The Best First Watches of 2015 Part 2
19. Heart of Glass (Dir. Werner Herzog, 1976)
Qualifying as the strangest viewing experience of the last year, from a director already know for unorthodox film making tactics and subjects, Werner Herzog had everyone but background extras and the central actor, playing the isolated and ostracised man in a community, hypnotised before going on camera, this period drama about a red ruby glass formula being lost turning into a disorientating and unnervingly odd experience, the outsider literally the sane one when everyone else acts erratically on-screen. Pretty much becoming one of the most memorable Herzog films I've seen, despite its minor status in context of his filmography, Heart of Glass really does deserver the term "one-off"
18. Birds, Orphans and Fools (Dir. Juraj Jakubisko, 1969)
The DVD company Second Run is going to appear on this list again and with the intention of catching up with all their releases since they first started in 2005 this year, this company which is only about to release their first Blu-Ray release soon has yet been loved over ten years for their championing of great, unseen cinema in the British sales. Eastern European cinema in particular has been one of their best wheelhouses especially when it comes to Czechoslovakia, but this is the first case in their catalogue where the "Slovakia" of the former country, before it split into Slovakia and the Czeck Republic after the Cold War ended, is emphasised through one of the most acclaimed Slovakian directors in existence. Czechoslovakian cinema is one of the most spectacular to have existed for me, every film I've encountered including the popular sci-fi romps magnificently inventive and cinematic, but Birds, Orphans and Fools is so dense it's impossible to try and describe it in this small review. The visually elaborate and richly told tale of two men and the beautiful young woman they meet, culminating after so much joy into tragedy, is such a delirious experience to sit through.
17. Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (Dirs. Stephen and Timothy Quay, 1995)
Speaking of a film difficult to describe, the Quay Brother's first feature film after a decade or more of short film work is just as unique as the last two entries on this list, depicting a school for butlers and throwing the viewer into a very elusive work in terms of tone, sweltering in mood rather than an elaborate plot, and pretty much bringing the aesthetic style of the Quay's to a feature length film without any failings. It was a nice coincidence to have watch this as in 2015 as Christopher Nolan, in an incredible surprise, decided to take advantage of being a box office messiah to make a short documentary on the twin animator-filmmakers, also leading to restorations for some of their shorts which would be toured around the US with the documentary. This, alongside a few other factors, has lead to soften my thoughts on Nolan for the positive, this act of his one anyone could admire him for and like him immensely, and if his decision turns out to have been success, more people who usually watch films like The Dark Knight (2008) are going to stumble onto something as atmospheric and unconventional as Institute Benjamenta.
16. Black Girl (Dir. Ousmane Sembene, 1966)
Another of the great 2015 home media releases of the year, though I'm weary of the BFI, who released it, making it a Limited Edition only. If a DVD only release is down the line, this is not an issue, but considering that in only sixty minutes or so Black Girl is such an angry, to-the-point drama about post-colonial racism and the frustration of an African woman who goes against the job she is tricked into, it needs to be a film that's kept in public availability in the future even through a budget release. Sembene is a director whose films really need to be more easily available, not only for the clear talent he had but for films of his I've actually seen like Xala (1975) to be accessible and those I haven't seen to be at hand's reach.
15. Zeder (Dir. Pupi Avati, 1983)
Probably one of the most powerful images from all the films I saw last year was that of a man in a room as a television screen starts playing, a live camera showing the close-up of a horrible being who shouldn't be alive cackling at the man's expense. Zeder is amongst the most obscure on this list especially as it hasn't even had a mere DVD release in the UK, a very original take on the zombie genre which, through a conspiracy of a resurrection technique, shouldn't be spoilt and enjoyed on the first watch blind to all that takes place. Particularly when the eighties, while fun, were starting to lead to the goofier Italian genre films and eventually take a nosedive in the nineties, the macabre almost Lovecraftian story of Zeder stands out more. Enforcing the strong year it was for discovering sadly obscurer horror films that should be more well known, Zeder's director is more well known the giallo The House With Laughing Windows (1976), which will certainly be a subject of interest for me in 2016.
14. The Tale of the Fox (Dirs. Irene Starewicz and Wladyslaw Starewicz, 1930)
Another film sadly unavailable on DVD, one of the most beautifully put together animated films of its era, an elaborate stop motion feast which is gorgeous to view especially in lieu of how painstaking it must've been to make. It also happens to be one of the most misanthropic I've ever seen and from an age long before Pixar, the titular tale of a fox whose villainy and ability to deceive every other animal in a fantasy kingdom actually makes him a heroic protagonist compared to the stupidity of everyone else, something even more alien and black hearted in context of the political correctness of today and the desire to tell everyone that they're all special. Like celebrating a character like Arsene Lupin, a gentleman chad, the fox's series of tricks and deceits before even a war is called out against his castle in the ending is so magnificently dark in a gleeful way that it appealed to my blackened heart as much for story as it did for its visually splendour.
13. The Grandmaster (Dir. War Wai Wong, 2013)
Released in 2014 in the UK, The Grandmaster is a very underrated film. Viewed in the shorter international cut, which fragments parts of its tale further, it's easy to see how it might've frustrated people. The expectations surrounding the film as it took years to be made as well, including how lead actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai broke his arm during the production, made the anticipation too high, which is more than likely why the film appeared at the cinema in the US and the UK and seemed to have disappeared with little critical praise. For me it was everything I was hoping for, less a martial arts film but a Wong Kar-Wai drama which was about martial artists. Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2006) informed me what a martial arts film from him would be like, still with exhilarating fight scenes but more concerned with the characters' emotions in a series of almost dreamlike sequences, effectively continuing with his trademarks and pushing them further and further along, not appealing to many people but still some of the most exquisite and best filmmaking possible. Far from the damp mark it may have been for others, this was what I was hoping for from Kar-Wai; having seen how much Tsui Hawk was compromised with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) into making a bland and palatable blockbuster, The Grandmaster which was Kar-Wai's first mainland Chinese and Hong Kong co-production is the complete opposite, an art film I can only hope can be released one day in the West in its original length cut.
12. The Passenger (Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)
Probably the best part of this film's legacy, as an example of a Hollywood actor working with a European auteur when Antonioni made a couple of English language films, is knowing Jack Nicolson holds this role of his and the film in general with such incredible regard, a film that even in its artistic and methodical style is still an effective character study which interlaces traces of the crime genre, about a man who poses as another, but is still the artistic masterpiece in tone and especially for aspects like the legendary and lengthy one-shot camera track at the end. A film like The Passenger shows how bold films can be and not at the expense of a magic to them, particularly as I'll agree with Nicolson and say it's one of his best roles in his entire career.
11. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Dir. Walerian Borowczyk, 1981)
Possibly one of the most exciting releases considering how Arrow, the DVD distributor behind its 2015 release in the UK and USA, broke their backs to get it in the first place and at the best quality. Thanks to the beautiful retrospective releases (and critical appraisal) of his first five films and most of his short films, all restored through public crowd funding, the rights to Walerian Borowczyk's take on the Dr. Jekyll story, for decades stuck in limbo, were finally relinquished; going through the same extensive restoration the result is the perfect way for any film to get its first DVD and Blu-Ray release in any form. That the film, which could be seen as a minor erotic horror film on the surface, actually turns out to be such a gracefully dark work that's sumptuous to look at and still transgressive in the current day is a celebration, as the worst thing could've been that the hard work was all for naught but a minor movie. Instead you have a film that has Patrick Magee, Udo Kier, Howard Vernon and the stunning Marina Pierro stuck in a Victorian period costume drama that becomes a series of taboos being broken and the original story's premise being turned upside-down at the end. Able to appreciate Bernard Parmegiani's score, Borowczyk's own production design and the cinematography by Noël Véry in full, gloriously restored detail, it's a piece of art which happens to also be about a man who kills people with a giant scimitar-like penis amongst his many other perversions, the restoration quality adding to the kind of melding of art and perversity that I sadly don't get today rather than before I was born.