My 2016 in Film

It seems almost customary at this point to slate 2016. But I feel like so many people are taking the message of newspaper headlines, memes and viral videos wholesale, without pausing to reflect on how it was for them.

Yes, 2016 seemed to have tragedy after tragedy. The deaths of not only cultural icons like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher, and film directors like Arthur Hiller, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Guy Hamilton, but also people who changed the world: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Vera Rubin. Politically, the world became divided by Brexit and Trumpism, against the backdrop of the assassination of Jo Cox, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and further ISIS attacks in Europe to shake the world, with Aleppo under siege.

But the world will always have to face new dangers. As time moves on, more icons of the 1960s and 70s will pass on. We have seen the rise of right wing populism before, just in different forms. Yet in my personal life, 2016 has been a pretty good year.

I came to terms with my asexuality. I decided to become vegetarian (and, possibly, on the verge of being vegan). I made more friends than I’ve ever had before, whilst finally settling into a degree I actually like. I helped launch a film society, and watched more films than I’ve ever done so before. I travelled more, from Dublin to Barcelona to Béziers, and my new favourite place in the UK, Brighton. For once, I’m actually feeling pretty comfortable with life.

In terms of culture, 2016 has been a brilliant year: in music, Blackstar and You Want it Darker closed out the decades long careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in a beautiful way. Lemonade and Blond revolutionised not only style, but also how music is distributed. Over in comic books, Paper Girls and Kill or Be Killed told engaging new stories which I love to my very core. As much as one might proclaim the death of cinema, 2016 saw so many strong films, like The Neon DemonI, Daniel Blake and Paterson (although some like Moonlight still await a UK release), that it becomes difficult to keep up. Meanwhile, labels like Criterion and Indicator launched in the UK, bringing more and more films out as the best they’ve ever looked.

Whilst other end of year summaries seek to examine 2016 as a whole, I can’t do so in good conscience. I can strongly advise that you stop everything you’re doing right now and watch Weiner, Baden Baden and Your Name. But I’ve simply not watched enough, still waiting to see releases like Silence and Manchester by the Sea in the coming weeks and days, that my list will never tell the whole story.

Because my film consumption isn’t linear, not based on what new releases are out in the cinema or on Netflix, but shifting between decades, directors and genres. Some I write reviews of – but for some, it might take days for my thoughts to settle in my mind, or I don’t have enough of something unique to say about it to sustain a whole review. So, over the next week or so, I’ll be highlighting some of the best films I watched in 2016 that I might have overlooked before.

The 1920s

The Epic of Everest (1924), dir. J.B.L. Noel

Everest has captured our imaginations more recently with Everest (2015), about the tragic 1996 expedition, but The Epic of Everest should go down as the definitive film about the mountain. Beautifully restored by the BFI in 2013, it charts the 1924 expedition by Mallory and Irvine, who died during the expedition. Although the film conforms to the ethnographic impulses of other films of the period like Nanook of the North (1922), creating a portrait of another culture through the perspective of the other, the film’s illustration of the customs of the Tibetan people are not its main draw.

Instead, the film becomes its most haunting in its presentation of the mountain itself. As Mallory and Irvine go missing, we painfully wait until, if ever, their bodies are found. We become aware of the etherealness of life against an unchanging landscape, in a beautiful red-tinted time-lapse of the mountain. As the best of silent cinema does, the image transcends itself, becoming almost otherworldly. The Epic of Everest has been overlooked for a long time, but it is a fascinating cultural document, preserving a period in history which deserves to be seen.

The 1940s

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

It seems easy to dismiss WWII era cinema as pure propaganda. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) seems almost alternative universe fantasy, as we see three Nazi officers crossing over the ocean to Newfoundland, hiding amongst the Canadian people and attempting to cross over the American border. It seems equally easy to dismiss WWII cinema as the purview of daytime TV, playing to older audiences who just about have a memory of the war. But Powell and Pressburger were masters of their day, and A Matter of Life and Death is no different.

The end of the Second World War acts as only a backdrop to wider events, as we see a pilot (played by David Niven) split between the afterlife and his miraculous survival, washing up on the English coast. Invoking spiritual and supernatural themes might seem less in vogue nowadays, outside of explicitly Christian cinema by the Kendrick brothers or PureFlix, but stories of afterlives and angels pop up everywhere from Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) to lauded classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But A Matter of Life and Death is more than these things: it’s a love story.

But A Matter of Life and Death deserves technical praise too. Shot largely in three-strip Technicolor, its use of colour is beautiful (and deserves the best quality version available, with an abundance of public domain copies out there), in spite of it clearly being an early and not fully developed use of it. Depicting the afterlife in monochrome might seem like a money saving process (If…. (1968) did similar), yet it lends it an ethereal quality, outside of the more grandiose depictions of Heaven, framed within the scientific universe as another planet far away. The film’s final act might feel like a courtroom drama, but it remains intensely watchable, and in light of Brexit, the discussions around national identity feel highly relevant.

The 1960s

Easy Rider (1969), dir. Dennis Hopper

Contemporary critical responses to Easy Rider seem split between regarding it as a cultural landmark, launching the New American Cinema and turning Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda into iconic names, and by dismissing it as an overextended bore where nothing happens. Born to Be Wild has dug itself into popular culture, used in every single kid’s film trying to be edgy.

Easy Rider is an acid trip of a film where nothing much happens, but that is the beauty of it. We join these three characters on the open road, where their lives are destined to be unpredictable. Like with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral (1969), the American landscape takes on an almost spiritual quality as our protagonists move through it. In the film’s most mesmerising scene, we join our protagonists in their acid trip, edited in what today would probably just be a music video. Alongside its soundtrack, combining music by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf, the film becomes an easy film to just slip through.

 

Medium Cool (1969), dir. Haskell Wexler

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Medium Cool is of its time. This is not a criticism; it is its reason for being. Its genre is difficult to categorise, because it throws convention out of the window. In essence, it becomes a ‘time capsule’. It encapsulates a period where narrative is not necessarily its most important element, and is decidedly experimental.

Having never existed in 1969, I cannot fully judge how well it captured the period, only speculate. We see strobe lit raves with live performers singing about hippies and psychadelia within politically charged lyrics); a modern, more casual sexuality; campaigns for Robert Kennedy’s election; MLK’s speeches about finding the kingdom of God; lake-side baptisms; civil rights protestors; dominant police forces; the role of a cameraman; run-down, minority neighborhoods, defined by early seasons of Sesame Street  (1969-present); Eddie Adams’ iconic ‘gun to the head’ image from Vietnam, reproduced from magazine pages on John’s apartment wall.

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There are still pertinent questions here. Our image of MLK today relies upon forgotten aspects: we remember “I have a dream”, but we forget that he was a reverend, powerful within the spiritual part of the black community; too we forget the more vitriolic speeches, and we forget his equally important peers. The film raises questions around civil rights protesters, drawing parallels with modern fights for equality, and the post-Ferguson consciousness around police brutality. Where a black woman demands her voice be heard in the media, and let her define her own identity, these battles are still not won. When a child bemoans the dominance of the television in classroom, not as an educational aid, all I can think of is how in high school I had substitute teacher lessons watching everything from Mr Woodcock (2007) to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2008). This is not the same world, nor a different world.

Photographic and videographic journalism faces new dangers today: more prevalent, but also more risky, war journalists captured or murdered by ISIS. The film presents us with the idea of respect with the cameraman: both giving respect to your subjects, and being respected. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, we see a black protestor lecture our protagonist; another man speaks, with a color photograph of MLK behind him on the wall. In the confrontation with the police, the cameraman becomes an obstruction.

Eileen searches through the crowd of protestors to find her boy, only to be enveloped into them; a bystander becomes the guilty. She stands apart from them, with her bright yellow dress creating a contrast; she has individuality, yet is simultaneously a part of a mass consciousness. Like the degrading “human interest” stories the Black Panthers speak of, the narrative of the film is a “human interest” story, profiling characters as a means of exploring a wider issue, of creating a connection with the audience. Eileen is our interest amongst an indistinguishable crowd; too often we think of mass crowds, rather than acknowledging that there is a story, a personality and a history behind each protestor.

The camera plays an interesting position here. We frequently break the fourth wall, with John speaking into the camera, or by looking at a cameraman, staring out at us. We are ‘filming’ by watching the film, creating a record of it through our lenses (our eyes) within our memory; but the camera pointed towards the cameraman is doing the same, albeit in a physical manifestation as a negative; the camerman is doing the same through his camera. In a sense the subject becomes active; the disconnect between cinematic reality and our reality become lost. The film’s cinéma vérité style never truly creates the feel of documentary because of its character driven narrative, yet there is also a sense of immediacy, especially during the scenes of the convention.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), dir. Richard Attenborough

Unlike other stage to screen adaptations like Les Misérables (2012), awkwardly using the gritty aesthetic of a war film, Oh! What a Lovely War remains theatrical in its film version. The wooden floorboards of the Brighton Pier become a makeshift stage for the film’s events, a variety music hall transfiguring the mundane and everyday into symbolic objects: marionettes into soldiers in the game of war; rifle ranges become guns in the trenches; binoculars on the pier become a lookout post. It becomes a wraparound for vignettes from throughout the war, from early negotiations through to its aftermath.

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The audience is positioned within other stages too: Maggie Smith’s character’s performance in the theatre to a watching audience (both us as viewers and the theatre audience in 1914); the vast, cavernous enclosed spaces of the train station, full of extras; the white walled palace of the opening scenes, where the nations of Europe negotiate, so bare that it is a theatrical set in itself. Scenes merge from one into the other: fireworks transform into shellfire in moonlit trenches, as easy as a brief costume change or a change in set dressing; with no physical movement but an illusion achieved in seconds.

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Attenborough’s visual style helps make the film. His compositions are perfect, riffing on paintings and creating multi-layered images with depth. The film is rife with symbolism, owing much to theatre. There is a recurrent image of soldiers as poppies, holding them before they go to their deaths. In death, they are given red blankets to cover their corpses.

Musicals have never appealed much to me; even the most well-regarded films of Rodgers and Hammerstein, like The Sound of Music (1965), bring actual pain. There are still songs here which make me want to gag, but the incorporation of soldiers singing songs of the time in the trenches create a sense of realism into a highly stylised film.

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In some ways, a feminist portrayal of war is created. Not only does the Brighton Pier create a stage for the audience, it also creates a portrayal of the war back home, concurrent to life in the trenches – the southern coast away from the western front. War interrupts the end of the ‘golden’ Edwardian era: families on a June day by the seaside exist side by side to the patriotic marching band, the king’s men who become soldiers in combat.

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In this world, women thrive. The suffragist movement, so often overlooked or considered in isolation: Pankhurst’s death, or the victory in 1918, are considered apart from the war, rather than an essential part and consequence of it. A campaigner is given the expected vitriol given to all conscientious objectors at the time; by the film’s end, the men have been buried in white, unmarked graves – with the white specks of the women of the family remaining in focus; women have ascended past the war.

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Its satirical edge may not be the most accurate portrait of the war, promoting an image of an incompetent British Army that is not the entire truth; events like the Christmas truce exist somewhere between apocrypha and reality. But it creates a compelling attack on war, even outside of the musical numbers, through a heavy sense of juxtaposition. It could easily descend into offensive territory, belittling human suffering in the way The Producers (1967) satirised through its fictitious musical Springtime for Hitler, yet it never quite gets there.