Sunday 31 December 2023

My Top 20 Films of 2023

Spirited away: "The Boy and the Heron"

That this has been a largely recuperative - even restorative - year at the movies is borne out by the manner in which so many of 2023's key titles have seemed to tessellate, expanding our understanding of the world in so doing; after the enforced isolations of lockdown, cinema's connective tissue is at last growing back. Like Godzilla Minus One - this Christmas's other multiplex beast from the East - Hayao Miyazaki's comeback animation The Boy and the Heron invites reading as a sequel to Oppenheimer, specifically in its efforts to suggest the punchdrunk Japanese mindset after the assaults of World War II. (Taken collectively - more tessellation - the Japanese films constitute a forceful rebuke to those angered by Christopher Nolan's unwillingness to dramatise the Japanese perspective: turns out there were far better placed observers and filmmakers to do this.) In its early stretches, Miyazaki's film prioritises historical realism, the endgame of 2013's The Wind Rises, over the fantasy for which Studio Ghibli is best known and loved. Before the title has appeared onscreen, the eponymous lad learns his mother has died in an Allied firestorm; before he can process any grief, he's whisked off to a countryside retreat by his businessman father and introduced to a docile stepmother. Thereafter, the film takes a turn for what we might call the Narnian: an enchanted bird keeps circling the boy's new home, pointing him towards an abandoned building, stirring up the fish in nearby bodies of water (not unlike the new Godzilla), and eventually - after the lad has incurred a nasty, self-induced concussion - exhibiting a rasping voice that will be all the more alarming in the dubbed version for being credited to Robert Pattinson. Consider it the call of the wild: that species of mystery and adventure - by land, sea and air - which might prevent a kid who blames himself for his mother's death from further beating himself up. It is also, apparently, that which tempts a master craftsman back to the drawing board to ponder the fragile structures of the universe, and the big-to-staggering, possibly unanswerable questions these provoke: how we're born, why people die, and what we do with our lives (and what we do to cope) in the meantime.

This is as much philosophical treatise as entertainment, in other words, and the first tip of the hat would be the pacing, utterly removed as it is from the frenetic, pixel-scattering storybeats of most Western animation. Miyazaki gives himself time to set out this turbulent, changeable, increasingly unfamiliar world, and allows us time to explore it, which feels like a genuine gift. (Joe Hisaishi's slow, steady, affecting piano score is markedly preferable to, say, Alessia Cara covering The Tweets.) The enchanted buildings and lush greenery are very much Ghibli stock-in-trade, but no less pleasing for that; more striking is the constellation of supporting characters Miyazaki establishes as the film's own eco-system. An amorphous mass of elderly maids and misters bob around at the boy's new abode, tidying up mess and tears; a colony of gelatinous white blobs, recalling shelled eggs or mochi or the videogame character Kirby, may be as close as Miyazaki ever gets to animating his own Minions. (They're intended to represent inchoate human souls, which tells you just how far removed The Boy and the Heron is from a film like Minions.) The heron, for his part, is permitted to be unsettling, even terrifying, in a way that really would seem foreign to the cheerful worker bees at Pixar, Illumination or Aardman; initially revealing unnervingly testicular gums, and thereafter shapeshifting entirely, he seems less a spirit animal or emotional support pet than a monster luring an innocent into the underworld.

Brace yourself, in short. From the early, Cocteauesque touch of a rose that drops to the floor only to shatter into pieces, through Lynchian sparks and red curtains, to a de Chirico-like piazza on which the characters gather, this is easily the dreamiest of Miyazaki's late animations, yet its strength lies in how that dreaminess co-exists with the protagonist's trauma. (Death is an ever-present here, part of both the natural and unnatural order of things.) It is also - and this becomes glaringly apparent the deeper we go into the film's second hour - the kind of fugue an artist only gets to put on screen when they have the near-divine, next-to-untouchable reputation Miyazaki enjoys in his particular sector. Evidently no notes were offered, not even during the production of The Boy and the Heron's final third, when it becomes clear the filmmaker has no interest whatsoever in explaining the rules of this universe, or what its images might actually signify. (One of several flights of fantasy that departed without me: the cannibal parakeets decked out in the colours of Saturday morning kids' TV presenters. Who, really, needs edibles?) You may feel, as many have felt, that there was no need for notes, given the undeniable ebullience of many of these images, and the broadly comprehensible thrust of its narrative throughline: troubled souls renegotiating their own tragedies while battle rages on elsewhere. This viewer's inclination was to declare The Boy and the Heron second-rank Miyazaki, but that still ranks it higher than most others, of course - and there may not be a timelier film with which to close out 2023.

The Boy and the Heron is now playing in selected cinemas.

Lost in London: "Dunki"

In Hindi film circles, there's little doubt 2023 was the year of a resurgent Shah Rukh Khan. January's slambang actioner Pathaan steamrolled any objections one might have had to the finer points of its plotting; late summer's slapdash Jawan was both a star vehicle and a film that really needed Khan's assured presence to hold its flimsier material together. From afar, Khan's Christmas release Dunki looked the most promising project of all: it's Khan paired with Rajkumar Hirani, long-time king of Bollywood comedy (Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 3 Idiots, P.K.). The surprise, then, is that the finished feature should have generated such lukewarm critical responses. It has emotive, ever-timely subject matter: the psychic bond between India and the UK, the struggles of ordinary folks to get here from there (and get back there after the work/money/wanderlust/patience runs out), the indignities of the visa system, the cruelties of borders. And the first half, at least, bears out Hirani's gift for alighting upon funny scenes, situations and characters - and the actors to do each of these justice. It's Taapsee Pannu escaping hospital and schlepping across central London in a gown and self-supported saline drip so as to give her sleepy immigration lawyer both barrels. It's Shah Rukh observing the national anthem even as some scoundrel nicks off with his shopping. (A scene to delight audiences across India: patriotic and mischievous.) It's an English-language tutor (Boman Irani) who begins class with a rousing, rhyming "Birmingham, here I come" - a line that, let me tell you, hits differently in a cinema packed with actual Brummies. So what's the problem?

It is, I think, one of story structure. Dunki has been pitched as a potentially stirring folks-on-a-mission movie, but it introduces its main characters in present-day London before flashing back to spend well over two hours in the Punjab of 1995, detailing how everybody got where they did. We already know they made it, which renders their scene-by-scene struggles somewhat moot. Hirani seems to have realised as much in coming up with a potent minor role for Vicky Kaushal as an aspirant traveller who slips into despair after his visa application is rejected - and it needs an actor as capable as Kaushal to sell you on such blatant authorial sleight-of-hand. Perhaps we're meant just to enjoy spending time in these characters' company: we do, but is the enjoyment enough to compensate for the almost complete lack of narrative tension? At the end of a year of turbocharged Shah Rukh vehicles - turbocharged to the point of incoherence, in Jawan's case - Dunki presents as soft and slumpy, like a beanbag, or one of the foam mattresses the characters are smuggled inside at one point. (One of its failings: an altogether too cosy vision of human trafficking.) It's actually not the worst form for a holiday release, and in the stronger passages, you find yourself nestling into the film, hoping that everybody on screen gets what they want - that hearts will be healed, and destinations reached. But, in the main, there's no real danger or risk invoked to seriously threaten those outcomes, and the stakes throughout remain shruggingly low. These characters have just been sent out for an unusually long walk, that's all.

Certain elements help to pass the time: pleasant Pritam songs, Paanu underlining her status as a real moviestar, vastly more forceful than anything else around her. (While her character stands upright and fierce, there is life in the movie.) Yet Khan - cast here as an ex-Army fixer, selflessly shepherding his charges towards safety - has played more arresting roles this calendar year; his extended cameo in Tiger 3 yielded more that was memorable. During one big courtroom speech, you sense Hirani leaning on the actor's rhetorical strengths to shore up his increasingly flimsy-looking dramatic thread, and it's just so much less thrilling to witness Khan refuse to talk down the motherland than it was to see him rally Jawan's audience into voting for better politicians. There's also one notable, irksome shortfall of craft: given the very big deal the first half makes of reaching British shores, the UK these characters eventually arrive at doesn't look very much like the UK at all. Its Houses of Parliament have been green-screened in; its Westminster Bridge looks suspect; and the less said about the audibly American vicar, the better. A hazy air of imprecision hovers over the project entire; having paired the most popular star with the most successful director, nobody on the production side seems to have given much thought to nailing down the details. Narratively, it doesn't much matter: having reached London, the film then has to pack everybody back to India in time for tea. We finish a long way from that wave of Nineties and Noughties Hindi blockbusters that wrestled sincerely - and in ways that were dramatically involving - with the diaspora experience. A filmmaker as well-versed in the language of the middlebrow heartwarmer as Hirani would doubtless claim it's not the destination that matters, rather the journey. Yet Dunki is the kind of journey you'd only make if you had nothing more pressing to do, a meander that's simply far more urgent and meaningful for its characters than it ever seems to be for us.

Dunki is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 23 December 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of December 15-17, 2023):

1 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (new) Godzilla Minus One (12A) ****
3 (3) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12A)
4 (2) Wish (U)
5 (4Napoleon (15) **
6 (5) Saltburn (15)
7 (6) Animal (18)
8 (new) The Nutcracker - Royal Opera House London 2023 (uncertificated)
9 (8) Elf (PG) **
10 (9) Home Alone (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
5. The Red Shoes

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Oppenheimer (15) ****
2 (3) Love Actually (15) ***
3 (5) The Equalizer 3 (15)
4 (4) Elf (PG) **
5 (re) Expend4bles (15)
7 (new) Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie (U)
8 (7) The Polar Express (U)
9 (6) Violent Night (15)
10 (re) The Great Escaper (12) ***

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Casablanca (Saturday, BBC2, 2.55pm)
2. The Wizard of Oz (Christmas Day, Channel 5, 3.10pm)
3. Die Hard (Saturday, Channel 4, 9pm)
4. Gone with the Wind (Wednesday, Channel 5, 8.45am)
5. It's a Wonderful Life [above] (Saturday, Channel 4, 4.30pm)

Friday 22 December 2023

Splashback: "Godzilla Minus One"

The stealth blockbuster success of 2023 - completely off-radar, at least out West, at the start of the year - is an exceptionally shrewd Japanese example of IP recycling, made to mark 70 years since Ishirō
 Honda's deathless creation Godzilla stomped his first metropolis. Godzilla Minus One is, as that title indicates, a prequel that unfolds amid the rubble of post-War Japan - in some respects, this is an Oppenheimer sequel - and tells a story about consequence and moral responsibility; I reckon it would work as drama even without a large mutant sea lizard galumphing into shot every half-hour. Its human focal point, Kamiki Ryunosuke's Shikishima, is an erstwhile kamikaze pilot carrying round a grave sense of personal shame, having failed either to die in the service of his country or to save the latter from defeat; returning to what's left of Tokyo, he's deemed a disgrace by his neighbours. The first hour, which resembles Ozu redirected by one of the neo-realists, finds our hero trying to scrape together a living among his fellow down-and-outs and shruggingly entering into a relationship to raise an infant who might as well have been plucked from a skip. But then Shikishima lands a Government-sponsored job dredging the ocean for the unexploded mines left behind at the war's end, effectively monetising his burden of responsibility. From this moment on, Godzilla Minus One enters into lively and rewarding conversation with both those apocryphal stories of Japanese soldiers who continued to patrol a lonely trench long after the Armistice was signed, and latter-day reports of Japanese football supporters who habitually pick the litter from the terraces before leaving the stadium. It's an event movie that gestures towards collective trauma and national character alike.

That's just one of the ways by which the film differentiates itself from the recent blockbuster pack. Where the Marvel and DC universes have gone heavy on unmourned collateral damage that spilled over into the careless plotting of recent offshoots, G-1 is a colossal spectacle premised on simple acts of tidying up; its presiding spirit isn't Michael Bay but Marie Kondo. Writer-director Takashi Yamazaki is just so - actually, meticulous - in his plotting, right down to a final fightback that hinges on the presence and participation of a character introduced in passing in reel one. (Waste not, want not.) This Godzilla, then, presents as a further, notable obstacle: a messy bitch, whether turning up mangled tugboats and irradiated sealife in its wake, or stirring up renewed unrest between rival geopolitical factions. Overviews of Shikishima's isolated trawler, and the ominous heaves on the soundtrack, would also suggest Yamazaki sees the creature as a Japanese Jaws - not a bad model for a film that wants to take us back to blockbuster basics. Digital effects skilfully reproduce the look and texture of 1950s model and 1970s composite shots; the plan to defeat the monster wouldn't seem out of place in a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. (One takehome: in times of crisis, follow the science and hope for the best.) Yet as striking as this Godzilla is, with its Kobe Fried Chicken scales and light-up spinal column, you come away remembering the film's agonised, tormented humans, who have it hard enough without the regular re-emergence of creatures from the deep. More so than any comparable American entertainment of this type - all of which have been guilty of degrees of cultural appropriation and dilution - Godzilla Minus One properly understands civic duty and sacrifice, and how powerful these can be when deployed as dramatic tools. In our post-pandemic moment, it's moving indeed to witness ordinary folks stepping up to shoulder a weight of responsibility their Government has defaulted on, and stirring to see a major motion-picture event that finally chooses and affirms life over destruction. Key line #1: "Somebody's got to do it." Key line #2: "Persistent bugger."

Godzilla Minus One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

One for all: "The Three Musketeers: Part II - Milady"

This second and notionally concluding instalment of an all-star French diptych confirms one of the strengths that became apparent in the course of April's
Part I - D'Artagnan: how committed director Martin Bourboulon and writers Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière are to Dumas's novel as a text, rather than (as per some of the hippier, glitzier adaptations) merely a moodboard for carousing, romancing and swashbuckling derring-do. The Three Musketeers: Part II - Milady leans heavily into the court conspiracy angle opened up by its predecessor, paying full and proper attention to every last scheming tunic and cassock, and setting us to wonder who among this populous supporting cast is most guilty of plotting to overthrow Louis Garrel's floppy Louis XIII. The Musketeers, at once action men and thrusting detectives, are further fleshed out en route: Vincent Cassel's craggy Athos even more lovelorn and haunted by the follies of man than he was first time around, the brotherly Aramis and Porthos (Romain Duris and Pio Marmaï) forced to work as a pair as the narrative focus shifts elsewhere, François Civil's boyish D'Artagnan remaining on the right side of noble even as a dripping wet Eva Green disrobes before him to reveal a most un-17th century bustier. It feels instinctively right that this closer should bear the name of her shapeshifting character, given that Green once again operates at a pitch of intensity roughly 150 times greater than anybody else on screen.

Implicit in the handling is a faith in the filmic properties of the text - and an insistence it doesn't require much in the way of juicing or sexing up. Purists may cavil at the new, semi-open ending, presumably leaving a door ajar for a third adventure or spin-off sidequest if box office is good. (Dumas couldn't leave these characters alone, either.) Mostly, though, this one-two has been a welcome throwback to an era when our event movies ran no longer than two hours a pop, and still managed to deliver twists, turns, thrills and spills, mistaken identities, duels and coded letters, as well as quality time in striking heritage sites (Milady gives especially strong fort) and more grizzled and memorable character actors than there are pixels to behold. Despite the relocation here from Paris to a La Rochelle fogged up by cannon fire, it's a bit beigey-brown to look at. Bourboulon's going for muddy, bloody and autumnal; there are more night shoots this time, as bestubbled and besmirched men have at it and darkness falls on la France entière. But the smoke clears every now and again for a smartly carved out interaction care of or in the vein of Dumas himself: Porthos and Aramis combining to persuade an unmarried mother-to-be that her feckless seducer perished in a heroic cause; a confrontation between Athos and Milady wherein Cassel and Green act in parallel to the terrific Vikram-Aishwarya Rai Bachchan business in this year's Tamil hit Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2 (stories know no borders); and a final murderous betrayal written out of jollier adaptations for being too tragic. Very much old-school, resolutely (or - because French - militantly) trad, a touch viande-et-patates, these films have nevertheless grasped the pleasures of good storytelling, and the place good storytelling might have in the 21st century multiplex. Next up: rival redos of The Count of Monte Cristo, one overseen by Bille August (with Sam Claflin in the lead) for TV, one directed by Delaporte and de La Patellière (and starring Pierre Niney) for the big screen.

The Three Musketeers: Part II - Milady is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday 18 December 2023

Rocky II: "Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget"

I can't remember all that much about 2000's Chicken Run, save that it was broadly entertaining, some way off Aardman's very best - the frantic inspiration of the shorts dissipated over feature length - and that the voice cast matchmade Mel Gibson with Julia Sawalha, which seems insane in retrospect. (2000 was a barmy old year.) Two decades on, and Aardman would appear to be following Pixar's recent lead, with an IP-recycling sequel that proceeds along an altogether familiar (indeed, familial) route. In 2023, not even Netflix would be profligate enough to bankroll a film with Gibson and Sawalha attached as leads (though the latter, at least, can be heard in passing during one of those early you-must-remember-this recaps), so Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget presses onwards with Thandiwe Newton and Zachary Levi as the voices of a newly hatching Ginger and Rocky. Since flying the coop, we're told, the pair have holed up with their feathered brethren on an island paradise far from the cruelties and indignities of industrialised chicken farming; Bella Ramsey voices their adventurous young offspring Molly, a Moana-like explorer keen to witness what's happening back on the mainland, even as this puts her and the rest of her brood within pecking distance of an old foe. When she inevitably gets into trouble, it's Ginger who gets what sounds like a trailer-ready mission statement for both movie and moviemakers alike: "Last time, we were breaking out of a chicken farm. This time, we're breaking in." In short: the same old plot, run through the machines in a different direction.

The bottom line with Dawn is that it's basically fine: it'll keep the kids placated for a few hours going into the second week of the holidays. Those of us who've grown up with Aardman, however, may have renewed cause to question the company's current direction of travel. The animation here - now part-stopmotion, part-computerised, the better to meet a 21st century content provider's efficiency requirements - isn't quite as distinctive as it once was; whole frames, scenes and sequences go in one eye and out the other, barely imprinting on the brain in the meantime. (Call me a purist if you like, but I miss the fingerprints in the clay.) Plot is now largely a matter of bricolage rather than genuine invention - or even more a matter of bricolage than it was when the first Chicken Run tipped its hat towards The Great Escape. There's some Mission: Impossible-like heisting to get into a facility that, behind its Teletubbyland soft play areas, conceals the deathly conveyor belts of a Toy Story 3, because it transpires the fearsome Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), avatar of cutthroat, clucker-cooking capitalism, has upgraded her operations since she and our heroes last crossed paths. A lot of this just feels like shrugging assent to industry norms, but we might mourn the decline in the standard of the dad gags that used to be central to an Aardman film's charm. Where once the company hired the country's sharpest comedy minds to take a pass or two at their scripts, Dawn - credited to the transatlantic combo of Karey Kirkpatrick, John O'Farrell and Rachel Tunnard - yields only sporadic titters and snorts; a climactic sight gag - repurposed from a notable 80s comedy - only underlines the indiscriminating consumption the whole project has been geared towards. It's too jolly and colourful to be a complete disappointment, with consolatory flickers of the Aardman of old (Cliff Richard as a chicken death rattle, a human emerging from breadcrumbs) amid the all-action finale. Yet for all the narrative huffing and puffing to position corporate streamlining as a mortal enemy, this is an Aardman film with a pronounced whiff of the factory line about it. The hope, stronger now than ever, is that Nick Park is holding down a corner office and playing with whatever plasticine he can get his hands on in post-Brexit Britain, waiting for real inspiration to strike.

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Netflix.

Sunday 17 December 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of December 8-10, 2023):

1 (new) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (3) Wish (U)
3 (2) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12A)
4 (1) Napoleon (15) **
5 (7) Saltburn (15)
6 (6) Animal (18)
7 (4) Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé (15)
8 (8) Elf (PG) **
9 (14) Home Alone (PG)
10 (new) The Peasants (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. The Red Shoes
5. Wonka

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Oppenheimer (15) ****
3 (5) Love Actually (15) ***
4 (12) Elf (PG) **
5 (3) The Equalizer 3 (15)
6 (8) Violent Night (15)
7 (14) The Polar Express (U)
8 (23) A Haunting in Venice (12)
9 (10) Nativity! (U) *
10 (9) Barbie (12) ***

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Shawshank Redemption (Tuesday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
2. Edward Scissorhands (Thursday, BBC2, 5.50pm)
3. Meet Me in St. Louis [above] (Thursday, BBC2, 1pm)
4. Do the Right Thing (Thursday, BBC2, 12.15am)
5. Bridge of Spies (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

Saturday 16 December 2023

For your consideration: my Critics' Circle votes 2023


Director of the Year
1. Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon
2. Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall
3. Mani Ratnam, Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2
4. Hlynur Pálmason, Godland
5. Aki Kaurismäki, Fallen Leaves

(Honourable mentions: Robert Machoian, The Integrity of Joseph Chambers; Albert Serra, Pacifiction; Saim Sadiq, Joyland; Todd Haynes, May December; Kitty Green, The Royal Hotel; Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer; Karan Johar, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.)

Screenwriter of the Year
1. Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall
2. Mani Ratnam, Kumaravel and Jayamohan, Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2
3. Nicole Holofcener, You Hurt My Feelings
4. Shashank Khaitan, Ishita Moitra and Sumit Roy, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani
5. Samy Burch, May December

(Honourable mentions: Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth, Killers of the Flower Moon; Mia Hansen-Løve, One Fine Morning; Kelly Fremon Craig, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer.)

Actress of the Year
1. Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One
2. Natalie Portman, May December
3. Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
4. Mia Goth, Pearl
5. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, You Hurt My Feelings

(Honourable mentions: Alina Khan, Joyland; Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2; Alia Bhatt, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani; Lea Seydoux, One Fine Morning; Margot Robbie, Barbie; Shahana Goswami, Zwigato; Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall.)

Actor of the Year
1. Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
4. Benoît Magimel, Pacifiction
5. Bradley Cooper, Maestro 

(Honourable mentions: Jamie Foxx, The Burial; Leonardo Di Caprio, Killers of the Flower Moon; Joaquin Phoenix, Beau is Afraid; Vikram, Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2.)

Supporting Actress of the Year
2. Sigourney Weaver, Master Gardener
4. Tilda Swinton, The Killer
5. Parker Posey, Beau is Afraid

(Honourable mentions: Clare Perkins, Medusa Deluxe; Julianne Moore, May December; Eva Green, The Three Musketeers Part 1: D'Artagnan.)

Supporting Actor of the Year
1. Charles Melton, May December
2. Glenn Howerton, BlackBerry
3. Ryan Gosling, Barbie
4. Hugo Weaving, The Royal Hotel
5. Messi the dog, Anatomy of a Fall

(Honourable mentions: Robert De Niro, Killers of the Flower Moon; Pascal Greggory, One Fine Morning; Robert Downey Jr, Oppenheimer; Tommy Lee Jones, The Burial; David Dastmalchian, The Boogeyman; Matt Damon, Oppenheimer; David Krumholtz, Oppenheimer; Bouli Lanners, The Night of the 12th; Hugh Grant, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves and Wonka.)

Breakthrough Performance of the Year
1. Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One
2. Alina Khan, Joyland
3. Mia McKenna-Bruce, How to Have Sex
4. Charles Melton, May December
5. Vivian Oparah, Rye Lane

(Honourable mentions: Priya Kansara, Polite Society; Abby Ryder Fortson, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; Park Ji-min, Return to Seoul; Bastien Bouillon, The Night of the 12th.)

Breakthrough British Writer/Director/Producer
1. Molly Manning Walker, writer-director, How to Have Sex
2. Raine Allen-Miller, director, Rye Lane
3. Nida Manzoor, writer-director, Polite Society
4. Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, writer-directors, Femme
5. Thomas Hardiman, writer-director, Medusa Deluxe

(Honourable mention: Charlotte Regan, writer-director, Scrapper.)

British/Irish Performer of the Year
1. Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
2. Tilda Swinton, The Eternal Daughter and The Killer
3. Mia Goth, Pearl and Infinity Pool
4. Carey Mulligan, Maestro
5. Mia McKenna-Bruce, How to Have Sex

(Honourable mentions: Vivian Oparah, Rye Lane; Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay, Femme; Priya Kansara, Polite Society; Hugh Grant, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves and Wonka; Clare Perkins, Medusa Deluxe.)

Young British/Irish Performer of the Year
1. Orén Kinlan, Flora and Son
2. Samuel Bottomley, How to Have Sex
3. Lola Campbell, Scrapper
4. Alin Uzun, Scrapper
5. Calah Lane, Wonka

Nominations for the 44th London Critics' Circle Film Awards will be announced this Wednesday, with the awards following on February 4, 2024; my top 20 films of the year will run on this site at the end of the month.

Monday 11 December 2023

Resistance: "Queendom"

Documentary cinema's latest profile of a creative in the wild, Agniia Galdanova's
Queendom, introduces us to the Russian performance artist and social-media personality Gena Marvin, creation of a non-binary fashion student referred to as Gennadiy Chebotarev on official college reports. At least 6'3" in heels, head shaved, face painted as white as the snow on the site of the former gulag where her creator grew up, Marvin recalls a figure from Russian folklore or some of Matthew Barney's video art, adorning her body with increasingly elaborate costumes and prosthetics. Striking when caught posing for a photoshoot against a backdrop of the frozen wastes, she's even more so standing at the meat counter of her local supermarket, being eyed up by fellow shoppers and suspicious policeman - so much so, in fact, that she will be ejected from the store shortly thereafter, seemingly just on the grounds of looking different. Nobody quite knows what to make of Gena Marvin, and most often her queerness has been perceived as a threat to the status quo - which makes her a double threat in a society as rigidly conservative as Putin's Russia. Here, then, is an artist following the explosive Pussy Riot's lead - except that, as a twentysomething gay creative from a less than comfortable background, Marvin doesn't yet have the celebrity and contacts to help out whenever she finds herself in strife, nor the cash to make a dash for another country should things get rough. Instead, she comes to be turfed out of college for performing a piece deemed to be anti-patriotic (now there's your actual cancel culture), and hassled and harassed wherever she turns on the streets. Very soon into Galdanova's film, you come to worry that Gena Marvin has only taken to Instagram livestreaming as a means of offering sporadic proofs of life.

Yet while the grandparents who raised her (and insist on calling her Gennadiy) decry Gena's pursuit of social-media fame as trivial timewasting, it's clear from the film that we're witnessing a sophisticated artistic project. In full tentacular drag, Marvin has a way of drawing out contemporary Russian reality, and the attitudes that go to shape much of that reality. At the comparatively benign end of the scale, it's her grandfather - a gruff provincial hunter, who generally regards his charge as a bit of a loafer - insisting Marvin get a real job, or at least join the Army and toughen up. Less happily, Galdanova catches her defrocked subject engaged in fractious conversation with a woman at a window who has Very Strong Opinions on what being a man means. (A somewhat disconcerting cut suggests this rubbernecker eventually came down to give Marvin a fat lip.) Queendom operates by juxtaposition, much of it of Gena Marvin's making - her way of reintegrating herself in a society that, constitutionally, wants nothing to do with her kind: watch her totter through a sedate park in outrageous stilettos, resembling a supermodel claimed by Cthulhu. (Choice detail: the cigarette poised between Marvin's fingers.) Yet some of that juxtaposition is very much the film's own. Watching Marvin clump past bemused middle-aged men in more traditionally Russian dress might be funny, if there were less at stake; as it is, a longshot of the artist leaving the park for the afternoon, set up as a visual punchline, instead assumes new complexities once a passing yob enters the frame, yelling at her to run for her life. There's little doubt that the character and persona of Gena Marvin is an exceptionally effective tool for revealing prejudice - but again, we just wonder how viable this can be as a longterm career strategy, or indeed as a lifeplan.

For the time being, we can at least console ourselves with the knowledge Marvin's life and work to date has inspired a documentary that amply functions as cinema, the result of director and subject alike thinking in big, bold, generally expressive and defiant images. Galdanova has matched her subject for editorial sophistication: this isn't one of those docs that feels obliged to explain everything it comes across, or to walk us through any issues raised hand-in-hand. Like Gena Marvin's outfits, Queendom's pictures tell their own stories: massed ranks of police gathering on the streets, batons raised; a desolate tableau of Marvin disposing of fish guts in a nearby lake after her expulsion from college (and a notionally less illiberal city); a YouTube clip of Putin announcing a build-up of troops on the Ukraine border; youthful Muscovites decrying the outbreak of war, a sequence that ties Marvin's personal struggles to other, wider struggles against ongoing Russian tyranny. In its second half, Queendom starts circling a little: even in exile, Marvin finds herself fighting some of the same battles over and over - though this might not necessarily be unreflective of her experience. (Our exasperation is but a fraction of hers.) It snaps back into focus, however, whenever Galdanova returns to Marvin's spiky, slithering, insectoid art, an eruption of natural urges being ruthlessly repressed elsewhere, and one that could only be considered disturbing or a threat to public order if you chose not to wear your big boy pants and let it be. All things considered, it comes over as far less disturbing than the real world with which Galdanova so pointedly and skilfully frames it.

Queendom is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema, Prime Video and Dogwoof on Demand.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Modern times: "Fallen Leaves"

Despite his glowing reputation on the arthouse circuit, Aki Kaurismäki now works so infrequently that - in the years that pass between films - one tends to forget the modest, reliable pleasures of this filmography: the droller-than-droll worldview, the often exquisitely gnomic dialogue (a brisk up-yours to every Sorkin who ever picked up a pen), the growing compassion for those left behind at the foot of the heap - a quality that has become only more cherishable in a world that now does so much to tamp us all down on a daily basis. Kaurismäki is that drinking companion you haven't seen for a while, the one who's been through hard times and stayed (sort of) merry: much like the conversation of old friends, each film picks up where the last left off. I mention alcohol, because it's been foundational to this worldview, whether as salve or crutch. The lovers in Kaurismäki's latest 
Fallen Leaves meet in a karaoke bar, though - in a typically Kaurismäkian touch - it's a karaoke bar where folks gather to sing Schubert laments rather than "Don't Stop Me Now". The illusion of being rockstars, even for one night, has mostly worn off; instead, punters come this way looking for consolation, distraction, maybe just a little warmth. In his day job, long-faced boozer Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) tends trucks, hoses and palettes in the type of nondescript industrial plant you glimpse all over Europe, trying to stay sober long enough to finance his next bottle of revivifying schnapps. In hers, meekly uncomplaining Ansa (Alma Pöysti, who played Tove Jansson in 2020's Tove) has the task of binning out-of-date food - until she gets binned, too, for passing on a few such freebies to a hungry colleague. Their haphazard courtship - hampered by his drinking and unreliability, and her low opinion of the opposite sex - is, then, not just a search for solace, but a show of solidarity. Fallen Leaves is the romantic comedy Ken Loach would have made if he'd been raised on the outskirts of Helsinki, drinking Finlandia rather than builders' tea.

Further pleasures reveal themselves: the stonefaced supporting cast, who dress and behave like walk-ons from a Lino Ventura vehicle of the early 1970s (and that's just the women); the modest digs and possessions, matched by Kaurismäki's (touching) faith in simple, 20th century film technique, the correspondence of shot to reverse shot; the gift for understatement. Emerging from a showing of Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die - one deadpan auteur tipping a hat to another - Ansa tells Holappa "I've never laughed so much". (Once would be enough, from the looks of her.) From its melodramatic title on down, Fallen Leaves confirms Kaurismäki as a filmmaker out of time - possibly the last silent filmmaker standing in 2023. (No-one else would have thought to call a film The Match Factory Girl in 1990.) These characters remain terse, so the images are called upon to speak up: a scrap of paper blown away by fate so as to keep the lovers apart, a ring of discarded cigarette butts happened across as proof of life. Some are among the loveliest images we'll see in 2023, like Ansa preparing for a dinner date by purchasing precisely one extra plate, knife and fork. (Nothing too ambitious; just the basic provision of care.) In relative poverty, Kaurismäki locates the poetry, even - dare I say it - some small measure of hope. And in just 81 minutes, he achieves, with seemingly minimal effort, the kind of worldbuilding certain American directors make such an almighty fuss about, sketching in and showing us around a cold, tough, hard-working place where you have to take your pleasures where you can. It is recognisably Kaurismäki's world - tessellating squarely with that of 2011's Le Havre, for example - but it is also our world, an idea conveyed by the many analogue radios onscreen broadcasting news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (For Finland, too, shares a border with Russia: gather ye rosebuds and man the watchtowers.) As ever, you don't go to an Aki Kaurismäki movie for thigh-slapping guffaws, rather a steady supply of wry chuckles - but Fallen Leaves has more of these than most Kaurismäkis, and something more potent and rewarding besides. It is, I think, a profound understanding of how hard it is to get by, let alone find joy, at a moment in history when there are forces in play that actively seek to shoot down and crush any happiness. Confronted with the ever-encroaching and apparently incontrovertible sadnesses of this world, Kaurismäki has realised mere melancholy might well be met as a wealth to be shared. Join me in raising a half-empty glass to that.

Fallen Leaves is now playing in selected cinemas.