At the end of each year our friend and colleague Michael Jackson – formerly Chief Executive of Channel 4 and now living in the United States – compiles a list of films he has discovered and appreciated in the previous twelve months. He sends it to friends and kindly lets us syndicate it here. As before we have added some links and clips, plus UK availability.
Michael: As a kind of alternative holiday card this is my annual list – now five years old – of the best films I saw for the first time this year culled from the seemingly infinite catalogs of films from the hundred year and more history of cinema – films that are part of a shadow universe of repertory cinemas, Turner Classic Movies, DVDs and Netflix. I know it’s possible to get carried away with enthusiasm for a new discovery – but I hope you’ll find at least a couple of films here that you are happy to see for the first time or to re-discover.
Blue Collar (directed by Paul Schrader, US, 1978)
A wonderfully visceral story of a multi-racial group of Detroit auto-workers who are as cynical about their union as their management. They decide to rob their union HQ but instead of cash they discover documents that point to union links with organized crime. One of the rare American films about class – effortlessly tying together race, inequality and corruption – and told with all of the narrative skills of one of the key film-makers of the seventies – writer (Taxi Driver), director (Mishima) Schrader – at the top of his game. It’s also a reminder of how sympathetic an actor Richard Pryor was before the drugs told hold. IMDb here; available via DVD.
Chico and Rita (Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba, Spain, 2010)
This very enjoyable and moving animated love story about two Cuban jazz musicians apparently grossed the princely sum of $200,000, which only goes to show how great things can go to waste. It’s a fictional story of two archetypes – a singer and a piano player that spans the decades from 1948 pre-Castro Cuba, to New York, Paris and Vegas at the height of their glamor – besides the romance and the music you swoon to the architecture. A tribute to the mysterious power of 2D animation, simultaneously more immersive and more ‘fictional’ than live action. IMDb here; available via Lovefilm and also on DVD.
Daddy Longlegs (Ben and Joshua Safdie, US, 2010)
A wildly irresponsible single father has to look after his two boys whilst working as a projectionist and breaking up with his girlfriend. Directed in a raw, provisional Cassavetes inspired style, Ronald Bronstein plays the gangly father to perfection and the value of the film is that it simultaneously presents the scariest, least competent father in film history while forcing you to admire – some of – his creative parenting. Aka Go Get Some Rosemary; IMDb here; available only as a Region 1 DVD.
Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany, 2009)
A couple in a new relationship on a Sardinian vacation, navigating surprise and disappointment with each other. Full of well observed, true and intense small moments, though it falters somewhat with a melodramatic conclusion. One critic summed it up perfectly: ‘The interpersonal wars being fought in this film are as intense as anything in Restrepo or The Hurt Locker.’ IMDb here; available via DVD and (forthcoming) from Lovefilm.
The Forgiveness of Blood (Joshua Marston, Albania/US, 2011)
Marston made the brilliant drug mule saga Maria Full of Grace in 2004. After too long this is his new film, set in a stunning Albanian valley, about a carefree modern teenager caught in an ancient blood feud. In an age when jihad and You Tube co-exist this felt prescient – and is also perfectly performed, largely by non-actors. IMDb here; available (forthcoming) via DVD and from Lovefilm.
George Wallace (John Frankenheimer, US, 1997)
Gary Sinise as Wallace and a young Angelina Jolie as his second wife, nick-named the ‘Jackie Kennedy of the rednecks’. Frankenheimer’s best known films The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May are both hyperbolic portraits of the American body politic – this is more matter of fact and maybe as a result more successful. Made for television it has the time to delve into the makings of one of America’s most alarming and successful racist politicians – three time Governor of Alabama and Presidential candidate – and insightfully reveals the feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, and political calculation that motivated him. IMDb here; available only as a Region 1 DVD.
Guest of Cindy Sherman (Paul H-Q and Tom Donahue, US, 2008)
Public access tv videographer falls for artist Cindy Sherman and enters the high roller art high life, only to become the ignored other half. Part history of the rise of the eighties New York art scene, part bitter sweet love story, part critique of art and money, this is a really fun and quite astute documentary. IMDb here; available as a Region 0/NTSC DVD and from Lovefilm.
Hotel (Richard Quine, US, 1967)
In my early teenage years I was a sucker for Arthur Hailey’s trashy research based bestsellers and this is the movie version of his mid-sixties multi-story saga. I was introduced to this by no less than Martin Scorsese: ‘what’s really interesting in this movie is the way in captures a certain style of living, almost unconsciously – the clothes people wear, their aspirations and habits, the way they speak and move and behave round one another. It’s like a snapshot of the shared American cultural horizon in the late 60’s – or at least a piece of it.’ IMDb here; available only as a Region 1 DVD.
It Always Rains On Sunday (Robert Hamer, UK, 1947)
Wonderful mix of realism and poetry set in a perfectly realized grimy, rainy, bomb shattered East End London, from the director of the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. A British star of the forties, with a terrific name, Googie Withers, gives a true performance as a girlfriend to an escaped convict. About as far from Olympics Britain as you can get. IMDb here; available as a newly remastered DVD and Blu-ray.
The Joke (Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovakia, 1969)
The film I was happiest to discover this year. Based on a Kundera novel, and made during the Prague Spring, it tells the story of a student who sends a post-card jokily praising Trotsky to his girlfriend. She reports him to the authorities and he is expelled from the Party, college and Prague and sent to a mining prison camp. Years later the ex-student plots his revenge. Needless to say the film was banned for twenty years. Jires’ film-making is clever, witty and energetic. IMDb here; not currently available in the UK.
June 17, 1994 (Brett Morgen, US, 2010)
Made for ESPN this is a documentary collage of sporting events all happening on one day in 1997 – Arnold Palmer winning the US Open, the NBA finals, the World Cup etc., plus, of course, the infamous O.J. Simpson car chase. An intriguing meditation on storytelling and celebrity. IMDb here; available only as a Region 1 DVD.
Love Shines (Douglas Arrowsmith, Canada, 2010)
Ron Sexsmith is a musician’s musician, a Canadian singer songwriter revered by the likes of Elvis Costello and Steve Earle. But that doesn’t pay the bills and this film follows him as he invests all he has in an expensive new record designed for him to finally break through, with the unlikely figure of Metallica producer Bob Rock. A frank and insightful film about what it’s like to be artist who never quite breaks through. IMDb here; not currently available in the UK.
No (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 2012)
One from this year. A funny and compelling hard to believe true story about a referendum in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Citizens could vote ‘Yes’ for eight more years of Pinochet, or ‘No’ – hence the title. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an apolitical adman who is reluctantly brought in to run the No campaign. The joke is that he throws out depressing images of Pinochet’s brutality and replaces it with optimistic Coke-like images – the right disdain the approach, the left is appalled, but it works and Pinochet loses. The style is sly and it looks deliberately ugly in an eighties way – it was shot on u-matic tape. ‘No’ makes a great double bill with Michael Ritchie’s classic film about political image-making, The Candidate. IMDb here; forthcoming.
Pilgrimage (John Ford, US, 1933)
This year I read Joseph McBride’s great biography Searching For John Ford and was prompted to look again at his work. Films like Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and They Were Expendable are peaks of cinema, but I also found films I’d never heard of – like this, which has been described by McBride as ‘Ford’s first great film’. Influenced by silent cinema techniques (see Murnau’s Sunrise) it’s a melodrama about a mother who would rather see her son die in World War 1 than find happiness with his girlfriend. In a heartbreaking third act his mother travels to post-war France to see his grave and decides to reconcile with his widow and illegitimate child. IMDb here; available as a Region 1 DVD.
A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, US, 1961)
The play Clybourne Park – about race and real estate in a Chicago neighborhood – was inspired by Lorraine Hansbury’s famous play. Seeing Clybourne prompted me to watch this despite years of thinking it a filmed theater relic. The play itself – written by Hansberry when she was 29 – is complex and prescient and the film is powerful precisely because it respects its source. It also has utterly convincing performances from the likes of Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. IMDb here; available on DVD as part of a Sidney Poitier box set.