Archive for the 'Movies' Category

Favourites of 2022: Film

December 28, 2022

Of the films I saw for the first time this year, here are brief remarks on the ten that I most appreciated.


Le rayon vert
(Eric Rohmer, 1986)

One of the goods of film is that it allows us the opportunity to see through another’s eyes, to live someone else’s life for a time, to experience things outside our ordinary ambit. A number of the films on this list are films that are good in this way.

But another, rarer, good, by contrast, is that, once in a while, I myself appear on screen, and I have opportunity to see myself from the outside, and to reflect on the life I am living.

Well, Delphine, c’est moi.

Or, at least, Delphine, c’est moi dans une autre vie. Who knows? Had things not gone so well as they did, maybe I would be as stuck and frustrated and hapless as she is. Her personality and mine overlap a good deal: bookish, reserved, a bit melancholic. We are much alike.

As I watched, I reflected, with a kind of astonishment, that somehow I did not fall into the quagmire in which she is struggling. And what would I have done under those circumstances? No better than her, probably, and perhaps not so well.

In any case, I finished The Green Ray feeling a profound gratitude for my family, who give so much meaning to my life, and who fill it with so much love. Though, considered specifically visually, this is about as subdued and drab as most of Rohmer’s films, it is nonetheless my favourite film of the year.


The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
(Preston Sturges, 1944)

The proximity of soldiers stirs the hearts of certain young women, and Trudy Kockenlocker — yes, Kockenlocker — is one of those. And so, when a local regiment is preparing to depart overseas, she can’t resist going to the send-off bash. One thing leads to another, as they do, and she wakes next morning wearing a wedding ring, but can’t recall the name of the young man. (Was it Ratzkywatzky, or was it Zitzkywitzky? Something with a ‘z’, she’s pretty sure.)

It’s a wonderful premise for a screwball comedy, and Preston Sturges delivers on the promise. A remarkable thing is that our temporal distance from the film’s creation has only increased its value, for it comes to us from a time when attitudes toward marriage and family were quite different. Rules were stricter, social norms were stronger, expectations were clearer, stakes were higher. Were the same story attempted today it might well end in tragedy, but Preston Sturges finds comedic gold.

There are so many wonderful touches. The screenplay is full of delights.  It rises gradually to a magnificent comic crescendo in the closing quarter-hour. I haven’t laughed so much, nor so well, in a long while. Bravo!


The Northman
(Robert Eggers, 2022)

Full immersion in the Viking world is what Robert Eggers gives us. No modern sensibilities smuggled in. No bromides about liberal values being natural and universal. No traces, either, of Christian compassion or forgiveness. Instead: fate, and honour, and vengeance.

The film, as far as I can tell, is totally consistent to its premises. It begins with the voice of Odin himself, and ends with our Northman, blood-soaked, riding to Valhalla. It’s an approach that allows us to see and experience another world, but also to see and experience our own world afresh, by way of contrast. It’s a wonderful gift.

Cinematically, this is magnificent. It is beautifully and atmospherically shot. There are bravura filmmaking sequences, such as fighting scenes done in continuous tracking shots. It is big-boned and confident filmmaking, a very exciting return to form for Eggers after the (for me) disappointment of The Lighthouse. In fact, as much as I admired The Witch, I think this may be his best film yet.


L’amour l’après-midi
(Eric Rohmer, 1972)

Eric Rohmer made a series of films he grouped together and called Six Moral Tales. This year I watched them in sequence, and while I still maintain that the one previously familiar to me — Ma nuit chez Maud — is the best of them, I also loved this one, a beautifully constructed, excruciating tale of the slow, all too understandable way in which a man is led, step by tiny step, into infidelity.

What starts with a general, unfocused “appreciation” of women passing on the street leads, as opportunity arises, to a man pulling off his shirt while a strange woman lies in bed. The film is a triumph for how it documents this slowly boiling frog.

Equally impressive is the means by which this man is rescued and returned home. It is perfectly judged: a sudden realization, conveyed entirely visually, that he is a man with responsibilities, accountable to others for his actions, whose integrity hangs in the balance. Rohmer’s style can be drab, but moments as economical and finely judged as the crucial moment in Love in the Afternoon make me realize just how good a filmmaker he was.


Memories of Murder
(Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

After Bong Joon-ho’s triumph with Parasite, I wanted to explore some of his previous films. Memories of Murder follows a group of small-town detectives grappling with a string of gruesome and mysterious murders. They have no particular talent for their work, and bumble their way through the investigation as the bodies accumulate. The film’s particular strengths are intricate plotting, an ensemble of interesting characters, and a zany undercurrent that gives us a feeling that anything might happen.

The film impressed me with its tonal complexity. It is often extremely funny, though the subject matter is grave. It might have become a black farce, or a sadistic comedy, but I don’t think it does. There is always some thread that remains in earnest. Somehow Bong manages to hold the pieces together into something complex but coherent.

In a murder mystery the all important question is usually “whodunit?”. That is not the all-important question here, though of course it is a catalyst for the story. Instead, Bong shows us human frailty and failure as his characters make mistakes, follow cockamamie theories down dead ends, abandon their principles, trust their faulty guts, and generally fail to protect the innocent. The ending makes it a very unconventional whodunit indeed.


La Maison en Petits Cubes
(Kunio Katou, 2008)

What a filmmaker can do with 10 minutes of wordless imagery is limited, but nothing is wasted in this brief animated film. A beautiful visual metaphor is used to explore the shape of a man’s life. The past cannot be recovered, but neither can we be separated from it. It remains with us, submerged, supporting us. Each of our lives passes through stages, building on what came before. If we had the presence of mind to live with the awareness that each stage — this present stage! — is bound to pass, how much more we would treasure it. I know nothing about the filmmaker, but his film is touching, warm-hearted, and wise, and I have been thinking of it all year with gratitude. Available on YouTube.


Secret Sunshine
(Lee Chang-dong, 2007)

I still don’t know what to expect from this filmmaker. Poetry, the first I saw, was gentle and careful; Burning was dramatic, violent, and a bit of a puzzle. Secret Sunshine begins as though it’s going to be more like Poetry, but it takes a number of turns, and ends up being one of the more intriguing explorations of Christian faith that cinema has given us in recent decades.

The film introduces us to a young mother, Sin-ae, whose husband has recently died, and she is in the process of moving to a new town. The tone is casual and quotidian, at first. But something happens, which I shan’t spoil, that sends the film veering into emotionally difficult terrain, and plunges Sin-ae into crisis. As she grapples with her problems, she joins an evangelical Christian church, and discovers a life of faith.

You might think, as I did, that this crisis and this discovery were the main substance of the film, but, in a brilliant scene, a further crisis arises when Sin-ae tries to forgive the person who harmed her. The character arc leading up to this disastrous episode, in which she had discovered her identity — her true identity — as a beloved child of God, continues afterward along a bent but not broken path. Her docility turns to rebellion, but it is specifically rebellion against God, a lover’s tryst turned to a lover’s quarrel. The course of love never did run smooth.

It’s an unusually perceptive and thoughtful film, then, about faith and the spiritual life. Lee Chang-dong uses a light touch throughout, with an appealingly subtle sense of humour threaded through the often difficult and troubling story. Jeon Do-yeon won at Cannes for her portrayal of Sin-ae, but I think the marvellous Song Kang-ho deserves praise also in the role of the spurned but undefeated lover, whose dogged and earnest pursuit of Sin-ae leads him, also, to a surprising place.


Il peccato
(Andrei Konchalovsky, 2019)

This historical film follows Michelangelo during the transition of power in the Vatican from the Della Rovere family (Pope Julius II) to the Medici family (Pope Leo X). The popes were his patrons, and Michelangelo was caught in the rivalry between the families. This would have been in about 1513, I guess, when Michelangelo was approaching 40 years of age.

Michelangelo is played wonderfully: passionate but undisciplined, almost childlike in his naivete about politics and power. If there is an aspect of the film that disappoints me, it is that we see little of him as a creative artist. Maybe it would have been foolhardy to try to go there. Instead, the film focuses on the complexities of the patronage system, the rivalries between artists, the nuts and bolts aspects of quarrying, and the hubbub of life outside the studio.

Konchalovsky’s Rome is a tornado of ambition and filth. Everything is covered in grime. Life is a chaos, and it is well-captured by an Altman-esque approach to dialogue and sound. Everybody talks at once, but in Italian, which makes it even better.

Vasari tells us that Dante was Michelangelo’s “best beloved poet”, and most touching to me is the way the film honours that admiration. At one point Michelangelo gets to sleep in a room where Dante slept, and he is overwhelmed by humility and awe. Later, in a development that made me leap from my seat, his devotion is repaid.

All in all, I found it an often fascinating film that, despite a certain lack of focus, gave me much enjoyment and food for thought.


The Worst Person in the World
(Joachim Trier, 2021)

The title hovers over the film like a presiding spirit. Julie is certainly a person who doesn’t know herself, and who makes a series of terrible decisions that harm herself and, in time, those around her, so she’s not a particularly good person, but she is trying, in her faltering way. She’s probably not actually the worst person in the world.

I was impressed especially by the emotional rawness. Both in its joy and its misery, it felt compelling and honest, even when the joy was foolish and the misery well-earned. Trier allows his characters to sit in silence, which is, as is so often the case, richer than anything else. There is a strange streak of dry humour — and I mean Sahara dry — running through the film, as it treats remarkably tasteless material with perfect equanimity. And it has the guts to poke fun at sacred causes like environmentalism and wokery. All of this was delightful.

The film rolls out as a study of a wayward, lost soul, but, reversing the figure and ground, we might see it as a critique of a wayward, lost society that no longer provides guidance and expectations to its younger generations. Norway, in this film, seems a moral, social, and spiritual wasteland. Julie makes mistakes, certainly, but she is working under difficult circumstances.

As Julie is trying to figure out how to be in the world, the film seems to be doing the same thing. It switches from frank naturalism to magical fantasy, from earnest to acerbic, from realist to surrealist. I could see this working against it, in theory, but personally I thought it was creative and thematically apt. The Worst Person in the World has been my first film by Joachim Trier, and I’m very interested to see another.


The Oresteia
(Peter Hall, 1983)

Not “films” in the conventional sense, these are filmed stage productions of Aeschylus’ trilogy. Nonetheless, I am sneaking them onto the end of this list just because they are so good.

Filmed in the 1980s in Britain, they were an attempt to realize Greek tragedies on the stage in something like the manner in which they might have been performed in ancient Athens. The ensemble is all male, and the actors wear oversized masks, so that the drama relies on gestures and intonation to convey the meaning.

Specialists, I’m sure, can quarrel with aspects of it, but the overall impression is the main thing for me. The plays become solemn, almost ceremonial, events. The chorus, which on the page I’ve usually found hard to manage, comes to life beautifully in these productions, with individual members taking individual lines, and becoming a kind of super-actor, far-seeing, multifarious, and ominous.

A major part of the success of these productions is the music, written by Harrison Birtwistle. It creaks, bleats, and plucks its way along, adding a spare, eerie ambience to the drama. The rhythm of the music provides a beat for the actors’ lines to follow, and the overall effect is that this very strange, very slow drama attains, at times, the quality of song. It is superbly done.

The translation used in these productions was by Tony Harrison. Without knowing anything about him or his intentions, I think I am safe in saying that he took his bearings from alliterative English verse, like that in Beowulf. The text is thick with compound neo-logisms, and raw.

Choler for choler, bloodgrudge for bloodgrudge,
while Zeus the high-he-god is still the gods’ clanchief
the law for the living is killers get killed.

Granted, this feels worlds away from Richmond Lattimore’s (purportedly) more literal translation, and maybe we should talk about an “adaptation” instead of a “translation” when the target is so different from the source, but I found I really appreciated the tough, primitive rhythms and blunt, Anglo-Saxon diction, which suited this blood-soaked story very well.

All three plays — Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides — were filmed, with a total performance time of about 3-1/2 hours. Film productions of Greek tragedies, I have discovered, are rare, and these are, so far, the best that I have found.


Honourable mentions: Pickpocket (1959), The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Cries and Whispers (1972), The Sting (1973), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Where is My Friend’s House? (1987), Dead Man (1995),  Joint Security Area (2000), Mommy (2014), November (2017), A Quiet Place 2 (2020), Man of God (2021), Licorice Pizza (2021), The French Dispatch (2021).

Abandoned unfinished: The Trojan Women (1971), Top Gun: Maverick (2022).

Disappointments: Koyaanisqatsi (1982), The Card Counter (2021).

Watched again: Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Sound of Music (1965), Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), The Black Stallion (1979), Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Pride and Prejudice (1995), The Thin Red Line (1998), 300 (2006), Les Signes (2006).

2022 films: Nope, Top Gun: Maverick, The Northman, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Oldest films: Pool Sharks (1915), The Immigrant (1917), The Battle of the Century (1927).

Actor of my year:  Song Kang-ho. With two films in my top 10, and one honourable mention, he is the rather surprising winner. But he’s a wonderful actor who chooses wonderful films.

Multiple films by same director: Eric Rohmer (6), Ingmar Bergman (2), Kenneth Branagh (2).

Quod linguam dicent? French (12), Korean (3), Italian (3), …

Favourites in 2021: Film

December 30, 2021

I had an unexpectedly wonderful year in movies. Sharing the house — and, in particular, sharing the nights — with baby twins meant that I was frequently awake in the wee hours, bottle-feeding, and in this manner managed to see quite a few films, piecemeal. It turns out that 25 or 30 minutes a day is enough to peg one’s way through quite a few films in a year. The conditions might not, from a certain point of view, have been ideal, but honestly I didn’t find it all that bad.

Here are brief notes on the ten best films I saw for the first time this year, in rough descending order of preference.


Come and See
(Elem Klimov, 1985)

I have sometimes heard the complaint that film, as a medium, is inherently prone to glorify war because simply putting it on the screen inclines us to admire the spectacle and the scale of it. Come and See is a counterexample. It captures the texture and the mechanics at least as well as other films do — rather better on the texture, I’m inclined to say — but it infuses the imagery with a disconcerting manic energy and a derangement of purpose and a moral horror that undercuts quite effectively whatever might, in its power and glamour, be seductive. If you want to make an anti-war film, this is how to do it.

What is really remarkable about the film is that it seems to have a point of view, an actual mental world, through which we experience it. We inhabit the mind of someone who is not well. Think, for example, of that episode in the forest in which a vaudeville act seems to intrude upon the action, out of nowhere. Is it a dream? Or those roving point-of-view shots during the barn burning sequence, as though a mad man were stalking the grounds — as indeed was the case, and not just one.

As the film approached its conclusion I was convinced by its artistic vision, but with a reservation: it could see naught but evil. It seemed to have been born from a white heat of hatred. But even if you take the view that war is an evil, or, more narrowly, that this war — the Nazi occupation of Belarus — was an evil, it is nonetheless not the case that all involved were or could be wholly devoid of all goodness. And then, in the closing minutes, that chance, that crack through which the light could get in, appeared. Bravo.

By putting it here at the head of my list for this year, I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. It’s not an easy film to sit through, and I’m in no hurry to return to it. It’s a big, swirling, crazy film that defies easy judgment, but I cannot deny that it seems to me a masterpiece.


The Mill and the Cross
(Lech Majewski, 2011)

What an amazing film. The premise would be hard to beat: we enter the landscape that Pieter Bruegel painted in his masterpiece The Way to Calvary. The idea is not exactly that we enter the painting — although it feels that way if you know the painting in question — but rather that we enter the world from which the painting was made (as though such a world ever existed!). The effect is marvelous: the bizarre imaginative landscape peopled by a huge variety of sixteenth-century Flemish folk comes alive in a way that frequently left me slack-jawed in wonderment.

It’s a wonderful idea, though it is not quite clear how one could make a story of it. And, indeed, in one sense there isn’t really a story. “Nothing is going to happen,” we hear from one of the characters, in a rare burst of loquacity. But in another the story is the greatest ever told, and providential contemplative viewing during Lent.

This was actually the second time I saw it. The first was almost ten years ago, shortly after it was made, and at that time it left me cold. This time the effect was wholly different. It’s a difficult film, chiefly because of its non-narrative nature, but it enchanted me.


The Green Knight
(David Lowery, 2021)

It was my most anticipated film of this year, both on account of the director, whose previous films I have admired, and the source material, which I love. I can’t decide if that love is a handicap or not in this context; Lowery is clearly very aware of the poem and wants us to think of it, but he is also clearly not doing what it does.

The truth is that, considered simply as cinema, I loved this to bits. It’s the moviest movie I’ve seen in a long time: beautiful, striking imagery, an imaginative story, and superb direction.

But it’s a perplexing film in many ways. It doesn’t always make sense, even on its own terms. By the film’s end, it had grown so enigmatic, or confused, or inconsistent that I could not be sure what happened. It was also true that the music, much of it faux-medieval, was rather hokey and distracting, and might have been so much better with the right people on board.

Even so, I think it is such a strong film that it deserves to be treated seriously, both for its technical and artistic merits and also for its philosophical and religious perspective. After reading a superb long-form essay on the film, I’m convinced that it is not only fundamentally anti-Arthurian and anti-Christian — which sets it at odds with its source material, of course — but nihilistic. It’s a problem. Any film that wants to put the emptiness and futility of all human things at its centre isn’t going to win, and doesn’t deserve to win, my highest praise, but I can’t deny that this is in certain ways a great achievement, and it is a film I plan to see again.


Taste of Cherry
(Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

I guess the lesson here is: if you’ve only got $50 but you’re a genius, you can still make a pretty great film.

Taste of Cherry is about a man searching for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. With remarkably spare means, Kiarostami sets before us a meditation on the value of a human life. We don’t know why this man has come to this decision — what horror he has committed, or witnessed; what disappointment he has endured; what affliction he has suffered. For Kiarostami, it seems, it doesn’t matter. Be he victim or perpetrator, the value of his life is set before us, in the balance.

I couldn’t help but notice that his various interlocutors traced out the basic structure of a Kierkegaardian dialectic. One attempts a religious argument, derived from transcendent sources. “The Koran says…” Another attempts an ethical argument, in, for an Iranian film, a remarkably Kantian mode. “What would happen if everyone did as you intend to do? Killing yourself is killing.” But if anyone is successful, it is the stalwart taxidermist who appeals in the aesthetic sphere. “The taste of mulberries.” You have to meet people where they are at.

I have a problem, which is that my screen was really very dark in the last few minutes, and I don’t know if I missed something that I was supposed to see. For me, the film ended in ambiguity. I believe the film’s title prods us to resolve the ambiguity in a particular way.

What is missing in Taste of Cherry is the “cinema” part of cinema. I cannot deny that it is drab looking and unimaginatively shot. But we all carry around with us the memory of the films we have seen, and in my memory those disappointing aspects of it have faded away, and the strength of the film’s story and structure have remained.


Whisper of the Heart
(Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)

A quiet and very welcome surprise. I expect good things from Studio Ghibli, but I don’t believe this is one of their most heralded films. A case can be made that it ought to be. Sidestepping much of the mythical or magical elements in the studio’s better-known films, this is a very grounded, closely observed (with a gorgeous, realistic animation style to match) look at young love and young ambition, and how one affects the other.

I was completely charmed by the sensitivity of the film to the delicacy of this tentative romance between teenagers. So many films can only treat teenaged love as comedic or vulgar; here there is some comedy, yes, but gentle, and joyful, and careful not to impugn the importance of what is happening between these two characters. A scene of two characters sitting at a table in a library, reading and writing, is here invested with so much tenderness that it becomes a kind of icon of honourable love.

And the romance is only the sub-plot! The main thread explores how these two see their lives opening up before them, full of possibilities, and attempt to discover or discern the right path forward. This, too, is carried off so triumphantly that I am lost in admiration.

Finally, the girl in the film has a father, and, as a father, I am grateful to the filmmakers for this portrait of a man who is tired, but intelligent and caring, and who does his best for his family. No sign of the Dumb Father motif so common in American animated films.


Cleo From 5 to 7
(Agnes Varda, 1962)

Another surprise! My only previous experience of Agnes Varda’s filmmaking was “The Gleaners and I”, and that could hardly be more different. Where it was frumpy, casual, artless, and cheap-looking, this is elegant, formal, superbly crafted, and gorgeous. Comparisons are odious, but the contrast is really striking, and raises a somewhat parenthetical question in my mind about what the rest of her films are like.

In any case, on the strength of Cleo I understand why Varda has a reputation as a great filmmaker. This is a great film. Everything is perfectly judged. From the beginning, we feel that we are in the hands of a master, leading us step by step through several busy hours of self-discovery for Cleo. The extent to which the central character arc is told visually is fascinating. Cleo is played by Corinne Marchand, a striking beauty whom I was eager to see more of, but it seems that apart from this film she didn’t do much of note.

I am surely not the first to note that it really ought to be called Cleo from 5 to 6:30.


The Ascent
(Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

Another Russian war film, and another great one: an incredibly powerful depiction of the physical and psychological trauma of war. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a colder movie; the first half must have been awful to film.

The film offers much to ponder in the difficult decisions these people must make, under conditions of unbelievable hardship. Volunteer for the mission? Return for the wounded comrade? Admit the soldiers who appear at your door? Hide them or betray them? Tell the truth or lie? Appear to co-operate or refuse outright? On and on it goes.

What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?

Schnittke’s score is minimal but effective.

The title of the film is mysterious.


Winter Sleep
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014)

Based on Chekhov, and it shows. The film is driven almost entirely by the interpersonal dynamics between its principal characters, and from those specific ingredients it produces a rich, satisfying stew.

People are complicated. They may have good intentions, and still create problems for themselves and those around them. They want to do good, but can’t see a path forward. There are things they feel they can’t say.

It is a long film, and it rests largely on several very long domestic scenes of conversation, masterfully done. They are like miniature dramas, with character arcs of their own. The actors do a remarkably wonderful job with them. They are absorbing and wholly convincing.

If the film has a defect, it is, for me, that, like its characters, it feels stuck and doesn’t quite know what to do about it. Maybe this is a strength, the form following the content.

Despite its humble domestic settings, the film is ravishingly shot and gorgeous to look at. And the music, built around haunting chords from one of Schubert’s sonatas, is marvelous.


Tokyo Twilight
(Yasujirō Ozu, 1957)

Tokyo Twilight is an unusually turbulent and wrenching drama from Ozu, whose films are famous for their understated drama. It is still, of course, quiet on the surface, but troubled in the depths, and masterful at every level.

The story is about a father and his two daughters, one of whom has returned home because of marital problems, and the other, in her late teens, who is unmarried and, unbeknownst to her family, pregnant. Their mother abandoned them many years ago, but now turns up unexpectedly. It’s a real tangle of knots to wrestle with, and the stakes are high.

It is a film that would not be made today on account of the way it treats abortion and divorce and fatherhood and motherhood. We are lucky — very lucky — to have it.


Our Little Sister
(Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

It’s a sweet, slight tale about the affectionate relationships of four sisters who live together. The film is remarkably understated: no big drama — unless you count a squabble over who can wear a sweater; no bad guys — unless it’s their deceased father, whose problems still influence their lives. These four are generous and kind to one another, living their lives as best they can, looking to the future and wondering how things will turn out.

The craftsmanship of the film is exquisite. Everything is subtle, but just right: excruciatingly slow pans and zooms, long tracking shots that are as un-flashy as such things can be, but so wonderful! It has been very carefully judged and deliberately made. I feel about it as I often do when I see such care taken: if the filmmaker loves his story enough to lavish that kind of attention on it, I can love it too.


As usual, I didn’t go to see any films at the theatre this year, and so at year’s end there are a few acclaimed films yet unseen, notably those from Joel Coen, Denis Villeneuve, Paul Schrader, P.T. Anderson, and Wes Anderson, among others. I’ll catch up with those in the new year. In 2022 I’m looking forward to new films from Terrence Malick, Damien Chazelle, and Robert Eggers, and I’m sure there will be others too.


Finally, some trivia about the films I watched this year:

Watched again: Inside Out (2015), A Serious Man (2009), In the Loop (2009), Match Point (2005), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Lion King (1994), Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94), The Princess Bride (1987), Ran (1985), Back to the Future (1985), The Third Man (1949).

Abandoned unfinished: Annette (2021), La Flor (2018), The Killer (1989), Mishima (1985), Possession (1981), A Touch of Zen (1971).

Disappointments: Wolfwalkers (2020), L’Argent (1983), The Big Chill (1983), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

Newest films: Power of the Dog (2021), The Green Knight (2021), The Invisible Man (2020).

Oldest films: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Design for Living (1933).

Multiple films by same director: Hirokazu Kore-eda (4), Frank Capra (3), Krzysztof Kieślowski (3), Yasujiro Ozu (3), Martin Scorsese (3), Sam Raimi (2), Agnes Varda (2), Ernst Lubitsch (2), Billy Wilder (2), Coen Brothers (2), Brian de Palma (2), Kenji Mizoguchi (2), Zhang Yimou (2).

Best pandemic viewing: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Nobody Knows (2004), Parasite (2019).

Quod linguam dicent? French (13), Japanese (12), Mandarin (5).

Lecture nights: Austen on film

April 24, 2021

About a month ago Hillsdale College hosted a series of lectures on Jane Austen and the movies.

In the first, James Bowman gives an overview of the history of Austen adaptations for the screen. He is a longtime critic at The New Criterion, and though I’ve enjoyed his writing for many years, I’d never before heard him speak. He is as judicious and perceptive a critic as you could hope to find. If you take the time to watch, don’t abandon it before you hear his opinion of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Emma!

In a second lecture, Peter Leithart speaks on ‘Jane Austen and Morality’. Although Leithart is a good judge of cinema (his book on Malick’s The Tree of Life is very worthwhile), his remarks apply as much to the books as to any film adaptations.

A final lecture brings us Whit Stillman speaking on his own experiences adapting Jane Austen for the screen. His is a more diffuse and, if you want, rambling approach, but I found it interesting to hear some stories about the creation of his marvellous Austen adaptation Love & Friendship (which I picked as one of my favourite films of the 2010s), not to mention the ways in which Austen’s books influenced his other films. Recommended especially to admirers of Stillman.


There was also a fourth lecture in the series, in which Lorraine Murphy spoke on “The Life and Work of Jane Austen”. It sounded to me like an introductory lecture, so I skipped it, but, to judge by those I did see, I may have missed something good by doing so.


For the record, I think the best screen adaptations of Austen are, roughly in order, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, the Sense and Sensibility adapted by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson, the 1996 Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, and, coming last simply because it adapts a minor work, Whit Stillman’s aforementioned Love & Friendship. And I am right.

Favourites in 2020: Film

December 31, 2020

It’s been a somewhat tough year on the film-watching front. Whatever nooks and crannies I was finding for watching movies in the past few years were plugged up this year, first by life changes brought about by unhappy events like a global pandemic, and then by life changes brought about by happy events like the birth of beautiful, bouncing twins. Nonetheless, I did manage to eke out some viewing time, and some of what I saw was sufficiently praiseworthy that I’d like to share it. The “Top 10” list is divided, somewhat crudely, into a top 5 and a bottom 5.


To Live
Zhang Yimou (1994)

Zhang Yimou is the filmmaker whom I’ve been most grateful to have discovered this year. This film tells the story of a man who lives through the period of the Cultural Revolution in China. In the course of his life the country moves from one largely rooted in traditional Chinese ways to one wholly formed and managed by the Communist party. Although it is, in that sense, a political movie — political enough, it seems, to have been banned in China — the politics is all in the background. The film is mainly a personal portrait of an ordinary man just trying to do the normal human things under difficult circumstances: get married, have a family, earn a living, be a friend. It is extraordinarily well done, richly textured, often very funny, and finally satisfying. I loved it.

Parenthetically, I also watched several other of Zhang’s films this year, and I would recommend, in descending order of admiration: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Shadow (2018), and Hero (2002). All three stand out for their artistic design: gorgeous cinematography, lavish sets and costumes, and an appealing eye for formality in composition. In this sense, they all three differ from To Live, which is, in comparison, kind of shaggy and loose and earthy. Each was excellent in its own way.


The Young Girls of Rochefort
Jacques Demy (1967)

It’s a small French town. The streets are bright and clean. The sun is shining. Beautiful women are everywhere, and love is in the air. How can one keep from singing? Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a simply marvellous musical comedy. We meet an array of characters, and watch with delight as the gentle machinations of the plot bring them into romantic alignment. It is a truly enchanting film, full of life and love and happiness and joy, beautifully structured, and charming in every way. It’s the film that La La Land aspired to be, and as much as I enjoyed that film, Demy’s is better.

It isn’t perfect though. There is that little matter of an ax murderer on the loose, a subplot that seems to go nowhere and amounts to nothing, and there is, more gravely, the matter of all that jazz, but I lathered up with antihistamine cream and I was fine.


Nights of Cabiria
Federico Fellini (1957)

I’ve had a very mixed experience with Fellini’s films over the years. Rome, Open City was probably the one that I most enjoyed, with his The Flowers of St Francis coming a distant second. La Dolce Vita left me cold.

I returned to Fellini this year, and his cinematic portrait of a good-hearted prostitute in Le Notte di Cabiria is the high point of my experience with this filmmaker. It took a while for me to warm up to it, but in the end it won me over. It is more of a portrait — a portrait of a beautiful soul — than a story; the episodes — the “nights” — are vignettes meant to reveal something of Cabiria to us. She is tough on the outside, though not proud, and it is only when she is most forgetful of herself that she shows herself most clearly. Fellini takes her to some bleak places, but this is a film that ends well, and that last shot, that beautiful, heart-rending, unforgettable last shot redeemed all.

Thinking that perhaps this good experience might be the start of a beautiful relationship between Fellini and myself, I watched his 8-1/2 and Roma, neither of which, I’m afraid, I was able to finish. We have agreed to an amicable separation.


How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal
Eugene Green (2018)

Green’s films are usually hard to find — I’ve been searching for Les Signes and Correspondances for several years, without success — so it was a surprise, but a delight, to find this one on YouTube. (It has since disappeared.)

The story is about a poet, Fernando Pessoa, who gets a job writing advertising copy. It’s very funny, in that understated Green way: a parable, with ludicrous components, about the hazards of mixing poetry and commerce, or, more generally, of putting the liberal arts at the service of the servile arts, or, even more generally, of not respecting the right order of things. There’s a humorous strain about the cluelessness of censorious bureaucrats — a timely theme in 2020! The humour aimed specifically at the Church didn’t seem particularly well aimed, though he did get in at least one good joke about the Jesuits.

I loved that even in a short film of less than 30 minutes, Green still took the time for his traditional 5 or 6 minute musical introduction. These things cannot be rushed.


Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi (2019)

While it is certainly nobody’s idea of an adequate response to the evils of Nazi Germany, I am full of admiration for the spirit of Taika Waititi’s World War II comedy in which a young German boy’s imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler. Sure, let us have grim and dark stories that grapple with the malice of the time. Let us have Schindler’s List and A Hidden Life. But I see no reason we cannot also, in the mix, have a bright and winsome comedy that muses on what the war might have looked like to a bright and winsome child.

It is tempting to call this a “dark comedy” — dark on account of its backdrop and certain aspects of its content, and comedic on account of its instincts. But, if we are going to call it that, we should understand that it’s quite a different thing from the “dark comedy” of, for instance, the Coen Brothers. There is a kind of darkness in which a sardonic laugh can find a place; this film has nothing to do with that. This film is fundamentally comical, with the darkness mere pomp, almost a mere wisp. It reminded me of Chesterton, who believed in the titanic strength of comedy, who believed that it is comedy that is the fundamental heartbeat of things, and it is comedy that will finally triumph. This film makes me think that Waititi believes that too.

It’s a bold film, then, in that respect, and I understand why many people found it difficult to take. The nearest thing to it that I can think of would be Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, which also makes of the Nazis an object of satire and jest. Jojo Rabbit is tonally very complex, and I’m curious to know how it will bear up under repeated viewings, but on this first pass it worked for me.


Early Summer
Yasujirō Ozu (1951)

A lovely picture about a woman contemplating marriage and all of the changes that it will bring to her life. A beautiful portrait of multigenerational family life, with its complications and confusions and joys. Quiet moments of happiness. A very heartwarming and optimistic picture from Ozu. Slow, of course, but that’s Ozu too.


The Return
Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003)

Another marvellous, slow-burn film from Zvyagintsev. Like his later Loveless, it encourages us to dwell on what children are owed by their parents, and is unsparing in its willingness to indict failures to honour those obligations. The story — about two boys who go into the wilderness with their hitherto-absent father — is simplicity itself, and there is enough mystery and ambiguity at play to keep us on edge. The main reasons to appreciate this film are the gorgeous direction and cinematography: the slow pans, the muted colours, the deliberate pacing. It’s sumptuous, in a really bleak kind of way.


Cinema Paradiso
Giuseppe Tornatore (1988)

A touching film about friendship, community, and how our upbringing stays with us. The film is, on one level, a story about one man’s life-long love-affair with movies, but on a deeper level it’s about how we are formed as people by the places we live, what we do, and those we know and love. It’s a lovely, charming picture. A nice portrait of life in an Italian village too. For a film about movies, it doesn’t have much in the way of visual flair.


Knives Out
Rian Johnson (2019)

Sometimes you just want to see a good whodunit. I don’t know how it will play on repeat, but on first go-round this was a riot. Campy, fun performances, humorous direction and editing, and a cunningly contrived plot. A little talky, but hearing Daniel Craig talk in that affected way is not a chore. One of the best times I’ve had in a movie for a while. I still don’t understand why people put Jamie Lee Curtis in movies.


One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang, Zhang Jialing (2019)

A mannerly but nonetheless devastating investigation of China’s repugnant “One Child” policy, told by a young woman who grew up under it and whose family was wounded by it. The scale of forced abortions and, when the state was too slow with the knife, the farming out of children to international adoption agencies is hard to believe, and harder to stomach.  The film contains images that are, on their own, frightening portrayals of the evils of abortion — the kind of thing that will get you kicked off a university campus in the West before you can say “third trimester”. It is absurd, therefore, that in the last few minutes it belly flops by drawing a moral equivalence between China’s totalitarian state and the efforts of pro-lifers to protect babies from harm. Let me get this straight: the problem with all those babies killed and dumped in garbage heaps was that it was done without the mother’s consent? Preposterous. But the film is better than such awkward pieties would seem to allow.


Films by same director: Zhang (4), Hitchcock (4), Fellini (3), Green (2), Malick (2), Villeneuve (2), Bong (2).

Oldest: One Week (1920), The Crowd (1928), The Public Enemy (1931).

Newest: Tenet (September), Emma. (March), Little Women (Dec 2019).

Re-watches: Parasite (2019), A Hidden Life (2019), The Tree of Life (2011), WALL-E (2008), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Fugitive (1993), The Princess Bride (1987), Vertigo (1958).

Abandoned: Little Women (2019), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), High Life (2018), Roma (1972), 8-1/2 (1963).

Favourite films of the decade

September 8, 2020

Remember the 2010s? About nine months ago, at the turn of the new year, film buffs the world over were busily compiling lists of their favourite films of the decade that was. Even I, though but a middling buff, thought to do the same, but there was that handful of film I thought I’d like to see, or see again, before writing my list. Then 2020 happened, and that handful of films is still, for the most part, unseen by me.  Since the film-watching forecast doesn’t appear likely to change in the foreseeable future, I think the time is right to post my list and move on.

And so, here they are: my favourite films of the years 2010-2019.


1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprise here. Standing head and shoulders above anything else on this list is Terrence Malick’s magnificent The Tree of Life. My love for the film is unstinting. I have written appreciatively, and at moderate length, about it here.

I would go as far as to say this: if (and I emphasize if) the first century-or-so of cinema has produced anything worthy to rank with our greatest artistic achievements — we are moving here into the realm where we contemplate The Divine Comedy or King Lear or Don Giovanni or the Sistine Chapel or Apollo and Daphne — then I contend that among our leading candidates must be this film, which marshals all the many resources of the medium to explore the highest thoughts and the deepest reservoirs of memory and feeling. It is a film that traces the tendrils of regret and loss to the place, deep down, where they terminate in reconciliation and redemption. It is a film that not even the fortified immanent frame of modernity is able to contain, for no film has better apprehended the mystery of being. It is great in its many specific details — that house underwater, that cry of anguish, that homily, that dance, that light — and great in its vaulting ambition — that universe! The Tree of Life is a glorious, colossal masterpiece.


2. Arrival
(Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

When I praised Arrival on a previous occasion I described it as “a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie”, and I can’t improve on that. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric film, beautifully shot, and elevated by a superb lead performance from Amy Adams. I wish more science fiction films were as thoughtful and textured. I love the slow pacing, the nuts-and-bolts approach it takes to its subject matter, the dreamy cinematography, and the strong currents of feeling that it quietly cultivates. Acknowledging that it is first and foremost a worthy work of art, not a “message movie”, some readers might be interested to learn that it has a claim to be, by a considerable margin, the most subtle and unconventional and, arguably, the most powerful pro-life film of the decade.


3. Midnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

Comedies sometimes get short shrift when accolades are being dispensed, so I am happy to have two excellent examples on my list.  Midnight in Paris is that rare thing: a perfect romantic comedy, and, even better, one in which “romantic” can be taken in a wider sense than is usual. It’s a comedy about love, to be sure, but it’s also about the romance of Parisian streets, of midnight strolls, of magic, of wonder, and of dreams come to life.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to greater literary achievements, who has come to Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) on holiday. Gil feels as many North Americans do when they go to Europe: that its streets and sites are touched with the glory of those great men and women, his idols and heroes, who trod those stones before him. For Gil, Paris is perfumed with the memories of the golden age of the 1920s, when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein lived there. When, during one of his midnight walks, a 1920’s-vintage car rolls up to the curb and he is beckoned inside, he cannot resist, and so the delightful story unfolds…

The film is about nostalgia, its pleasures and its pitfalls, and is suffused with a spirit of humility and appreciation. Allen’s neuroses are present, but more moderate and winsome than usual. (It helps that Allen himself remains off-screen, although Wilson does a pretty decent imitation.) Is nostalgia a failure to face the world squarely? Is it possible to really love the past in a way that doesn’t distort it? Are we all prisoners of our own time? And, if so, what are we to do with our affection and admiration for times and places other than our own? Big questions, but handled with generosity and wit. It’s a golden film.


4. Brooklyn
(John Crowley, 2015)

Unlike some, or perhaps most, of the films on this list, Brooklyn has no grand ambitions and no particular sense of style. What it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan, playing a young Irish woman emigrating to New York in the 1950s, has a quiet but commanding presence, and that lilt is irresistible. I have a soft spot for stories about being away and returning home, and here, where it’s ambiguous whether Ireland or New York is home, that soft spot got prodded pretty often. It’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.


5. Love & Friendship
(Whit Stillman, 2016)

I’ve now seen Love & Friendship three times, and its charms have not faded. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter. It’s a film that has humour in its very bones, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, the music, and the tone. Everything works together.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially, with one notable exception, are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to his comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.


6. Gravity
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Action films are usually not quiet and slow enough for me, but I make an exception for this thrill ride, which opens with one of the greatest long takes in the history of cinema — 17 minutes of swirling, vertigo-inducing movie magic — and pursues its relentless way through a sea of troubles. The movie is like an arrow released from a bow: once begun, it stops at nothing until it reaches its target, and I can’t think of another action film that kept me on the edge of my seat so effectively. With just enough background to humanize the characters, and just enough symbolism to hint at deeper significance, I found it very satisfying, even on re-watch. Sandra Bullock, of all people, is terrific in the lead role, but the film really belongs to Cuarón.


7. Paterson
(Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Not everyone shares my liking for slow, quiet films, but I am optimistic that most people would appreciate Paterson, a slow, quiet film about a New Jersey bus driver with an avocation as a poet — or is it the other way around?  Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life. The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At the heart of the film is a beautiful portrait of Paterson’s marriage — a June and December marriage if there ever was one, but one of the most attractive I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s an altogether lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart.


8. Phantom Thread
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. It is a love story, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. To be perfectly frank, it sickens and turns sour, leaving a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. But it appears on this list because I am trying to be honest, and nine-tenths of this were among the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft of the decade for me.


9. La La Land
(Damien Chazelle, 2016)

It’s a bittersweet picture; when first I saw it I tasted mostly the sweet, when next mostly the bitter, but in both cases I was left charmed and touched by this portrait of a pair whose course of love does not run smooth. Sebastian and Mia are caught between following their dreams and following their love. They can try to do both, but life is hard, and something has to give.

It’s a musical, of course, which adds a welcome splash of ebullience to what might otherwise be just sad, and the wonderful epilogue rings all the emotional changes you could wish for. It left me teary-eyed and elated, and that is a rare feat.


10. Personal Shopper
(Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Competition for this tenth spot on the list has been fierce. Bloodied and beaten films lie askew on the field, but rising slowly to its feet in their midst, a look of grim triumph on its face, is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, an alluring film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. Part ghost story, part study in grief, and part existential mystery, it makes it to this list mostly on the strength of several sequences that I simply haven’t been able to get out of my mind. I don’t think any other film I saw this decade involved me quite so thoroughly in its perplexing details, or provoked me to quite so many frame-by-frame re-examinations of particular scenes. It’s far from being a perfect film, and is in some respects downright vexing, but curiously satisfying too.


Honourable mentions: A Hidden Life (2019); Sudoeste (2012); Parasite (2019); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); First Reformed (2017); A Ghost Story (2017); La Sapienza (2014); Knight of Cups (2016); Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

Animated: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); 24 Frames (2017); Winnie the Pooh (2011).

Science Fiction: Never Let Me Go (2010); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014); A Quiet Place (2018).

Action: Inception (2013) ; Dunkirk (2017); Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Horror: The Witch (2015); It Follows (2014); The Conjuring (2013).

Documentaries: Tim’s Vermeer (2013); The Act of Killing (2012); They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).


Comments welcome!

A decade of films for Catholics

January 25, 2020

It’s the end of the 2010s, and film buffs the world over are compiling lists of “Best Films of the Decade”. I’m making my own, in fact, but I’ve a number of films still to see before I’m ready to post it here.

In the meantime I’d like to write about the ten films from 2010-2019 that meant the most to me as a Catholic. These are not “Catholic films” in a straightforward sense, but rather “films that could be reasonably thought to be of special interest to Catholics”, or something along those lines, whether because of their themes or subject matter or setting or characters or whatever. Some are focused specifically on Catholicism, some are about Christianity more generally, and some are of wider scope. A few are off the beaten track. Some are about clergy and religious, some not. Some were made by Catholics, some not. Three were made by Terrence Malick, who is not a Catholic, but who is the preeminent Christian filmmaker working today. Few would be appropriate for a parish movie night, but all, I think, are very good films.

By way of prelude, let me run through some candidate films that, for one reason or another, didn’t make my list.


These may have had an outside chance of making the list if I’d seen them:

We Have a Pope (2011); The Letters (2015); The Young Messiah (2016); Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017); Pope Francis: A Man of his Word (2018); The Apparition (2018); By the Grace of God (2019); The Two Popes (2019); Corpus Christi (2019).

Worst Catholic film of the decade:

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017) — A prog-rock musical in which Joan alternates between mumbo-jumbo theological speculations and vigorous head-banging in wilderness landscapes. If that sounds bizarrely intriguing, you’ve fallen into the selfsame trap that I did. It is a truly horrendous film, almost unendurable, with absurd choreography and terrible (emphasis on terrible) music, but so committed to its freaky premise that it merits wary acknowledgement. Watch the trailer if you dare!

Honourable mentions: films worth seeing

The Keepers (2017): A Netflix documentary about an investigation into the 1960’s murder of a Baltimore nun that uncovers long-concealed evidence of a predator priest; a good case study in how the establishment — police, lawyers, and the Church — obstructed rather than promoted justice for the victims.

The Way (2010): Martin Sheen walks the Camino!

Lady Bird (2017): Most everybody loved this film; I liked it alright. Lady Bird has a complicated relationship to her Catholic faith, but it means something to her, even if she can’t quite articulate it. A plausible portrait of how many half-lapsed Catholics experience the faith.

The Innocents (2016):  Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies are cleaning up and the Soviets are moving in, the film centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who have suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them. A compelling story about how good can come from terrible evil.

Runners-up: films hard to exclude from the Top 10

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019): A stately, melancholic mobster picture that reckons, as Scorsese’s films have not always done, with the toll evil takes on the soul. Of interest to Catholics, I think, specifically for the final act, in which the Church, a loving mother, tries to coax a heart of flesh from a heart of stone.


Le Fils de Joseph (Eugène Green, 2016): A weird and winsome tale about a young man in modern France who finds his life bursting with Biblical motifs at every turn; very funny and quite possibly seriously mystical. There’s nothing quite like it; one scene, in particular, rends the veil.


Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015): A film I love on many grounds, I include it here not because it’s especially theological — it is not — but because it gives us an attractive portrait of Irish Catholic parish life in New York in the 1950s, a world that has almost completely vanished in the meantime.


To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012): Presenting us with two contrasting visions of love, one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast, Malick invites us to consider which is more attractive, more fruitful, and more likely to bring happiness. Though not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work — it is elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — it is an incredibly beautiful film that is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”.


And now, without further ado, my top ten:

10. Silence
(Martin Scorsese, 2016)

An agonizing and vexing film that nonetheless deserves to be in a conversation about great religious films, Scorsese’s long-meditated adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to sixteenth-century Japan, where they are tasked with confirming or refuting rumours that one of their Jesuit brothers has apostatized. Captured by the violently anti-Christian and anti-European political powers, the two undergo horrendous suffering alongside the Christians they are trying to serve. It’s a film about faith under terrible strain, about the heroic sacrifices made by Christian missionaries, about what we owe to God, about living with doubt, and about how we discern God’s presence, or absence. As with the book, most of the vexation is packed into a climactic scene that nearly but, arguably, not quite ruins the whole thing.


9. First Reformed
(Paul Schrader, 2017)

Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism (Transcendental Style in Film). These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in this film in which a middle-aged clergyman, Reverend Toller, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own salary, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

While it’s not a specifically Catholic film — all the Christians on screen are Protestants of one kind or another — I suppose it’s on this list just because it’s too well-made to pass over in silence, and its concerns about the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith, or the hazardous byways we can be tempted down in our search for meaning in life, are of wide application. Schrader has described the film as a tribute to his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers, but still very much worth seeing.


8. Kreuzweg 
(Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014)

Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Brüggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and in that ‘almost’ lies at least a few cinematic delights.

The film wrestles with the hazards encountered by any group that struggles to retain its own nature and culture in the midst of a hostile, or even merely different, culture. The issue is not about whether these Catholics are right to resist the larger culture — this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be: fraught with loneliness and isolation, and beset by risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s an austere but potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. Of all the films on this list, this is the one most open to an anti-Catholic interpretation, but my view is that it doesn’t force us into that corner. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)


7. Ida
(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)

Set in Poland about a decade after World War II, this quiet film follows a young woman, Ida, who, having been raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to religious life. For reasons that are not explained — maybe just as a courtesy, or maybe to test her vocation, or because she knows more than she lets on? — Ida’s Mother Superior sends her out of the convent to meet her only surviving relative, an aunt. The two seem to have little in common, but together they embark on a journey to find the graves of Ida’s parents, who had been killed in the war. In so doing, Ida is exposed for the first time to life outside the convent, and to the opportunities and temptations it presents. For a while the film seems like it might be pitching a simple tale of a naive girl who wises up and escapes from the narrow to the broad path, but it takes an unexpected turn that complicates that story considerably.

The film has been gorgeously shot in black and white, and the director, Paweł Pawlikowski, frames his shots such that the action usually occupies only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above, as though there were figures hovering there whom we were just too dull to perceive. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a beautiful, quiet, and tender picture. It won the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars in 2015.


6. Calvary
(John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Another film that contends with the plague of sexual abuse in the Church, Calvary introduces us to a priest in a rural Irish parish who faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout of the sins of his brother priests. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the priest — a man of substance, feeling, intelligence, experience, and genuine faith — and the theological aspects of the film are richly developed as, over the course of one week, Gleeson’s priest relives, in his own life, the Passion of Christ. Were St Paul a film reviewer, he might describe it as a portrait of a Christian man, under extraordinary circumstances, being conformed to the image of Christ. Lavishly vulgar and unflinchingly violent, it could nonetheless be defensible Holy Week viewing.


5. Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick, 2015)

A high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor, Knight of Cups follows Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

It’s one of Malick’s most difficult films, stylistically. There is little dialogue, intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, multi-layered sound, and discontinuous editing. Images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is difficult to discern; we experience it “under the similitude of a dream”.  And it is gorgeous to look at.

Malick aimed, I think, to capture that universal sense that we are summoned to something higher, that in this world, beautiful as it is, we are exiled from our true native land. To a significant extent he succeeded. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells.


4. A Religiosa Portuguesa
(Eugène Green, 2009)

St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. The risk is that we can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in A Religiosa Portuguesa (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine.

Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but at night she is drawn to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” and how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour, and the frank religiosity of much of the film, which might be too on-the-nose from a more conventional filmmaker, is rendered strange by Green’s suite of distinctive directorial tics such that it slips past our defences.

I have cheated slightly; the film was originally released in 2009, but did not premiere in North America until 2010.


3. Of Gods and Men
(Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

Based on the true story of nine Cistercian monks who were caught in the crosshairs of Algerian jihadists in the mid-1990s, this is a moving portrait of true Christian martyrdom, which makes such a striking contrast with what is called martyrdom by jihadists. The film focuses on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country as the violence around them increases, and the screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Few and far between are films in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story. Considered specifically cinematically, this is perhaps leaning to the pedestrian side, but it is a film of high moral beauty. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.


2. A Hidden Life
(Terrence Malick, 2019)

Another true tale of martyrdom, and even more intense than the last. Malick sweeps us into the world of St Radegund, a tiny village high in the Austrian Alps, where Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, Fani, are raising their young family, safe, they hope, from the infernal terror raging below. But it is not to be: in time the tentacles of the state snake up into St Radegund and Franz, like everyone else in the village, is made to decide and declare his allegiances.

I cannot think of another film that plays out so decisively against the horizon of the good — here is a man facing a specifically moral decision, and the course he chooses has no advantages to recommend it apart from the transcendental one: it is good. Franz must be incomprehensible to those who believe goodness is something subjective or conventional or confined to a world of immanence (and so it has proved). It is, despite its earthy textures and grounded characters, a film of the spirit that sees people — by implication, you and me — as spiritual beings governed by laws higher than those of nature or state. It is a grand cinematic exhortation.

What most surprised me about A Hidden Life was its emotional power. We expect Malick’s films to be overwhelmingly beautiful marriages of sight and sound — and that holds true here — but at the heart of this film is another marriage, Franz and Fani’s marriage, that is so richly developed that it gives this film a warm, beating heart Malick’s films have not always had. I think of the moment when Fani realizes that Franz has not just been expressing reservations, but intends to allow himself to be swallowed by the evil maw snapping at them, rather than commit an injustice. We feel the agony that either destroys love or forges from it something adamantine.

By any measure a luminous achievement, I believe A Hidden Life has to be given serious consideration in the conversation about which of Malick’s films is his second best.


1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprises here. One need only reason out the syllogism: (A) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to human beings; (B) Catholics are human beings; and therefore (C) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to Catholics. QED.

I’ve now seen it seven or eight times, and its beauties do not fade. Its mercies are new every morning. Certain images illuminate my imagination: a mother kissing her sleeping child, a stained-glass Christ, a dance in the air, a child swimming toward the light, a field of sunflowers, a little foot cupped by a father’s hands. Malick’s deep dive into memory has left its mark on me — or in me.

It is not possible to say in short compass just what The Tree of Life is doing — I have written about the film at greater length here and here — but I treasure it, in part, for realizing on screen the secret inner life in which a boy awakens to the world and plunges into mystery, a mystery inhabited by a hidden but alluring God. It is a work of wonder.


I’d be happy to hear about good films that I ought to have considered, or to hear reasons why I ought not to have bestowed my praise as I have.

Gleanings: MacMillan, Wittgenstein, and more!

September 30, 2019
  • At Image Journal, I’ve discovered an essay by Michael Capps which gives an appreciative overview of the music of the fine Scottish composer James MacMillan. I learned quite a lot from it. MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony recently premiered in Edinburgh.
  • Also at Image Journal, the editor, Gregory Wolfe, in a neat inversion of the usual formula, confesses to being “religious, but not spiritual”. I don’t know that I’d put it quite so emphatically myself, but I’m sympathetic.
  • The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped in the last week or so, and, once again, I failed to attend any screenings, but I did take note of this positive reaction to Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. I wonder when I’ll get a chance to see it…
  • Standpoint has been running a series on persons and things they judge “overrated”. It’s hard to argue with some of their targets (Harry Potter, Ayn Rand, Voltaire, Richard Dawkins); I confess I’ve never heard of some others, which makes me wonder how overrated they can be. But the most recent entry, on Wittgenstein, is a gem.
  • Deal Hudson has assembled what he thinks the 100 best Catholic movies. Inclusion criteria seem to have been fairly loose: we expect to find “A Man for All Seasons”, but “First Reformed” isn’t specifically Catholic. “Movies of interest to Catholics” is probably closer to what was intended. I’ve seen 8 of his top 10, but only 30-odd of the titles on the full list. Plenty of fodder there for future movie nights. Did you know there was a film version of “Kristin Lavransdatter”?

For an envoi, let’s hear a piece that ravished me this week: the “Agnus Dei” from Johannes Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine, performed by Le Miroir de Musique.

Here and there

May 23, 2019

First, some film notes:

  • Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film, A Hidden Life, premiered this week at Cannes, and the critics seemed to like it, calling it his best since The Tree of Life and, perhaps on account of its World War II setting, something of a partner to The Thin Red Line, all of which is wonderfully good news. It’s the film I’ve been most anticipating this year, though whether I’ll actually get to see it this year is another matter.
  • Deal Hudson praises First Reformed, while sketching out its relationship to the so-called transcendental style of film-making.
  • Another good film from last year was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Ross Douthat argues that it’s “a particularly transparent window into their unique sort of metaphysical agnosticism” — which, if it wasn’t clear, he sees as a good thing. It’s a thoughtful take on the film.
  • There is a documentary from a few years ago — it never found a distributor, which tells you something — called An Open Secret which argues that the grooming system for child actors in Hollywood includes networks of sexual abuse and exploitation. The highest ranking Hollywood brass named in that film was Bryan Singer, director of several X-Men films. A few months ago The Atlantic ran a good piece in which his accusers told their stories.

Then, some book notes:

  • Will Lloyd laments the rise of politicized books for children.
  • It’s my favourite colour and yours, and now Michel Pastoureau has written a book about it. The book was in our home, courtesy the public library, where, alas, it sat in a place of honour for some weeks before being returned, unread. But I would like to read it, and in the meantime Jesse Russell has written an appreciative review.
  • James Panero writes perceptively about the ghost stories of Russell Kirk (which I read a few years ago around about All Hallows Eve).
  • Finally, I have to recommend Michael Weingrad’s superbly barbed exploration of Harold Bloom’s life-long antagonism toward the Inklings, and especially toward C.S. Lewis.

For an envoi, let’s watch Buster Scruggs’ death scene, featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings singing “Spurs for Wings”:

Favourites in 2018: Film

January 7, 2019

I had a rewarding year watching movies in 2018, somehow managing to cram quite a few into the nooks and crannies of my works and days. For this year-end list I’ve chosen ten of my favourites. Since they all have something to recommend them, I have not ranked them, but simply listed them in alphabetical order.


Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism in Transcendental Style in Film. These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in First Reformed (2017), which he both wrote and directed. A middle-aged clergyman, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own income, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

Schrader has said that the film is his tribute to a number of his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It is a beautifully filmed and carefully put together picture. Like Taxi Driver, it takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers; I was very nearly among them. But on reflection I lean toward admiration of the film’s boldness. Even if it is not believable as a realistic story, it works as a fable, and that fable is about — what? Maybe simply the hazards of our need for meaning; or the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith; or, though it seems a cliché, the power of love to overcome violence and despair. It’s a complex, artfully constructed film, very much worth seeing.


The first and maybe best reason to see Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) is that no other film shows Rome to better effect. To see the city filmed with such sumptuous beauty — and magically empty of tourists! — was a glorious consolation to me.

And that might well be the only consolation on offer. Jep — Jeppino, as he is once called, and fittingly — is a Roman socialite, one-time novelist, living off the fumes of his literary reputation and enjoying his posh creature comforts. Having reached his 65th birthday, he begins to take stock of himself, and, rightly, finds himself wanting. The film alternates between bacchanales and quiet, ruminative moments as Jep ponders how his life, and he himself, might acquire more weight and substance. He considers a variety of remedies: popularity, artistic creation, religion, sex, love. All, with the possible exception of some combination of the latter two, the film rejects with greater or lesser degrees of smugness. It is, in this sense, a spiritually dark film, blind to certain possibilities. An instinctive cynicism, which reveals itself most clearly in the film’s gorgeous opening sequence, is its chief defect.

Jep says he is lost because he was looking for the great beauty, but never found it. But were you really, Jep? Be honest.

Despite my misgivings, it is a film that grapples with a serious matter — the search for meaning in a world bereft of transcendence — and for this I honour it. That is seems to have nothing to say in the end is, first, honest, for there is no good answer given those premises, and, second, belied by the manner in which it is presented: saturated with a beauty that just might undermine the complacent immanence of Jep’s world. The film may be wiser than it seems at first blush.


At the beginning of Loveless (2017) a young boy goes missing; he is an only child, and his parents are in the throes of a separation. The police are called; search parties are formed; the boy must be found.

Except that the film cannot keep its mind on the plot. Instead it lures us into the self-involved, oh-so-understandable troubles of the boy’s parents, adults who have things on their minds, new lovers, and what they would no doubt call emotional needs.  They are petty and selfish, and we, to the extent that we are drawn into their concerns, are subject to the same damning criticism. Not often have I felt so strongly that a film, as I watched it, was watching me with an unsparing eye.

There is wonderful art here: patient direction, fantastic lighting and cinematography, creative use of the camera. Like the director’s previous film, Leviathan, it moves slowly but surely. What I appreciated most was its withering, steely-eyed interrogation of that mother and that father. Here, friends, is a film about divorce that is cold as ice and entertains no excuses.


Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), one of Eric Rohmer’s ‘Moral Tales’, is a closely observed study of the gap between ideals and actions, and of the difficulty of knowing the heart, whether our own or another’s. We follow Jean-Louis — a thirty-something man, articulate, somewhat lonely, a committed Catholic — who is invited by a friend to the home of Maud, a beautiful young divorcée. When the friend departs, Jean-Louis is left alone with Maud, and a long conversation, like a dance, begins, as she gently but persistently probes his integrity, and he, more brusquely and instinctively, hers.

Their encounter works on a metaphorical level — this was 1969, after all, and in that room we see the sexual revolution coming up against the Catholic order of marriage and sexuality, which, if nothing else, makes the film a fascinating cultural artifact — but it also works, and works quite beautifully, on a personal level, as a tale about two people who, though very different, find one another strangely fascinating. The film has a second act in which Jean-Louis falls in love with a Catholic woman; this section reconnects with the first in some surprising ways that reinterpret what we have seen before while reiterating and deepening the film’s main concerns. Altogether an excellent film.


I haven’t seen many film noir on par with Out of the Past (1947). Robert Mitchum plays a man trying to start again, but his past life of crime will not let him be, and he is forced back into that world in a final effort to escape. Mitchum is weary, imperturbable, and sometimes inscrutable, such that when the plot warms up we cannot be entirely sure his crossings are not double-crossings. Much the same could be said of the excellent femme fatale character, played by Jane Greer. It’s a film in which the men are as tough as you’d expect, the women are as beautiful as you’d hope, but people aren’t always who and what they seem to be.

Dialogue in film noir is often darkly witty, but I can’t think of a single film that surpasses this one in that respect. (Roger Ebert’s review gives some examples, and they could be multiplied.) The director is Jacques Tourneur, who also made Cat People, a superior film of the creepy sort. In any case, with an abundance of trench-coats and cigarettes, and style to burn, Out of the Past is highly recommendable.


In the contest for least-inspired movie title, one could hardly do better, or rather worse, than Personal Shopper (2016), but that blandness is a disservice to an involving film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. The film is centred on Maureen, an American living in Paris, who is mourning the recent death of her brother, and, more than just mourning, is waiting for him to send her a sign from beyond the grave. He had been a medium of some talent, and Maureen believes that she has this gift too. And she does have experiences that could be, perhaps, signs, but are hard to interpret. The film gradually — too gradually for some, perhaps — builds toward a crisis in which something very dramatic occurs, although just what is hard to say. Like those messages Maureen seeks, the film, too, is hard to interpret.

I watched Personal Shopper twice this year, separated by several months, because I wanted to give my first enthusiasm for it a chance to wane before another sober viewing. On second acquaintance I am less convinced it holds together. Most vexing is that there does not seem to be any one interpretation of the film’s final half-hour that makes sense of all we are shown. Nonetheless, the film’s quiet exploration of desire and loneliness, underpinned by an excellent low-key performance by Kristen Stewart in the lead role, coupled with intriguing plot developments that had me watching and re-watching certain scenes with great attention, made it for me one of the more fascinating film experiences of the year.


It has been a decade since a Paul Thomas Anderson film won my admiration, but Phantom Thread (2017) did the trick. Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. Within that graceful framework, however, he has given us a pretty bizarre tale.

The story is that of an artist — Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer in London in the 1950s — and his muse, Alma, a younger woman whom he meets when she waits on his table one morning in a hotel. Reynolds has been through this before, typically retaining his young women until their value as a muse wears off. But Alma is different; initially overwhelmed by the glamour of the life into which she has been spirited, she cannily finds a way to make a place for herself. The film is very much a study of the complicated relationship that develops between these two.

Thus far the story sounds like one we’ve heard before, more or less, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. Anderson has prepared the ground quite carefully, but subtly enough that I missed it on first viewing. As the film drew to a close I actually began to wonder — if you know PTA’s other films — whether Alma was going to drink a milkshake.

If the terminus of the story arc sits rather uncomfortably on my mind, the rest of Phantom Thread is of the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft. Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave one of the greatest film performances known to me in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, gives a very different but, I am tempted to say, comparably impressive performance as Woodcock, a man of fastidious habits and sensitive temper into whom Day-Lewis disappears. That Vicky Krieps, as Alma, can hold the screen with him is high praise. There is a delightful vein of understated humour running through the film that adds sparkle, and everything about the production and direction is the work of a master.


I saw two good films this year with titles beginning A Quiet P. One was the thrilling blockbuster sci-fi alien invasion disability farm family pregnancy drama A Quiet Place, which caused me to carefully check all the staircases in my house for a particular hazard. The other was A Quiet Passion (2016), about an unlikely cinematic subject: Emily Dickinson.

To make a film on the life of a poet seems a daunting challenge; the cinematic potential of a woman sitting at a desk, pen in hand, are limited. But of course Emily Dickinson was a woman like other women, with a family, and views on religion and society, and the dramatic possibilities to be drawn from a network of close relationships between articulate speakers gathered in a sitting room are, as we have learned from Jane Austen, rich and delightful, and A Quiet Passion makes much of its slender material.

(Speaking of Austen, by a peculiarity of the casting — in particular, by having Jennifer Ehle play the handsome second sister — I was continually tempted to conflate this story with the famous Pride and Prejudice adaptation! In this parallel universe, our poet appears in the role of Jane, the slightly homely, taller, thinner sister who has a harder time in social circles. Never had I suspected that Jane was a poet! Sadly Mr Darcy makes no appearance, having drowned, perhaps, in the pond.)

The oddest thing about A Quiet Passion is the dialogue. In the first half or two-thirds, dialogue consisted largely of aphorisms, as though everybody was choosing lines from an Oscar Wilde anthology. Quite stagey. Strangely, this effect seemed to dwindle as the film progressed.

As much as I enjoyed the story, and I did, for me the principal attraction of this film was the direction. It is my first Terence Davies film, and I am now very interested in seeing others. The direction is careful, with slow pans and beautiful compositions, and transitions are managed elegantly. I had the impression that Davies is a superb craftsman.


Every year since 2011 I have named Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) as my favourite film of the year. (Readers interested in why I love it might read this.) This year I watched it again, of course, but with a difference: a new, extended version of the film was released. The extended version adds about 45 minutes to the original 140 minutes, so it is a substantial augmentation.

Most sections of the film have been altered to some extent, sometimes just by brief insert shots. The most substantial changes are twofold: first, to the scenes with the adult Jack (Sean Penn), which are fleshed out and expanded from the modest material in the original version, and, second, to the long central section of the film devoted to life in the O’Brien’s household. To this section, which has always been the heart of the film, new story elements are introduced, including a dramatic storm sequence, and a new and quite upsetting plot development. The overall effect is to enrich the portrait of this family, deepening our appreciation of them. By giving this (fairly) traditionally narrative section of the film more weight, the new film has its feet planted more firmly on the ground than did the earlier, more enigmatic version. Something is gained, but also lost. And the new version clocks in at more than three hours; I don’t know how it is where you live, but for me it is hard to find three uninterrupted hours to do anything.

So, in the end, I’m not sure which version I prefer. My resolution, for future viewings, is to alternate until such time as one version wins my heart. In the meantime, The Tree of Life, Extended Version was my favourite film of the year.


The joys and pitfalls of young love are the theme of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Shot in retro black and white, it tells the story of two young French lovers whose romance is interrupted by war but nonetheless continues to overshadow their lives. It is a beautiful but bittersweet film that just might break your heart in the end. Part of its beauty is its special conceit: it is entirely sung. There are no ‘big numbers’, just a steady stream of through-composed music that floats the film from its first scene to its last, with the singing a kind of heightened speech. Be careful, though: your jazz allergy may act up.


I have listed ten films. Most were easy to choose; a few were difficult on account of competition from other good films. Those that missed my list this year, and might have made it were my mood swings more erratic, were The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), La Fille inconnue (2016), Paper Moon (1973), and Top Hat (1935).


Best superhero film: Wonder Woman (2017), the greatest wonder of which was that it included a battle between two invincible characters that was not dull as dirt.

Best action film: American Made (2017), if it is properly called an action film.

Best musical: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Best animated: The Hobbit (1977), a weirdly folkadelic take on Tolkien’s tale that nonetheless managed to capture some of the childlike spirit of the book.

Best filmed stage performance: Romeo and Juliet, from the Globe Theatre; the best production of this play that I have seen, for stage or screen.

Started, but not finished: My Winnipeg (2007), in which my fledgling interest in Canadian cinema came to a sad end.

Watched, but not remembered: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); All About Eve (1950); The Assassin (2015).

Watched again: The Princess Bride (1987); When Harry Met Sally… (1989); The New World (2005).

Film rescued by a single scene: Paris, Texas (1984).

Film rescued by a single character: Cool Hand Luke (1967).

Disappointments: A Brighter Summer Day (1991), A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Shortest films: Simon of the Desert (1965) [45m]; Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) [1h10m]; Le Monde vivant (2003) [1h10m]

Longest films: A Brighter Summer Day (1991) [3h57m]; Ex Libris (2017) [3h25m]; Spartacus (1960) [3h17m].

Oldest films: The Great White Silence (1924); Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928); Pandora’s Box (1929).

Newest films: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Nov); Mission Impossible: Fallout (July); A Quiet Place (April).


On the silver screen

September 4, 2018

A few film-related links today:

  • Writing at The Weekly Standard, John Simon gives a primer on the films of Ingmar Bergman. I believe I’ve seen about a half-dozen of Bergman’s films, and many of those Simon recommends as good entry points are yet unseen by me. Like Bresson, I’ve found Bergman a tough nut to crack; sitting down to watch him sometimes feels too much like homework. But, as always in such cases, I willingly shoulder the blame, and I’m planning to follow-up on some of Simon’s suggestions, homework or not.
  • I have no similar difficulties with the films of the Coen Brothers, from whom the most recent news is that their forecast mini-series, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has now been converted into a feature film instead. This is disappointing, as I’d been curious to see what they would do with the extra time and scope that the mini-series format would provide, but, on the other hand, a new film from the Coen Brothers could never be simply disappointing. I look forward to it.
  • I’ve also been looking forward, for over a year now, to Terrence Malick’s new film, Radegund. Rumours were circulating that it might premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but the festival’s line-up has now been announced and I am sobbing quietly, in voiceover.
  • It is also rather sad to note that I have lived in and around Toronto for almost 20 years and have never been to a single TIFF screening.
  • Also at The Weekly Standard, Tim Markatos has written a fine appreciation of Dreyer’s classic film The Passion of Joan of Arc, and of other cinematic treatments of St Joan’s life. I’ve actually seen quite a few of these, including Rossellini’s, Bresson’s, and Rivette’s — but I’ll not contest the critical consensus that Dreyer’s is the best.