Ida Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (2013)- I had heard all the great buzz about Ida but had not expected such unrelenting beauty. Every shot looks interesting if not staggeringly pretty. Ida is about a young woman in a convent in 60s Poland. She goes to visit and estranged aunt and finds out her real name is Anna and she is of Jewish decent. This leads the two, one a nun and one a drinker, on a road trip that mixes in a little humour with tragedy. Anna, or Ida, is unearthing her past that is new to her with a woman who has lived with it her whole life. Their differences make the pairing interesting. Even though the film can be light on dialogue they communicate so much through their faces, and so much more is communicated through visuals. The choice to shoot in the Academy ratio really pays off. Early scenes in Anna’s convent seem unable to fit the entire place onscreen. She is wholly dominated by that institution when she is there. Only when she leaves the place does the sky seem to open up. Now whenever she visits places there’s an intense distance. So many exterior shots show as much space as possible, there’s a bit of a “Paris, Texas” vibe at times. Her newfound freedom seems endless, yet she often stays still within the frame. Freedom is in front of her but for a long time she seems unable to really engage with it. She is still constrained by her built-in beliefs. Whenever she’s with her aunt early on there are always barriers. She’s either being looked at through a window or we’re looking at the both through the windscreen of the car. Their core beliefs are so different that there are these seemingly unbreakable barriers between then yet by being family they can’t help but be connected. And, their experiences together chip away at these barriers. Both of the lead actors are excellent, particularly Agata Trzebuchowska as the titular Ida. She has a face that screams purity and such large dark eyes that in black and white they look like voids. Many people seem to look at her as just a symbol or idea because she’s a nun and by letting the audience see her in a quite fantastical way with eyes that look pure black she comes across as more-than to us too. Ida presents itself almost as a puzzle film as it doesn’t clearly establish everything. You sink in to the film and things just become quite clear. Even though it says 2013 at the top this is a 2014 release for me and it could end up being one of my favourite films of the year. It didn’t affect me as much as my full-on favourites of the year have so far, but that may just be for personal reasons, but it is one of the best shot films I have seen so far. This is right up there with Under the Skin for best cinematography, though what it communicates is vastly different. Ida is a relatively short film yet feels stuffed, but not with so much that it doesn’t have time to dwell on them. Certainly a film to look out for, as it is stunning to look at.

The Earrings of Madame De… Directed by Max Ophuls (1953)- Madame De… opens with the titular Madame’s hands going through all of her wonderful things. We smoothly follow her as she passes over furs, too precious to give away, and other possessions before finding a pair of earrings. They were given to her by her husband on her wedding day but now she’s selling them to repay a dept. She cares more for her furs than any memories attached to these earrings, establishing the state of her relationship. The earrings find their way back to her husband to Constantinople to back in her hands, us following all the way. These expensive objects are given so often with the intent of being meaningful but the first couple of exchanges are quite empty. For her husband it is easy to change how he perceives these earrings. Whether they’re a symbol of their love or lack thereof, or a gift for a mistress, he finds it easy to adapt. Through this story of earrings lost and found Ophuls pinpoints how society is geared against women in so many ways. Similarly to something like Brief Encounter it’s a film about the  external forces keeping people from happiness. But beyond that it’s also about the people that keep these detrimental structures in place. The main character’s husband (played by Charles Boyer) is a General, a great symbol of maintaining the status quo, who hangs over her every move. Even when he’s out of town for a time, allowing for some brief happiness from her in one of the film’s best sequences as the film fluidly takes us through the dances they share at different events, his influence is there. This is a tragedy not because of coincidence or fate or whatever, it’s tragic because the pain seems so needless. If people were not constrained by their social standing, gender, expectations, or what-have-you, there would be more room for happiness. He can cheat on her and it’s not even a problem, but her even taking a step in that direction deems her punishable. Ophuls is known for his camera-movements and is showcasing his skills in that regard here but not enough to make it distracting. The film as a whole always looks amazing. Every image is always communicating, criticising, or opening things up. For a somewhat simple story every image feels so dense with information or ideas, and beauty. Due to the nature of the story that follows earrings for a chunk of it I found myself a little less invested than in Letter From an Unknown Woman but I was still taken in by its brilliance. Where it feels lacking in emotionally connecting with me it makes up for in how excellent it always looks.

Letter Never Sent Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (1959)- Man did the Soviet’s know how to make dynamic images. Letter Never Sent is generally a straight-forward adventure/survival film but maybe the most engaging thing about it is the camerawork. That’s not to say the characters and story of their struggle to find diamonds then struggle to survive isn’t interesting, it is, but how it looks really is the star. For the more stationary camerawork Kalatozov is excellent at finding striking images, fully exploiting the beautiful vistas and environment they shot it in, some of which look like classic propaganda shots. As much as some of it seems like propaganda though there are some little things that could be seen as criticisms of communism. In the film the people in charge are literally deaf to them as their radio is partially broken and then also blind to them as their planes miss them. They’re good people who often sacrifice things for the benefit of others and their country in general, but in they end they’re just left alone to face the ravages of nature. On top of that they are all more powerfully propelled by their love for each other or their partner’s than for any ideology. I’m still not sure where it really leans but there’s a lot going on amidst the adventuring and whatnot. I love the handheld camerawork in this too. It really reminded me of the work of Andrzej Zulawski and Klimov’s “Come and See” in one scene. Similarly to Zulawski’s stuff the camera was so often in motion or following movement yet was never missing anything. The chaos seems so controlled always creating the most interesting looking shots. Where I was reminded of Come and See was during a forest fire scene where they clearly just set fire to a huge chunk of forest and had the actors navigate it. Again though it feels very controlled, how it was all planned out baffles me. In Come and See they used real rounds in scenes where guns were fired and you really feel the reality there. I’m sure the seeming lack of regulations in Russian filmmaking led to some horrible accidents but I can’t deny that the sheer reality these crazy stunts can lend is palpable. I genuinely cant think of a modern scene with flames that was as good as this. The scale of it is overwhelmingly huge, the sky seemingly blackened by smoke, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. Having seen so many survival films that have followed this I can’t help but feeling it hit the familiar beats but it always surprises in how it does it. Maybe I wasn’t quite as tense as I was during All is Lost but there are so many images here I will never forget and in a relatively short time it paints such a vivid picture of several different people while also being one of the most visually astounding survival films I’ve ever seen.

Pather Panchali Directed by Satyajit Ray (1955)- Part of me is bummed out that I didn’t wait for this on blu-ray but even in its current not-great dvd form it is striking, beautiful, and works so well. Pather Panchali is the first of a trilogy about a young boy called Apu. This film tells the story of his birth and earliest years as well as the stories of his family. Ray was influenced by Italian Neorealism but his film has a much more lively and jaunty feel to it. What it came across as to me was like a more energetic Mizoguchi film or something. Part of that is because it kind of feels like a film about a much earlier time than it is. Until you see a train or phone wires it could be any pre-electricity time period. That was one of the most powerful aspects of the film. By being poor and unlucky it is as if the central family in the film does exist out of time. They’re locked in the past as the world around them moves on. This is the curse of their position in society. Due to this they are subject to exploitation and cruelty, which in turn makes them sometimes do cruel things. Most of the film takes place in the courtyard in a forest that Apu and his family live in. Things are constantly happening and changing but the central dynamic of the household stays the same. All of the responsibility lies with the father while the weight of everything falls on the mother. Just due to how their society works he is the only one who can work and bring money in, though as he spends a lot of time away or locked up writing and smoking he doesn’t see everything his wife does. She sees how badly her home needs fixed, she knows exactly how low on food they are, she is harassed by her neighbour, and she can see all the ways that their family is headed to ruin while he stays relatively blinded. She’s not an infallible character by any means but she faces more strife than anyone. By just being the mother of the household in this time and place she is subject to all the pains, fears, and sadness’s that come the family’s way. What helps in painting such a vivid portrait of an Indian family in poverty is the camerawork and Ravi Shankar’s music. Rather than really languishing in poverty the film follows the emotional highs and lows of the characters. It is as energetic as the young boy at the centre of it is, with the music matching that wonderfully. All the way through I kept being reminded of the look of other filmmakers but then Ray would take things in an unexpected direction. It was so hard to compare it to other things because his visual sensibilities are so unique. He’s particularly good at using spaces and moving through them, there’s often a visual hierarchy when several characters are on screen. Even when you’re just living your life it is being determined by outside factors and the film never lets you forget that. Now I need to catch up with more of Ray’s stuff because this was fantastic.

Dead Ringers Directed by David Cronenberg (1988)- Cronenberg’s film about the complex relationship of twins played by Jeremy Irons may be one of his most complex films. Rather than tying an idea to a sci-fi/horror concept in the way he does with stuff like The Fly or Videodrome he just tackles the central concept here dead on with horror punctuating it at times. Beverly and Elliot cannot be told apart, something they have exploited for years, and they share everything until a woman changes the dynamic. Irons is both twins so they are identical but he gives two of his best performances and crafts two very different characters. The film rarely makes it easy when visually identifying what twin is which but their character’s become so well defined that it’s often very clear. Even though Irons shares many scenes with himself and others there’s always a great sense of isolation and loneliness to the film. So many shots show people alone, separated, or evoke a sense of alienation. There are times though when Bev and Elliot’s connection is stronger and the screen can be swarmed by their presence. There is often looming presences in the imagery too. Either its towering skyscrapers, large blinds, or even the size of a room, what we’re seeing is so often dwarfed by something else. These men would like to believe they’re separate entities (at times not even that) but there’s always this other whole person hanging over them. Everything they do and feel is influenced by the life and experiences they have shared with the other half. The more time they spend apart the greater that void becomes, that void of shared experiences, and so their minds begin to crack. Really nice little touches of colour throughout too, most notably being the red surgery clothes. Dead Ringers is like a mix of Cronenberg’s past and future (at that point), the midway point between The Fly and Crash. Cronenberg has had many phases but Dead Ringers seems like a film that could have led to a phase but didn’t. It’s a psycho-sexual drama with a few twisted elements, it leans heavier on the drama but it works really well. He kind of went all the way with the cool madness in Naked Lunch then dipped more into straight dramas with an edge. He’s still one of my favourite filmmakers, I just wish there was more like Dead Ringers. 

A Field in England Directed by Ben Wheatley (2013)-  “Your privy parts are doomed homunculus!” At first this was only my favourite Ben Wheatley film and one of my favourite films of 2013 but now I think it might be one of my favourite’s of the decade. It is a surreal, frantic, nightmare in a field about men torn by fear and greed. At every turn Wheatley does everything to make this one location of a field not just visually interesting but astounding. Black and white is used perfectly here, not only in terms of budget or whatever, as it draws attention to texture and gives everything a visual continuity that changing skies and various shades of tree, etc, would not. When the film gets into the really hallucinogenic sequences the black and white also allows for sharp cuts between shots that makes them appear layered in a mesmerising way. Amy Jump’s script is at times crudely funny and at others lyrical and mysterious, even the more anachronistic sounding language fits perfectly into the strange little world she has created. Three men; a godless man, a kindly fool, and a coward, are tricked and forced into aiding a menacing and mystical man. Their small struggle in the field is contrasted with the 17th century English Civil War. What transpires in the field is a fable warning of falling prey to the superstitions of men and championing those with the courage in oneself to do what’s right rather than following a set path. What I still cannot get over with this film is that it made me feel something no other film has. At a certain point it jumps into a kaleidoscopic, trippy, sequence with lots of flashing images. The sequence is amazing but towards the end my head began to hurt, right as that got to the point where I might want to look away the film jumps to something completely different. What follows (without ruining it) is one of the most soothing and breathtaking scenes I’ve ever seen. My brain was sore and this made it feel like someone was softly blowing on it. It was like the glorious comedown from a brain freeze (not as intense). Wheatley mixes elements of Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Sergio Leone, and more, while managing to feel so unlike anything else. Every performance in this is spot-on too, Reece Shearsmith gets one of the creepiest and strangest shots as well as one of the coolest lines. He’s excellent, as is everyone else. Music here is so freaking good too. Traditional folk songs from the time are mixed with dizzying effects and other more droning pieces, all of which are entrancing and full of dread. “Open up and let the Devil in”

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.