Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! Directed by Giulio Quetsi (1967)- Imagine El Topo but as a much more traditional Western, that’s kinda what this is. Django (never actually called that in the film but whatever) gets double-crossed and killed but is awoken by two Native American men. They forge him some golden bullets and stick around with him so he’ll tell them about the afterlife. This isn’t really a Western as good as the likes of Leone or even Corbucci’s stuff nor is it as interesting as El Topo, but as a marriage of those things it works well as its own weird little thing. Only in this film will you see a guy shot with golden bullets, lifted on to a table to be helped, only for the townsfolk to kill him by stuffing their hands in his chest to get at that gold. Western’s can often be about how wealth warps a small town and considering the way this film handles those themes it seems like the director is aware how overdone these ideas are. As the screenshots show it isn’t a subtle film and I’m pretty glad for it. Some of the symbolism just allows for a cool shot or two but there are a couple of moments like the aforementioned “people stuffing hands in a dude’s guy” scene that go to another level of crazy and cool. I’d still probably count the film as a lesser Western when compared to the best but it’s a very enjoyably unique film. There’s something unrelentingly creative about it. Almost every shot looks like it was approached with care and thought or at least the desire to show people something they haven’t seen before. Even things like the “Introducing the town” scene was unlike any version of that scene I had seen before. No one stands on the streets but behind every window we can see evil and sinister things going on. It’s an excellent sequence and just speaks to the films creative strengths. So if you like a little more pulp with your surrealism then this is the Western to go for.

Nosferatu the Vampyre Directed by Werner Herzog (1979)- “The absence of love, that is the most abject pain”, this is the core of the sorrow to Herzog’s version of Dracula. Rather than being the suave lustful creature we’ve often seen he is a complete wretch. People and the world in general seem to sicken him, life is just pain as he has absolutely nothing, but at the same time he is unable to die. Nothing drives him other than the ferocious desire for blood, until he finally gets a glimpse of Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani). For the first time in what could be generations he has a compulsion beyond just feeding to live. His complete lack of anything is followed by an intense drive to get Lucy that has an inevitably tragic end. Herzog’s Dracula is an aberration of nature but is still somehow a warped part of it. Nature exists around him but is twisted by his presence. Scores of grey plague-carrying rats follow him around and even the landscape becomes more violent and drastic as one gets closer to his castle. Bruno Ganz is a perfect counterpart to Kinski. Kinski exudes weakness and pain yet can be incredibly physically imposing, Ganz on the other hand is a strong fit man but is really nothing against this monster. Adjani is perfectly cast too as a symbol of virtue, innocence, and even apparent frailty. This is where I get somewhat controversial or whatever because I greatly prefer this to Murnau’s original film. Murnau’s original Nosferatu is obviously a huge touchstone for cinema and very culturally significant but just doesn’t do much for me. The best images in it were known to me through pop culture and documentaries and beyond its visual imagination it didn’t offer a great deal. Give me Murnau’s Faust over Nosferatu any day. Herzog’s Nosferatu on the other hand doesn’t just change up the version Murnau had created but it also explores sides of vampirism that nothing else had. The idea of being an eternal being is actually explored, and it seems like a depressing life. As Dracula gets closer to his object of desire, Lucy, the film gets increasingly phantasmagorical. It’s as if a creature like this distorts the world by moving through it. Popol Vuh’s score here is one of their best too. For the most part it uses sounds of the period or at least sounds like a strange but period-appropriate score. But as it goes on you’ll notice more modern instrumentation or even electronic sounds and distortion. These anachronisms are not a distraction but just aid the timelessness of Kinski’s Dracula. He is a being outwith time, nature, and humanity, while still being close enough to recognise. Nosferatu isn’t quite my favourite Herzog film (though it’s close) but it is one of my favourite vampire films. It’s a dreamlike, fantastical, and truly melancholic look at being an eternal being and what that could bring upon people. 

Waking Life Directed by Richard Linklater (2001)- This is firmly in the hangout-film section of Linklater’s filmography but still unlike all the rest. He’s a guy who constantly changes things up and this is essentially a mixture of Slacker with A Scanner Darkly yet there’s nothing quite like it. Rotoscoping is a unique animation technique and Linklater uses it perfectly here. What he’s shooting is often as “mundane” as the kind of stuff in Slacker, conversations between people and whatnot, but the animation allows the dream-like nature of the film to really come through. The whole film is about why and how we dream and what we can get from dreams, as well as modern philosophy in general, and the animation is perfect for creating this feeling. Every image is constantly evolving in front of you. As the camera always moves the animation can’t quite keep up with the backgrounds so it creates a strange floaty effect. Even the most simple of scenarios in the film like two people talking at a table become fantastically fluid surreal encounters. It’s a voyage through dreams and philosophies. Some of it is funny and some of it is thoughtful, but all of it is mesmerising to watch. As a huge fan of the Before series it was nice to see Celine and Jesse again. They’re like the indie film equivalent of Marvel characters, I hope to see them show up at the end of the next Shane Carruth film to whisk away the protagonist to a European city or something. When it comes to Linklater the Before films will always be my favourites but this is still one of his top films.

Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) has one of the best and most direct opening scene’s/title’s that so perfectly sets up part of the films thesis. It opens on King Louis XIII performing a strange Birth of Venus play. Straight away he is a joke, a silly frivolous man, portraying himself as the god of sex, beauty, fertility, etc, and his piece also has him showering coins over those with him on the stage. Not only does he see himself as a god but also a generous one. He’s juxtaposed with the very proper, though ridiculous in his own way, Cardinal Richelieu. He’s separate from the rabble around him both visually and in his head. He sits while everyone stands, he is special. But his veil of respectability is thin. He acts like he’s more holy than those around him while wearing a bunch of rings adorned with large jewels. He doesn’t even stand himself, the nuns behind him lift him. Nuns who look washed out and near death compared to his healthy pink skin. Both the heads of Church and State are equally corrupt and ill fit for their job. They’ve arisen through either luck or greed. Both of them merge as the King kisses the Cardinal’s hand. It’s then that the title card declares them both the titular devils. Immediately after that it cuts to the result of this marriage in Church and State. A bunch of Protestant slaves are being ordered around as a tortured body hangs in the air. Russell isn’t subtle but Russell is angry. The combination of two powers driven equally by greed as they are by their own whims and specific beliefs is a horror show that slowly unfolds as the film goes on. Justice, the Church, the State, the people, and everything else are perverted by this happening. Within four minutes Ken Russell sets up one of the major themes of the film while also making a powerful statement. Sometimes you have to be direct when you feel so passionate about something and that’s how The Devils feels. Though it’s made about the past it feels so incredibly urgent, and more about the present than anything. It’s not a film that ends with you thinking “I’m glad we learned from our mistakes” as much as it leaves you sad at how little we change. 

The Fisher King Directed by Terry Gilliam (1991)- My reaction to this on re-watch was the opposite to the first time. When I was younger I mainly enjoyed the film for the humour and flights of fantasy but this time around the humour didn’t work quite as well but everything else really did. Whenever scenes just slowed down and let people talk I loved this film. Gilliam films can often be frantic and wacky but The Fisher King isn’t always that. Jeff Bridges character goes through depression, Robin Williams faces his demons and past, Mercedes Ruehl deals with feeling unloved and used, and Amanda Plummer feels undesirable and alone. Every character is so full and facing such relate-able struggles that every encounter is gripping. The portrayal of depression works particularly well. At one of his lowest points he says (to a doll)  “Do you ever get the feeling you’re being punished for your sins?” and I feel like that captures a side of depression sometimes missed in films that often just portray it as someone being bummed out. What he’s experiencing isn’t really a feeling of spiritual failure but it shows how consumed by darkness he is. He sees himself as deserving of punishment, consumed by self-loathing, yet at the same time finds his situation so overwhelming that it barely gets treated as “real” as it does spiritual, it’s beyond him so he’s beyond hope. It’s greater than him and overpowers him. Through the film Bridges’ experiences with the similarly, though more violently, troubled Williams slowly heals them both. All of the performances are great but Williams is the real highlight. The film perfectly uses his sweetness and warmth, manic humour, with a bit of darkness to great effect. Weirdly it was the most Gilliam-esque stuff that was interesting me the least. Seeing these people just interact was the best, and luckily there’s a lot of that. I liked this quite a bit, it’s a really beautiful and touching comedic drama about people with a bunch of psychological problems as told through a modern Holy Grail story. Plus extra Harry Shearer and David Hyde Pierce in little roles.

Dogville Directed by Lars von Trier (2003)-Dogville has everything I love about Lars von Trier, which are probably the things others hate. It doesn’t pussyfoot around its statements, I mean this is an angry film. A small town is presented, as Paul Bettany’s character says, a “gift” in the form of Nicole Kidman who is being hounded by gangsters. They take her in with some suspicions but grow to like her and some even love her before the awfulness of humanity make them tear her apart. Dogville is a mixture of a novel and a play while being thoroughly cinematic. John Hurt’s perfect voice gravels out a third person narration of all of it, and it provides many of the films funniest and most thoughtful lines. Constantly interesting camerawork, lighting, blocking, performances, and even set decoration always remind you that the real power is coming through the aspect of the story that is cinema. Though the film deals with depressing things it always retains von Trier’s playful edge. Paul Bettany’s character in particular is a constant source of tragic humour. He sees himself as the moral superiour of his town, a town he loves, though he constantly falls prey to the same flaws he sees in his countrymen as well as just being an idiot. In all his lectures on morality he misses the key things that keep people from cruelty and pain out of his own selfishness and arrogance. The film plays out on a stage with some props and chalked out homes. Even though it is so outwardly false it creates one of the most well realised townships on film. Seeing everyone exist in every scene whether they’re in it or not makes it feel so alive. On top of that it highlights how they’re not only blind to their own faults but also unwilling to confront them. When horrible things happen behind closed doors we see there is nothing blocking it, all it takes is someone to look but no one will. That famous John Steinbeck quote kept popping in my mind while watching this again;”the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”. Most of the towns people see themselves as “good honest folk” but when they do get that tiny bit of power they are all distorted by it. No one is really exempt except Grace (oh Lars von Trier and your on-the-nose names, you scamp) but even then things get shady. For a three hour film set on one stage it is incredibly engrossing, I shouldn’t even qualify it with that ‘cause it’s just such a good watch regardless of its form. The drama is so constantly gripping, it’s always so witty and thoughtful, and every performance has something to it. The cast is ridiculously good (beyond the folk I already mentioned) with Stellan Skarsgard, Ben Gazzara, Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson, Harriet Andersson, Udo Kier, Philip Baker Hall, and James Caan. Just by choosing that insanely good cast I like von Trier more and for the most part he gives them really interesting stuff to do. Everyone is used perfectly. Kidman says so much through her face as the inscrutable yet vulnerable Grace. Gazzara gets to be another proud but broken man and Bacall is a woman who  emanates dominance and demands respect just by being. He even tops it all off with a David Bowie song. I love this film, it’s probably my favourite von Trier film for its passion, statements, and sheer enjoyability

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Directed by Hayao Miyazaki (1984)- Miyazaki is a man known for his familiar themes and though he often does tackle similar subjects in his films I feel like people look at them a little too simply. Yes Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke’s plot’s progress somewhat similarly and have anti-war and pro-environmentalism themes but how they tackle them is more different than I think they get credit for. Princess Mononoke is about how war is awful and we’re ravaging our planet, but it’s also about the loss of a spiritual and cultural background. It’s about how war and destroying the planet actively takes away from our heritage and taints us spiritually. Though the traditional themes are there in Nausicaä here he’s much more interested in exploring the global and environmental effects that war has. Even though some may be put off by the earnest plea the film makes for peace I feel like it’s so impassioned that it works. Nausicaä is a sci-fi/fantasy adventure film with amazing action and whatnot but it’s also a film that feels so angry and upset about what it concerns. It’s not just saying “War is bad, it harms the planet” it is someone crying that out and desperately trying to fix it, in effort to inspire us. Outwith all that it’s also just a well told tale of adventure, discovery, and trying to fix the seemingly un-fixable. The film also has a bit of a different feel from Miyazaki films, this is Miyazaki meets Rene Laloux. The look of the sci-fi world seems Moebius and Laloux inspired with even some touches on the soundtrack that are reminiscent of the electronic weirdness in Fantastic Planet. As usual Miyazaki’s penchant for strong female characters shines through, the villain here in particular is really interesting. Like everyone in this world she’s reeling from and responding to the experiences she’s had, and since her’s have been worse than most she turned out worse than most. Though
Nausicaä isn’t even one of my favourite Miyazaki films it is still a wonderful film.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Directed by John Cassavetes (1976)- Cassavetes has been a filmmaker I’ve been meaning to get round to for ages and this seemed like a natural place to start. What an amazing film. I saw the longer version (135 mins) and after seeing it I can’t imagine it being so much shorter (108 mins). This is a film you sink into. Just as Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo is slowly pulled into the unraveling nightmare of a noir-ish plot he finds himself embroiled in the audience too is sucked into his world and point of view. Cassavetes takes a strong stance on the fluidity and malleability of people. People don’t simply have cause-and-effect motivations that push them along like the cogs in a machine. Everyone is an independent point of view that changes to the environment, that isn’t always clear on what it wants, and feels so overwhelmingly human. Ben Gazzara is crazy good as usual but here he was particularly excellent. He’s a man of “style, not class” who’s always striving for class. He’s a nice guy, a decent guy, but someone who almost always has a front on to the point that his limits and motivations get obscured. At all times he’s so desperately trying to distract from the reality of who he is but through watching someone like that navigate life we end up understanding him. Cassavetes is known for his close-ups and man can you see why. I’ve become increasingly aware of films that feel cramped. Films that are either shot in close-up a lot or just don’t use space well to the point that things don’t even feel like they exist in the real world, things just seem to exist in the pockets of space we’re shown on screen. Somehow Cassavetes manages to shoot extensively in close-ups with an intense intimacy without sacrificing anything. There are enough wider shots to give you a breather but that’s not even it. Characters feel so real, well-rounded, and complex that where they are becomes increasingly less relevant as they are the focus. Focusing on them for the most part just brings out the brilliant performances and even lends a further melancholy to the scenes that open up because people often seem so startlingly alone and small. Colours really pop amongst the grubbiness though many times they highlight Cosmo’s facade. Really I loved everything about this, I don’t want to just list things off because everything worked perfectly in crafting this nuanced and sad portrait of a man and those around him. I can’t believe I’ve taken this long to see a Cassavetes film, you can see how influential the film has been but it’s also such a special unique thing of its own.

Performance Directed by Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell (1970)- Roeg knows how to make a psychedelic film and man is this it. The earlier scenes are like a proto-Guy Ritchie gangster film with frantic editing and shots that highlight coolness, that is before hot-head gangster James Fox has to disappear and so takes lodging in Mick Jagger’s basement. Both men are polar opposites. Ones a free loving hyper hippie and the other is a straight laced no-nonsense gangster. Sounds like the set up to an odd couple comedy but what follows is a frenzied exploration of identity, repressed sexuality, sadism, corporate morality, the changing mores of the time, and of course the act of performing. Jagger and Fox couldn’t be different but both men are in their own way performers, one a gangster enforcer and the other an ex-rock star, and this connects them. They see something in the other they recognise beneath everything else, a side that is the “true” side that goes unseen by people different from them. It ended up being one of the films I’ve taken the most screenshots from recently because it is so unrelentingly stylish. Roeg and Cammell experiment with colour filters, cross cutting, superimposing, unique pov shots, and other effects in a variety of different ways to try encapsulate an ineffable feeling between two men. Though there is a story at the centre of the film and dialogue, etc, it feels like it’s more about all the little unsaid and implied things along the way. Fox and Jagger nail their roles, Jagger isn’t a top actor but his whole vibe is used well and he gets one great song sequence. Another great thing, rarely do drug trip sequences really feel this trippy. Usually it’s just a character seeing wacky things, crazy colours, or just acting crazy but this really messed with everything. What was and wasn’t a part of the story becomes clear, what is the reality of the film breaks down for us the same way it does for the tripping character and it is amazing. As a product of its time it’s a cool watch because it captures two different sides of 70’s London and has dope music throughout, it’s also just a really cool film.