sickening. And these are the moderates - much of the opposition, represented here by Rene’s ex (Antonia Zegers), was boycotting what they felt was a fixed publicity exercise designed to make the dictatorship look good abroad.

What’s crucial here for the success of the film is that we empathise with the people who think that Rene is a smarmy, lightweight twat, otherwise the whole thing could tip over. I think director Pablo Larraín manages it. But also, we see Rene is a man who really does believe in democracy, does want rid of the old bastard, and is (reluctantly) willing to risk everything for it.

Even so, there are plenty of laughs (maybe a couple too many of a ‘ha-ha look what people thought was cool 25 years ago’ variety) , without minimising the severity of the situation. In a lot of ways, the film that this reminds most of is Argo.

Larraín makes a couple of big, connected, decisions, and I think they pay off. One is give over large chunks of the film to the (real) referendum broadcasts themselves, the punch and counterpunch between the government’s propaganda machine and the much more agile No campaign. The second is to shoot the rest of the film as if it was also low-quality TV from the ’80s, so there’s no jarring jump in quality or look. It’s distracting at first, but makes sense as the movie goes on.

An old Chile hand assures me that García Bernal does well with the seriously weird local accent, and he does a good job making Rene a convincingly complex character - a dedicated single dad who is also a big kid himself, a glib bullshit merchant who is also a man of courage and conviction, in his way.

It’s a sharp, funny film that makes a case for an approach to politics that, certainly here, gets blamed for a lot of things. As Larraín admits, it’s in no way the whole story, or even most of the story, of what happened in Chile in 1988 – it’s about an interesting slice of that. But sometimes, yes, results are worth a lot more than righteousness. 




Director Alexander Payne Stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk USA 2013 Language English 1hr 55 mins Black & white

World-weary father and son road trip

Alexander Payne doesn’t appear to be a man in a hurry – he’s made six feature films since 1996, and those films don’t usually race along. His characters often seem to be struggling with depression and midlife crises, but that doesn’t stop the films from sometimes being very funny. I loved Election and Sideways, thought Citizen Ruth was OK, didn’t like About Schmidt and never got around to seeing The Descendants, partly because I was put off by a godawful trailer (I know, I know).

With Nebraska, his aim seems to be to make something like his previous films, only more so. While The Descendants took him off to colourful Hawaii, as its title announces, Nebraska brings him back (eventually) to his own state. The two central characters are a man in his seventies whose memory is going, and his middle-aged son whose life is not so much going nowhere as going backwards. It’s a film populated by taciturn, often real-looking Midwesterners. It’s filmed in grainy black and white, and visits flat landscapes and towns that might be suffering from the current economic trough, but equally might have been struggling since the Great Depression. Glamorous it ain’t.

A lot of the fuss about this film is to do with the performance of Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a cantankerous old drinker convinced he has won a million dollars in a prize draw. Dern was one of the big stars of the New Hollywood of the early 1970s, but hasn’t had much good work in a long time. And he is terrific here as the sometimes befuddled, frequently silent and occasionally sharp Woody. Will Forte plays David, the son who reluctantly agrees to drive Woody the 700 or so miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to try to claim his prize. Along the way, David decides it would be a good idea to stop by their former hometown and see the extended family. And that’s how Nebraska slides from being a road movie into one about small-town life. The Montana Grants might have their problems, but they turn out to be a dynamic and ambitious bunch compared with the ones who stayed in Nebraska. The film’s funniest characters are David’s two terrible cousins, Bart and Cole, who are fat, lazy, dumb and unpleasant.

I was surprised about how much David learns about Woody over the course of the movie. I’m not sure why that was unexpected – maybe I instinctively think that Payne is a slightly less conventional film-maker than he is. Not that slow piecing together of a life, with all its messiness and suppressed tragedies and all the rest, is a bad way for a film to spend its time. I also thought the ending was more upbeat – in its way – than some critics have suggested. Maybe what qualifies as a cheerful conclusion by my standards is a pretty bleak one by yours.

There are lots of good performances here – June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering but far from stoic wife, Bob Odenkirk (Saul from Breaking Bad) as his more successful son, and Stacy Keach, still as sinister as ever, if a little battered, as his ex-business partner and enemy, plus the massed ranks of the largely wordless, motionless Grant men.

If I have one problem with the film, it’s the music, which seems like a horrible cliché of this kind of low-key kind of film. It’s music that says ‘gentle and that little bit quirky’. Nebraska is better than that.