The Best First Watches of 2015 Part 3
The finale. There is no need for an epilogue or a passage on what I hope will take place in 2016, as films both newly made and classics will likely appear abruptly in my view, the greater concern that I catch up with all I want to see and don't spend the year watching terrible movies all the time. Beginning this, cutting to the chase, the first of the ten best works I saw last year is...
10. 3 Women (Dir. Robert Altman, 1977)
As the blog itself can attest to, I have an immense interest in unconventional cinema which can either be based around the type of psychological drama or how the film's world is portrayed. Robert Altman's film was fittingly conjured up from a dream he had, as enticing a qualifier for me to like it than anything else but you have to factor in the result's immense quality and affect on me after seeing it being the greater reward. The performances by Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are the most vital aspect of this drama's dream logic succeeding, the both of them lulling you into its story credibly before a literal dream sequence sets off the psychological blurring that'll take place in the conclusion. It's an example as a film of an incredibly subtle dream logic rather than a blatant one, incongruous at first between its seventies decor and Duvall's various party foods, but eventually leading to a dramatic and emotional realism in the end when it appears.
9. Lawrence of Arabia (Dir. David Lean, 1962)
I am committing a possible blasphemy for some for having this film so low down on the list, with an obscure anime above it as well, but my admiration for Lawrence of Arabia is a slow burn. It was viewed the best possible for the first time - Christmas Day, on the largest screen available and with my parents - and the film is less important for whether its historically accurate but for being a true epic in running time and scale, one which stands out further for how psychologically deep it is alongside the spectacle with its titular figure. The trio of Peter O'Toole, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif create an elusive and mysterious individual in the angelic, almost feminine Lawrence, his personality as depicted through O'Toole's magnificent breakout role that of someone still struggling with what his goals are even in the middle of his decision to take Arabia back for the Arabs from the Turkish Army, each moment where he stares off into the desert having many layers to it from no dialogue at all. The fact a film like this can never be made today as well - the real hundreds of extras in combat scenes, real planes and vehicles - makes the film as justifiably a masterpiece as I've grown up with it being called.
8. Fantasia (Dirs. James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske, 1940)
Like Lawrence of Arabia, Fantasia can be seen as an epic as well for American animation at the point the film was made and release, Walt Disney taking a risk with what could seem like a saccharine, populist project but ended up being a brave experiment comparable to some of the avant-garde shorts from the same era. I openly confess that, while I grew up with Disney films as a child, I've never really had the inclination to return to all but the most significant - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) - and Alice In Wonderland (1951) as a Lewis Carol mark. I dread viewing some incredible safe and naive films which pander to the audience regardless of their artistry, but Fantasia, a film I didn't see as a child, is far from this. While known for its cute segment with Mickey Mouse that was mercilessly parodied in the Itch and Scratchy Land episode of The Simpson, the project is able to go from something as fun as hippo ballet dancers waltzing with crocodiles to starting with a literal avant-garde short of colour and shapes representing the music.
The film has the boldness to use Igor Stravinsky's The Rites of Spring over a short showing the creation of the world since the Big Bang which, while it does have the cute baby dinosaurs, is pretty radical as a take on the theme, the only regret being that after he originally liked it Stravinsky would later disown the interpretation. Watching the film did feel like a major cinematic event, another example of a film where the spectacle is also matched by untouchable quality and hard work from every animator and musician involved. Only the regret that, as well documented, Fantasia has been censored since the sixties for a racial stereotype in the Pastoral Symphony blots the film's exceptional qualities.
7. The Addiction / The Blackout / New Rose Hotel (Dir. Abel Ferrara, 1995/97/98)
If this had been The Blackout and New Rose Hotel only, this entry might've been completely different. Both are great films, let that not be dismissed, The Blackout a scuzzy tale and New Rose Hotel a character piece which does justify its repetition of earlier scenes for important effect, but it was The Addiction that marked 2015 as the year I finally "got" Abel Ferrara. Bad Lieutenant (1992), which I had seen years before and so doesn't qualify it for the list, was an incredible eye-opener revisiting it with The Addiction adding fire to the coals of interest in him. All of his films, revisiting them, have a heightened tone that could easily become absurd, or tasteless as The Addiction in its vast collage also includes historical genocide alongside philosophy and vampirism, an earnestness alongside the darkness that has finally won me over. His memorable characters - Christopher Walken explaining to Asia Argento how to seduce a man, Lili Taylor as a female mirror of Ferrara himself struggling through a blood addiction, Matthew Modine being pushed along by Dennis Hooper's Faustian film director into a night of degradation - populate a distinct world that is entirely Ferrara's own, all three films with Bad Lieutenant making an exceptional marathon for any viewer to see.
6. Eyes Without A Face (Dir. Georges Franju, 1960)
Long awaited just because of the extensive delays the BFI dual-format DVD/Blu-Ray had from October 2014 to Summer 2015, seeing one of the most highly acclaimed and controversial horror films of its day was absolutely worth it. It cemented that Georges Franju is becoming one of my favourite directors, having created a beautiful and haunting work, one that possesses scenes that are still uncomfortably gory to sit through when it gets to the operation sequence.
5. The Garden of Sinners (2007-2011/Anime Franchise)
The black sheep of this Top Ten but a personal choice. It's a series of chapters of one narrative, all released theatrically first, that could be seen as pretentious, way too violence and, with each episode from forty minutes to a whole theatrical length, very complicated to sit through. It neither helps that, unlike the limited edition but affordable and beautifully put together UK DVD boxset, the original Japanese rights owner Aniplex sold this in the USA in a limited edition set that'd cost over $200-$300 at least, than last year made it possible to import the Japanese Blu-Ray set for $300 plus. The only real flaw with The Garden of Sinners for me personally, which has become its charm, is that its ambition does mean it chews on a lot of vague and lofty dialogue, maybe translation in the subtitles being an issue, which makes its lengthy plot which mixes chronologically more difficult at points on the first viewing.
Beyond this however, I fall in love with its darkened mood and willingness to take risks even compared to other anime, its unique release origins and episode structure an immediate virtue. It's violence, including sexual, is never exploitative but is one of the cases, when I've seen other recent anime that has been dubious and flippant on such content, where the explicitness when do right adds to the severity of it. It's lofty and honestly pretentious tone doesn't detract from how interesting its world and characters are, dark fantasy in a real city setting, and consider its central female character is an emotionless killing machine, how fleshed out her and the male protagonist's relationship is becomes the most important dramatic content.
The characterisation and the clever skewering of chronology in the first chapters really stands out as well, as does the bravery of 1) the brutality even in a medium like anime which can be extremely gory, 2) the willingness, not to spoil the serial, to have the main villain effectively be concluded with halfway through but make the central protagonists' drama the real concern with another antagonist, and 3) have the straight to video epilogue, released a few years later, consist of only two characters talking on a snowy road incline in an existential way, probably too earnest and odd but such a refreshingly esoteric way to add a cherry to the cake. Originality with how to present the material let alone the premise is something I admire greatly, and The Garden of Sinners is an example of an anime where its flaws cannot undermine its great ideas. Originally theatrical features, this is as good as you can get for animation and style, and whilst I find a lot of J-pop in anime in vast contrast to other fans embarrassingly bad, the music by Kalafina is legitimately great, atmospheric pop songs. Originally based on a light novel series, The Garden of Sinners is another example where a high quality production and a willingness to put one's neck on the line for inspiration creates something admirable.
4. The Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse Trilogy
The last big series of films I saw in 2015 was Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse films. Whilst there were three films after in the sixties and Claude Chabrol's 1990 tribute Dr. M, the Lang trilogy are unique in how they are three very different entries in terms of style and presentation, all of them however exhibiting the talents of their director.
Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922) is a two part epic, watched over two nights, of the silent era with a pulp novel tone and a willingness to use the dreamlike tone and visual effects of the pre-sound era for added greatness. The second, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), a sound film at the precipice of the Nazi rule of Germany and Lang fleeing to the US, sinister and fully embracing the phantastical with one of the most freakish scenes I've seen in cinema for a long time. The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), sadly Lang's last film as poor eyesight and the inability to get a film made until his death in 1976 prevented him from continuing, is the least known and feels like a mid-sixties film, predicting what Euro genre cinema would be like even without the gore or sex, including cult actor Howard Vernon in a nice thug role, as strong as the other films before it. Together the trio do offer up a potent snapshot of the various fears of their time periods percectly whilst not betraying their entertainment value, popcorn flicks as they should be with the ability to provoke strong emotions.
3. Scenes From A Marriage [Theatrical Version] (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1973)
Sadly the original television version of Scenes From A Marriage was never released on DVD in the UK. In general the state of Ingmar Bergman films in terms of availability in Britain, most of which the now defunct Tartan Video had the rights to, is embarrassing including key canonical entries in his filmography, so to be able to see them or have enough money to import Criterion releases from the US will be something I won't take for granted. Even in its truncated version however Scenes From A Marriage is an incredible drama, another example of acting at its best through Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson's central performances. A huge factor about Bergman's films as well when they are very acting heavy, when other acting heavy films can feel fleeting and undermine great performances, is because the drama in each scene is taken as far as possible, in its theatrical version only a small selection of incidents as a marriage falls apart which are allowed to build and go through valleys and peaks of emotions even in the same scene, incredibly powerful moments which were all felt for me.
2. The Ballad of Narayama /The Insect Woman (Dir. Shohei Imamura, 1983/63)
I can thank the Shohei Immamura box set released by Eureka! for allowing me to catch up with films they had released over the last decade or so of one of my favourite directors; sadly it's another limited edition, but even if there will not be another Imamura release on physical media for the next few years the box compensated for it greatly. Since I had seen most of the films within it, these two films became a significant gap in my knowledge of Imamura, his early success documenting the life of a woman from her birth to older age and the drama in-between, and his first Cannes film festival success which follows an ancient community where the elderly are taken to the mountains to perish when they reach a certain age. They are films, despite the changes in look that took place in Japanese cinema over two decades aesthetically, from the stark Nikkatsu monochrome to eighties sheen, which have the same lived in quality, a type of drama that doesn't feel contrived because of Imamura's entomologist like attitude to outcasts, lowlifes and the common people. His cynical view about any organisation or philosophy meant to influence the populous - the military, the US military, capitalism, lords and politicians - is matched with an acceptance of the outsiders even when they are uncompromising or cold blooded in their attempts to survive, seeing them as the real face of humanity he has sympathy with. Completely frank in his depictions, the result feels like what drama should be, a literal sociological study of lives which doesn't shy away, even in the context of a sixties film, in talking about subjects like sexuality or poverty, nor above having moments of humour or the narrative monologues of The Insect Woman does.
1. Fruit of Paradise (Dir. Vera Chytilová, 1969)
However, even against Imamura and everything else on this list, Fruit of Paradise was the real surprise of the whole year. Long unavailable, its awe-inspiring opening reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve tale by way of living, textured images is just the beginning of an alien, curious and ultimately rewarding film. From the director of Daisies (1966) I'm not surprised how good it was but the sole viewing has been stuck in my mind since then, completely disregarding narrative conventions and, like the sequence when the female protagonist lavishly touches the collection of leaves and shells in a set of drawers, as much about the sensations and sensations of the film's construction as well as its tale. That it's also a tale about a man who may be killing women, set at a strange health spar in the wilderness, adds to its virtues, and as one of hopefully a few Chytilová films that have or will be made available in the UK on physical media thanks to the hard work of Second Run, I sincerely believe she will become a favourite director of mine. With Fruit of Paradise and Daisies by themselves she probably has already.