How have cinemas survived?

The Coronavirus lockdown has threatened cinemas like never before, but it’s not the first time their future has been in doubt. From Nazis to Netflix, clued-down looks at how theatrical film exhibition has survived more than a century of challenges.

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The World Theatre, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash.

Cinemas are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. In Britain, for the first time in over 80 years, every screen in the country has been forced to close, putting thousands of jobs and the future of an entire industry at risk. According to the Hollywood Reporter, global box office losses could reach $17 billion if the lockdown continues to the end of May. With streaming services already nipping at the heels of theatrical exhibitors, it’s impossible to say what the landscape of film distribution will look like mere months from now.

However, this is not the first time that cinema operators have had to weather a storm. Movie-going has been a ubiquitous pastime for more than a century, and in that period the silver screen has faced repeated slumps in attendance and challenges from other media. From Nazi air raids to the rise of Netflix, cinemas have always been forced to adapt to sudden calamity and rapid changes in consumer habits – and so far they have managed to survive.

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Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash.

Cinemas first emerged in the last years of the 19th century and quickly became the diversion of choice for the young, urban working classes. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, there were 4,000 locations across the UK, and their grip upon the nation’s social life was only tightened with the advent of talkies and Technicolor in the 1930s. In the words of historian AJP Taylor, cinema was ‘the essential social habit of the age’.

The first challenge to this supremacy arrived with the Second World War. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, every picture house in the country was immediately closed by order of the Government, fearing their vulnerability to aerial bombing. This quickly provoked outrage; the playwright George Bernard Shaw, for one, penned an angry letter to The Times asking, ‘‘what agent of Chancellor Hitler is it who has suggested that we should all cower in darkness and terror ‘‘for the duration’’?’ The importance of cinema for both civilian and military morale was quickly recognised, and within a month every screen across the country was once again open for business.

In the end, the war years turned out to be something of a golden age for the country’s cinema industry, as the miseries and privations of war encouraged audiences to seek refuge in the glamour of the movies. Attendance grew steadily throughout the conflict, eventually reaching an all-time high of 1,635 million in 1946 – this was despite the 160 cinemas destroyed by enemy action. Film exhibitors may not have appreciated it at the time, but these were halcyon days, as the postwar era brought renewed attacks upon the dominance of the silver screen.

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The BBC had issued the world’s first regular television transmission on 2 November 1936, and within two decades this new technology became a common feature – arguably the feature – of family living rooms. The growth of television, combined with the spread of central heating, made staying at home a more attractive prospect for Britain’s movie-going masses. Audiences declined steadily from 1948, as did did the number of cinemas. From a peak of 4,700 venues in 1946, this fell to 3,050 by 1960 and 1,971 by 1965.

To combat this precipitous decline, the film industry turned to the sort of spectacle and technical innovation that couldn’t be equalled by their small screen competition. Colour pictures became more common, while the 1950s also saw a brief craze for 3D movies along with the introduction of various widescreen processes like Cinerama, VistaVision, CinemaScope, and Ultra Panavision. While these developments helped movies to retain their edge, the first real victim of the television boom was the once-mighty newsreel industry, which could not hope to match the immediacy of TV news. British Paramount News closed in 1957, followed by Universal and Gaumont British in 1959. In 1960, the Newsreel Association of Great Britain and Ireland ended all operations, whilst the fatal blow was finally dealt in 1969 with the closure of British Pathé.

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Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash.

The innovations of the fifties may have slowed the rot in theatrical exhibition, but the worst was still yet the come. Audiences continued to tumble precipitously, and fell to a record low of just 54 million admissions in 1984 – a collapse of 95% from their 1940s heyday. Indeed, the 1980s are widely recognised as the nadir of the British cinema industry, as the advent of home media with VHS and Betamax brought Hollywood blockbusters into living rooms just months after their big-screen premiere. Meanwhile, TV soaps and sitcoms arguably replaced cinema as the nation’s favoured mass entertainment; on Christmas Day 1986 over 30 million viewers watched Eastenders‘ Dirty Den serve divorce papers to his wife Angie.

As audiences fell, so too did the number of screens to serve them. By 1984 there were just 660 sites left in the UK, often in an unloved and dilapidated condition. The following year, film academic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith warned, ‘there is now an imminent danger that British Cinema as we know it, will have effectively ceased to exist within the decade.’ Amid this downturn, hundreds of grand movie houses were demolished or converted into bingo halls, pool clubs, or places of worship (the preservation of these often ornate, art-deco constructions continues to fuel controversy).

Things seemed dire, but salvation was close at hand. Imitating developments in American suburbs, AMC opened the UK’s first multiplex in Milton Keynes in 1985. Called The Point, it was a futuristic, pyramid-shaped structure of glass and steel. Inside were ten cinema screens and a snack bar selling an indulgent range of food and drink, while the courtyard outside had ample space for parking the family saloon.

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The Point, Milton Keynes. Photo by stone40 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Point brought about a revolution in British cinema’s fortunes, and how it did business, as a wave of new establishments based on the same model were rapidly constructed. These buildings were cleaner and better maintained than many of the decaying old city-centre cinemas with which audiences were familiar, and their greater number of screens meant that they could, in theory, show a broader range of films. By 1990 there were 41 such cinemas with 411 screens between them, while nationwide cinema admissions had nearly doubled to 97.37 million.

Thanks to continued investment, audience attendance rose consistently over the following decade, and since 2001 the annual total has never dipped below 150 million. Of course, there were some losers in this brave new world. The explosion of out-of-town multiplexes did cause closures among independent cinemas which were unable to adapt their existing buildings. Meanwhile, many cinéastes have argued that rather than expanding consumer choice, these multi-screen behemoths have actually restricted the selection of films on offer, dedicating their plethora of screens to the latest American blockbusters and little else.

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Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton. Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash.

But the fact remains that the multiplex saved the humble cinema from terminal decline, and the industry has enjoyed reasonably good health ever since. Indeed, despite the rise of fresh competition in the form of HD television and streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, cinema admissions have remained relatively steady over the past 20 years, while in 2018 British cinemas had their best year since 1970, selling 177 million tickets. Cinema sites have also continued to multiply; more than 30 opened in 2019 alone, bringing the total across the UK to 840.

While theatrical film distributors, particularly those in France, wring their hands about the threat from Netflix, there is little evidence that cinema’s days are numbered. In fact, a recent study in the US by consultancy EY found that those who stream movies more regularly are also the most enthusiastic cinema-goers. Perhaps in recognition of this, Netflix has recently been increasing its presence in cinemas, partnering with Curzon in the UK to handle limited big-screen releases of Netflix-produced movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. All this suggests a future in which cinemas and streaming giants can coexist in relative harmony.

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Admittedly, the 90-day window that has traditionally existed between a film’s premiere in cinemas and its arrival on home media is increasingly looking like an archaism within our on-demand culture. But just as cinemas have continually evolved over the last hundred years, they will persist in doing so against the new challenges of the digital age. Phil Clapp, the CEO of the UK Cinema Association, argued as much in a recent letter to the Financial Times, observing that, ‘the supposedly imminent demise of the cinema sector due to streaming has its echoes in the predicted impact on the business of TV, VHS and DVD.’

Throughout the catastrophes and innovations of recent history, cinema-going has proved to be a difficult habit to shake for the British public. The ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 has challenged the industry like never before, but there is something special about the cinematic experience which keeps audiences coming back. When the lockdown is finally lifted and we all emerge bleary-eyed from our homes, it won’t be long before we head back into the welcoming darkness of a movie theatre.

 

Top Ten… Westerns

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Westerns have been a constant presence in cinemas since the dawn of celluloid. Their enduring appeal is easy to understand, transporting audiences to a lawless time unrecognisable from our own, where the fate of every individual was in their own hands. The vast prairies, mountain ranges, and dense forests of the American Old West are always a sumptuous backdrop for cinematic adventures, even if they are often filmed in a Spanish desert or an Italian studio. Indeed, despite the thoroughly North American setting, westerns have been made across the world and taken innumerable forms. To limit my scope for this list, I’ve adopted a fairly strict definition of “western” – that is, films set during the time of the Old West and featuring gunslingers. That leaves out neo-westerns like the Coens’ No Country For Old Men (2007), space westerns like Star Wars (1977) and Outland (1981), or period dramas with a western setting, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

The final form of my top ten still may not satisfy purists, and I’ve even surprised myself in places. While Italian spaghetti western pioneer Sergio Leone makes four appearances on the list and Australian auteur Andrew Dominik enters the top five, American masters John Ford and Howard Hawks failed to make the grade at all. As such, I’d like to give honourable mentions to Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), both classic westerns which helped to shape the Hollywood golden age of the genre.

As Eli Wallach’s Tuco says in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.” In the spirit of being quick on the draw, here are my top ten western films:

10) High Noon (1952)

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Dir. Fred  Zimerman

Often interpreted as a leftist parable on the injustices of the Hollywood blacklist, High Noon is a timeless story of singular moral courage in the face of popular cowardice. The archetypal tough guy of classic Hollywood, Gary Cooper, delivers an Oscar-winning performance as Marshal Will Kane, a small-town sheriff shunned by his community and forced to stand alone against a marauding gang of gunslingers. This story is given a deeper resonance by the fact that the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was subsequently chased from the United States and blacklisted by the House Un-American Affairs Committee for prior membership of the Communist Party. And yet, the redoubtable Marshal Kane has often been quoted as a hero by reactionary and conservative figures, from Ronald Reagan to Tony Soprano. Perhaps therein lies the secret to the High Noon‘s enduring appeal. Whether Communist or Republican, all of us like to imagine ourselves with Kane’s fortitude, standing for what’s right against all the odds and the sneers of lesser men.

9) The Wild Bunch (1969)

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Dir. Sam Peckinpah

Hollywood’s answer to the spaghetti westerns of Italian cinema, The Wild Bunch is a blood-drenched odyssey through the dying days of the Wild West. Morally ambiguous and shockingly violent, Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western was perfectly pitched for the counter-culture generation. It stands alongside Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) as a film which heralded a new era in American film-making, eschewing the moralistic conventions and sanitised bloodshed of classic westerns. It’s influence would be felt far outside the western genre, as Peckinpah’s radical use of slow-motion and montage editing techniques had a pervasive impact on action cinema.

8) Unforgiven (1992)

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Dir. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood’s swansong to the genre which made him a star, Unforgiven is a melancholy story of a faded gunslinger and the violent past which haunts him. David Webb Peoples’ haunting screenplay deconstructs the glamorous ideal of the gunslinger, delving into the physical and mental scars wrought by a life of violence. It depicts a ruthless Old West totally divorced from the glories of John Ford pictures and Lone Ranger comics, where survival has more to do with luck than the speed of your draw and outlaws are executed ingloriously in an outhouse rather than in a blaze of glory. As Eastwood’s William Munny tells a young bandit, “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”

7) Duck, You Sucker! (1971)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

Also known as A Fistful of Dynamite, this was the final western from maverick Italian director Sergio Leone, and I have already explained at length why it is his most cruelly overlooked masterpiece. The film follows an uncouth bandito Juan (Rod Steiger) and exiled Irish revolutionary John (James Coburn) as they are thrown together during the bloody days of Mexico’s Revolution. Shot with Leone’s trademark verve and accompanied by a zippy score from maestro Ennio Morricone, the film is a cynical and often brutal study of popular revolution and its consequences. More than this, however, it is a reflection on the director’s own career and the violent revolution he had inflicted upon the western genre.

6) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

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Dir. George Roy Hill

In the same year that Sam Peckinpah was deconstructing the myths of Old West with The Wild Bunch, director George Roy Hill reminded audiences why those myths had proved so persistent. Based loosely on fact, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a classic tale of two lovable outlaws on the run from the law after a botched train job. William Goldman’s sharp screenplay, his debut effort, won a well-deserved Oscar and made the young writer one of the most sought after in Hollywood. Goldman was lucky, however, that his two leading parts fell to actors with such irresistible chemistry. As the eponymous Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Robert Redford assumed a place among cinema’s most scintillating double acts. They would be reunited with George Roy Hill for the glorious 1973 crime caper, The Sting.

5) For a Few Dollars More (1965)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

Film critic Roger Ebert once said that a film is only as good as its villain, and For a Few Dollars More is an excellent demonstration of this principle. Gian Maria Volonté’s performance as the psychopathic gang leader El Indio makes for one of the most enthralling antagonists in any western. He is a repulsive yet charismatic presence, and the perfect quarry for Clint Eastwood’s enigmatic bounty hunter, Manco. Eastwood is joined by Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Douglas Mortimer, another bounty hunter with a hidden personal agenda in the pursuit of El Indio. The film is full of brilliantly staged shootouts, bank robberies, and prison breaks, each one outstripping the last until culminating with a fantastically tense duel in the final reel.

4) Shane (1953)

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Dir. George Stevens

The mysterious gunfighter with a fast draw and a heart of gold is a well-worn trope of western movies, but no film interrogates this notion like George Stevens’ Shane. The eponymous gunman, played with career-best subtlety by Alan Ladd, is a drifting frontiersman who stumbles into a conflict between besieged homesteads and a greedy cattle baron. For much of the film, events are witnessed from the perspective of Joe, a young boy he befriends, and there are mere hints of Shane’s skill with a pistol and history of violence. It is only during the inevitable, bloody climax that he is forced to draw his six-shooter, but Stevens is careful not to frame the bloodshed as cathartic or exciting. Rather, it is a spoke in a sad cycle of death from which escape seems impossible. Using a child’s-eye-view, the film dismantles the masculine ideal of the cowboy and the violent legend of the Wild West. As Shane tells Joe during the film’s heartbreaking denouement, “There’s no living with a killing.”

3) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

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Dir. Andrew Dominik

The only western from this side of the millennium to make the list, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have earned a place on the brilliance of its title alone. But this is a stunning film by any metric; a complex rumination on celebrity, hero worship, and the deceptive power of legacy. Brad Pitt and and Casey Affleck have never been better, breathing a deep sense of humanity into the well-worn historical figures of Jesse James and Robert Ford respectively. Roger Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography is some of the best work is his peerless career, while a jangly soundtrack from Australian rock geniuses Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provides a portentous atmosphere. The film’s troubled post-production and failure at the box office led film critic Mark Kermode to call it “one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era,” and it’s difficult to argue with that assessment.

2) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

The fairy-tale reference in the title of Once Upon a Time in the West is an appropriate one. After all, what is the Old West if not the American equivalent of the enchanted kingdom, and the gunfighter its Fairy Godmother? With a story that hinges on the construction of the trans-continental railroad, Once Upon a Time in the West tells the making of the modern United States; the remorseless tide of civilisation which swept a continent, and the brutally violent men who made it possible. It’s grandiose and ambitious storytelling, carried by a peerless ensemble cast and punctuated with achingly tense episodes of violence. As Sergio Leone’s first western without his muse, Clint Eastwood, the film signalled a clear shift in tone from the director’s earlier spaghetti westerns. Slower and more deliberately plotted, the script places a greater emphasis on human drama than stylish gunfights and elaborate action sequences. It also gave Leone the opportunity to work with his favourite actor, the legendary Henry Fonda, who is cast chillingly against type as the villainous mercenary Frank.

1) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

Not just the best western on this list, but probably the greatest film ever made. Having cut his teeth on the low-budget escapades of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, Sergio Leone was finally given the chance to stretch his legs into genuinely epic territory. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a sprawling story of three gunslingers on the hunt for buried gold during the American Civil War. Clint Eastwood is an effortlessly cool presence in his third and final turn as The Man With No Name, but it is Eli Wallach’s Tuco, the ugly of the film’s title, who shines as one of cinema’s most fascinating anti-heroes. Wallach’s electric performance imbues an otherwise repugnant and amoral figure with a deep sense of tragedy, placing a complex character study at the film’s emotional core. On a technical level, it is impossible to name a more exquisitely made picture. Leone’s customarily gorgeous cinematography pays equally loving attention to the the craggy terrain of the Spanish desert and the sun-charred crevices of Clint Eastwood’s face. The action on screen unfolds at an overwhelming scale, with thousands of extras and colossal sets provided courtesy of the Spanish Army, but Leone never loses his grip on the palpable, sweaty intimacy which pulls his audience into the rugged world of the film. And, of course, there’s Ennio Morricone’s musical score; a sweeping, utterly singular symphony which evokes both the splendid grandeur and fearsome barbarity of the Old West.

Top ten films of 2019

As a new decade dawns and we look back on the last 12 months, it can be tough finding much to be positive about. The rise of fascism continues unabated and the world is on fire, but amidst all the horror, at least we got some good movies. With the Academy Awards having just past, it’s now the time of year for my annual appraisal of the best that cinema had to offer in 2019.

In many ways, it felt like a landmark year for the film industry. The increasing monopolisation of blockbuster cinema by the Walt Disney Company, and its emphasis on franchise-driven spectacle, has caused alarm among some cinéastes. Martin Scorsese himself started a debate on how we can even define the term “cinema” in this newly corporatised landscape. Despite these valid concerns, 2019 was still an exciting year to be a film fan. From the experimental and independent work of British directors Mark Jenkin and Joanna Hogg, to the epic scale of Sam Mendes’ new First World War epic, there was plenty of variety to be had in multiplexes. In fact, it wasn’t always necessary to journey to the cinema to see the best new releases; streaming behemoth Netflix continued its assault on Hollywood, producing films from the likes of Scorsese and Noah Baumbach (securing a place on my coveted top-ten list in the process). Narrowing down my favourite films of the year into a shortlist of just ten has proved to be an agonising experience, and a testament to the maxim that there is never a bad year in cinema.

Unfortunately, as I have limited myself to ten films, there are several which failed to make the cut but nevertheless deserve an honourable mention. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, although technically a 2018 release, didn’t arrive in UK cinemas until April 2019. A sympathetic coming-of-age story about the perils of adolescence in the social media age, my eyes were damp for most of the running time. One of the most anticipated pictures of the year was Quentin Tarantino’s latest and, as the director insists, penultimate film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Hugely atmospheric and featuring career-best performances from Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt, it’s an uneven but uncompromising love letter to the cinema of Tarantino’s youth. James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (known as Ford v Ferrari in the US) was a masterclass in old-fashioned, crowd pleasing film-making. Exhilarating and pleasingly practical racing sequences are anchored by charismatic turns from Christian Bale and Matt Damon, both of whom provide charmingly wobbly regional accents. And finally, Noah Baumbach returned with Marriage Story, a touching and nuanced chronicle of an artistic couple and their young son navigating a divorce from opposite ends of the United States.

Without further preamble, here are clued-down’s top ten films of 2019…

10. The Souvenir

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Dir. Joanna Hogg

First love isn’t always romantic – sometimes the confused intensity of youthful romance can leave scars which persist for a lifetime. The Souvenir is a powerful account of a toxic relationship between a young film student, Julie, and an enigmatic older man, Anthony. Director Joanna Hogg has been forthcoming about the autobiographical nature of the film; from minor furnishings in Julie’s flat, to whole conversations between the two lovers, much of what we see is a facsimile of the director’s experience as a young film student in early 1980s Knightsbridge. As such, the film exhibits the tenderness of an open wound. Banal comments and imperceptible gestures carry a weight of immense meaning, much thanks to a vulnerable lead performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother in the film). Grappling with Hogg’s emergence as an artist, The Souvenir is ultimately a study in self-identity and artistic expression, and how those creative impulses can be stifled by those you love the most and then rediscovered in the face of personal tragedy.

9. 1917

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Dir. Sam Mendes

The disappointing 2015 James Bond adventure, Spectre, opens with an impressive single-take action sequence which is undoubtedly the highlight of the film. Little did anyone know at the time, but this moment of technical showmanship was a dry-run for director Sam Mendes’ next film. 1917 isn’t the first movie to digitally stitch its shots together to appear as one unbroken take – Iñárritu’s Birdman pulled the same trick in 2015 and was awarded Best Picture for its trouble – but it is probably the most compelling use of the technique yet. Following two corporals as they race to deliver a message across enemy lines, the film is a Homeric Odyssey through the devastation of the First World War. There’s a surreal and episode quality to proceedings, a feeling emphasised by the unrelenting gaze of the camera and real-time structure of the story. Comparisons to a video-game are not completely off the mark, but nor are they necessarily a criticism. Watching 1917 is a formidably immersive experience, from the thunderous sound design to Roger Deakins’ stupefying cinematography, everything works to bring the audience closer to the trenches and shell-pocked fields of Northern France. Crucially, this technical tour-de-force is grounded by the sympathetic characters who drive the story, particularly George Mackay’s powerful performance as L/Cpl Schofield. He provides a human face to the vast and incalculable suffering of a conflict which has long since passed from living memory.

8. Little Women

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Dir. Greta Gerwig

The seventh adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, Little Women is a masterclass in the modern period drama. Following her superb 2017 directorial debut, Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig has breathed life into the classic text with an exuberant sense of pace and a reappraisal of the novel’s relevance for contemporary audiences. The ensemble cast is bursting with some of the most exciting young talent currently working in Hollywood, with Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet all following up a recent run of star-making turn with typically magnetic performances. Meanwhile, stalwart actors Laura Dern and Chris Cooper provide multi-faceted supporting appearances which leave an impact out of proportion to their screen-time. Gerwig’s script adopts a gently daring non-linear structure, which distinguishes the film from prior adaptations and expedites the narrative into a comfortable two hours. I’m less convinced by the addition of a meta-narrative in the third act, which interweaves the character of Jo March with biographical details from Alcott’s own life, but it’s to the film’s credit that it endeavours to push the boundaries of its source material without losing sight of its core themes.

7. Monos

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Dir. Alejandro Landes

Capturing the child’s-eye-view of war is never an easy prospect, but recent years have seen a number of excellent films focusing on the horrors of child soldiery, from Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008) to Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015). With Monos, director Alejandro Landes looks at the ongoing brutality of the Colombian civil war from the perspective of a small group of teenage guerrillas. Little time is wasted explaining the history or details of the conflict, focusing instead on the lived experience of the teenagers at the centre of the story. The petty squabbles and clumsy romances of adolescence are contrasted violently with the brutality of war, while the squalid reality of their existence is presented in uncomfortable detail. It’s fantastically visceral film-making which overwhelms the senses, whether the inescapable chill of a desolate hilltop outpost or suffocating heat of a rainforest encampment. The heady experience is heightened by a discombobulating score from British composer Micah Levi. Essential viewing, just make sure that you have time to lie down afterwards.

6. Pain and Glory

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Dir. Pedro Almodóvar

The latest film from veteran Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory follows a chapter in the life of Salvador Mallo, a reluctantly retired film director depressed by physical decline and personal loss. Borrowing elements from Almodóvar’s own experiences, it’s a loosely autobiographical look at the ennui of early old age and finding renewal through art. Much of the film’s power rests on a centrepiece performance from Antonio Banderas, reuniting the actor with the director who launched him to stardom some three decades ago. It’s an unshowy turn rooted in subtle glances and minute gestures, in which his very posture communicates a lifetime of physical and emotional pain. Despite the script’s introspective tone, Almodóvar constantly switches gears and moves his character into fresh territory. Mallo’s story is structured almost as a series of vignettes, echoing the restless dissatisfaction and search for meaning in his own life, while a parallel timeline follows his childhood in a sequence of flashbacks. Both of these threads, seemingly unconnected at first, are eventually tied together  in one of the most satisfying final shots of the year.

5. Parasite

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Dir. Bong Joon-ho

The first film not in the English language to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Parasite is the movie on everyone’s lips at the moment. Although the Oscars have an admittedly sketchy record when it comes to picking the film of the year, this is surely to go down as one of the most deserving victors. A cutting satire of inequality and economic apartheid in modern South Korea, Parasite is a richly layered film which refuses easy categorisation and demands reinterpretation of every image and character. Director Bong Joon-ho moves deftly between acutely observed comedy and chilling psychological thrills, with each shift in tone following as a completely natural development in the serpentine plot. Similarly, Jung Jae-il’s exhilarating score dances between styles, from sinister and militaristic drum beats to baroque-inspired strings, while Hong Kyung-pyo’s crisp cinematography brilliantly contrasts the claustrophobic squalor of a crowded basement dwelling with the bright, clean space of a wealthy mansion. Between Parasite and the recent successes of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), Korean cinema is currently enjoying a well-earned moment in the sun among mainstream western audiences.

4. Bait

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Dir. Mark Jenkin

Much of the publicity around Bait focused on the archaic technology with which the film was made. The 16mm monochrome cinematography and post-synced audio certainly harks back to a bygone era, but the substance of the story deals with fiercely contemporary concerns around the decline of the English fishing industry and the slow death by gentrification of the communities that supported it. This conflict between old and new, between the obsolete and the advanced, permeates through Bait in both it’s technical achievements and storytelling. Charting the tensions between locals and second home-owners in a Cornish fishing village, it’s a riveting and timely study of the division and inequality which has come to characterise so much of life in modern Britain.

3. Knives Out

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Dir. Rian Johnson

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) was not only one of the best blockbusters of the last decade, it also established writer/director Rian Johnson as a film-maker unafraid to bend the expectations of his genre in pursuit of a good story. With his latest film, Johnson has drawn heavily on the work of Agatha Christie, but Knives Out distinguishes itself as a thrillingly contemporary take on the classic whodunit. It has all the tropes one might expect of a Poirot or Miss Marple story; a Gothic mansion, a quirky detective, and a smorgasbord of suspects, motives, and clues which all spiral towards a satisfying, final-act reveal. Underneath this slickly plotted murder mystery, however, is a caustic satire of the privilege and greed endemic to Trumpian America. Johnson’s script is also one of the funniest of the year, full of cutting exchanges and knowingly haughty monologues, and matched with a charismatic set of performances. A perfectly pitched ensemble cast is led by Daniel Craig, who savours the opportunity to stretch himself as the outrageously accented and flamboyantly dressed gentleman sleuth, Benoit Blanc. Just as Craig was due to hang up his holster as James Bond, he’s found another iconic character who is sure to be sustained in sequels to come.

2. Uncut Gems

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Dir. Josh and Benny Safdie

If the exit poll of the 2019 general election was the most stressful thing I watched in the last year, then Uncut Gems takes a comfortable second place. Following on from their excellent 2017 thriller Good Time, the Safdie brothers have crafted another hyperactive  assault on the senses. It follows a hilariously intense few days in the life of Howard Ratner, a self-destructive jewellery store owner and chronic gambling addict, as he risks all he has in the pursuit of the score of a lifetime. Adam Sandler gives easily his best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 drama Punch Drunk Love, demonstrating what the much-maligned actor is capable of when paired with film-makers who appreciate the depth of his talent. The supporting cast is similarly impeccable, with newcomers and non-actors alongside rising stars and veteran performers, while a sharp script imbues every character, no matter how minor, with a sense of authenticity. The fast-paced dialogue is elevated by the Safdies’ dizzying camerawork and Daniel Lopatin’s relentless score, all of which combine to bum-clenching effect. Uncut Gems may have been inexplicably overlooked by almost every major awards body this season, but it’s a delightfully exhausting film which confirms Josh and Benny Safdie as two of the most exciting film-makers of their generation.

1. The Irishman

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Dir. Martin Scorsese

Rumours of The Irishman‘s production floated around the internet for at least a decade before the project came to life, and it was always difficult to entertain as a realistic prospect. The idea that Martin Scorsese would team up with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci for one last gangster movie, when all four were into their seventies, seemed fanciful at best – and misguided at worst. We all saw what happened when the ageing has-beens of 80s action cinema tried a similar trick with The Expendables. Could The Irishman, with its septuagenarian cast and crew, ever amount to more than a tired echo of former glories?

Of course, you would have been a fool to bet against Scorsese. Those expecting a rerun of Goodfellas or Casino were to be disappointed, as The Irishman arguably owes a greater debt to Sergio Leone’s elegiac 1985 crime epic, Once Upon a Time in America. Unfolding over the course of three-and-a-half sumptuous hours, it’s a deliberately paced story following the gangsterisation of American politics in the mid-twentieth century and the personal costs of surviving in such a world. De Niro stars as the eponymous Irishman, Frank Sheeran, and delivers his best performance this side of the millennium. It’s a quietly devastating role that follows the gradual hollowing out of a man, his sense of humanity slowly eroded by decades of violence and a perverse code of criminal honour. Pacino, meanwhile, is at his scenery-chewing best as infamous union chief Jimmy Hoffa, all hoarse screams and flailing arms, but it’s Pesci who is given the opportunity to move outside his comfort zone, with astounding results. As mob boss Russell Buffalino, he is a controlled and commanding presence who belies a deeper, calmly psychotic menace. It is a subtle role totally divorced from the highly strung villains for which Pesci was known in his prior collaborations with Scorsese, and yet no less threatening.

The last ten years have produced some of Scorsese’s finest and most varied work, and it seems appropriate that he should conclude the decade by returning to the gangster movie milieu with which he is most identified. Ultimately a rumination on the ravages of time and coming to terms with one’s legacy during the twilight of life, The Irishman is as much a commentary on Scorsese’s own career as it is a study in the life of a criminal. More than a great film, it is a deconstruction of the myth of the American gangster – the final word on the crime film from the genre’s own Godfather. A masterpiece.

“I never knew the old Vienna before the War” – The Third Man and coming to terms with the post-war world

As The Third Man turns 70, we delve into what it tells us about Britain and the building of a new global epoch

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Cities rarely look as good as they do in the movies. The intoxicating power of the urban sprawl has been a focus of film classics since the dawn of cinema, from the Berlin underworld in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to the scum-ridden streets of New York in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece of British film noir, The Third Man, is similarly entwined with the city of Vienna. The ruined boulevards and subterranean passages of the Austrian capital provide a perfectly murky stage for a cynical tale of crime and corruption during the birth of the Cold War.

It’s a war-torn town with dark cobbled streets and racketeers lurking inside every shadow. The palpable crookedness of the environment is even felt in Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography, with dutch angles and extreme closeups fostering a constant sense of unease – accompanied, of course, by a timelessly evocative zither score from Anton Karas.

But The Third Man‘s Vienna is so much more than an atmospheric setting; it captures a changing world in a period of political and economic turmoil. The film arrived only a few months after the Berlin airlift; a time when the allied coalition which had defeated the Nazis was beginning to break apart. An uneasy detente had given way to open animosity between the Communist Eastern bloc and the capitalist West. As an occupied city in the former Third Reich, Vienna was at an epicentre of these tensions, and as such it provided a perfect microcosm of this post-war global order which was still in its infancy.

The importance of the film’s volatile political context is foregrounded in a brilliantly sardonic opening narration, provided by director Carol Reed himself. In character as a seedy black-market racketeer, Reed explains how Vienna had been divided into various sectors under the control of American, Soviet, British and French forces respectively. “What a hope they had,” he comments, “all strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.” The Third Man, then, is not just the story of a city, but of a whole new world which had been born from the ashes of the Second World War.

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Amid this unfamiliar geopolitical landscape, the film seems preoccupied with the role of Britain on the world stage, and how this once-mighty nation might come to terms with the newly emergent supremacy of the United States and the Soviet Union. Acclaimed novelist Graham Greene adapted the screenplay of The Third Man from his own novella, but made one crucial change from page to screen. His characters Holly Martins and Harry Lime, respectively the protagonist and the villain of the drama, were recast as Americans rather than Britons. This change had obvious commercial implications for a British film pitching itself to the US box-office, but placing two American characters so centrally within a European story also reflected the growing dominance of the US in world affairs.

Indeed, Holly Martins is not just an American citizen, but a writer of the most American of genres, the Western. As he barges brashly into the Viennese underworld with all the tact of a gunslinger, it falls to the chief British authority in Vienna, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard ), to act as his guide. Against the determination of the American, however, Calloway can only stand by and feebly offer advice as Martins wades further and further out of his depth. 

At the same time as Calloway’s sincere guidance is largely disregarded by the visiting American, the British officer also finds himself overridden by his Russian counterparts. The Soviet wing of Vienna’s international police are eager to deport Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czechoslovak national living under false documents, and Calloway’s protests in her defence go largely unheeded. Finding himself subject to the whim of more powerful and well-resourced rivals, Calloway’s predicament would have been familiar to British authorities across the globe at the time of the film’s release. Throughout the late 1940s, an exhausted British Empire had acquiesced to Soviet demands in Eastern Europe, granted independence to former colonies in India, Burma, and Ceylon, and indebted itself to the United States via the Marshall Plan. If Harry Lime is the third man of the film’s title, then Britain had become the third power, dwarfed by the economic and military might of the planet’s chief capitalist and communist states.

Despite this diminished influence, the British retain the moral prerogative in the world of The Third Man. Calloway is a stern but ultimately good-natured figure, upholding the rule of law but making exceptions wherever there is the imperative to do so, as evidenced in his kind treatment of Anna. Likewise, his Cockney enforcer, Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), is an affable personality – a keen fan of Martins’ westerns and always courteous to Anna, even when duty requires him to raid her property. These values may appear out of step with the world around them, but the rarity of such ethical integrity is exactly what makes it seem so valuable. This is contrasted with the cocky self-assurance of Holly Martins, the nihilistic greed of Harry Lime, or the inhumane bureaucracy of Soviet liaison officer, Brodsky. Here, Greene’s script may be suggesting a new role for Britain within a world of ideologically opposed superpowers; neither as bold as the Americans nor as efficient as the Russians, but nevertheless a voice for decency and reason in a polarised landscape. 

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Carol Reed wasn’t the only film-maker to be questioning Britain’s identity in the immediate post-war era. Powell and Pressburger’s majestic 1946 fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death, focused on the Anglo-American partnership which had emerged as one of the defining traits of the post-war West. But where that film had ended on an optimistic note of cooperation and cross-cultural romance, The Third Man strikes an altogether more bitter tone. At the film’s conclusion, Martins chooses to ignore Calloway’s parting advice to “be sensible”, and he is left alone in a foreign city with his love unrequited and a far bleaker future than when he had arrived. Perhaps it’s a suitable metaphor for the disappointment of the European post-war project, which had seen the rapid disintegration of the new United Nations into two opposed monoliths on either side of an iron curtain.

If this is a disheartening picture, it represents only the opening salvo of a Cold War which would persist for another four decades and trigger a series of protracted proxy conflicts around the globe. The role that Britain would play in this tumult was still unclear, and in many ways it remains so. As the The Third Man celebrates its seventieth birthday and the UK faces another crossroads in its relationship with the world, the film’s image of a belittled yet outward-looking nation within a chaotic world remains familiar.

Top ten films of 2018

This Sunday heralds the arrival of the 91st Academy Awards, and with it the interminable horror/delight of the annual movie awards season draws to a close. In honour of this fact, I’ve assembled a list of my ten favourite films of the last twelve months – and it’s been another fantastic year for film fans of every variety. Untested film-makers like Boots Riley and Bradley Cooper dazzled audiences with spectacular directorial debuts, while experienced masters like Lynne Ramsay and Paul Schrader returned to screens in stellar form. As a human being with responsibilities and limited time on this Earth, I can’t claim to have been comprehensive in my selection, but I nevertheless hope that I’ve distilled a varied range of the brilliant films which have graced our screens this year, and shed light on a few lesser-seen gems in the process.

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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Dir. Chris McQuarrie

Far and away the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year, the sixth instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a masterclass in big-budget action cinema. Now approaching his hundredth birthday, Tom Cruise continues to astound as the world’s most charismatic crash-test dummy, but it’s the slick work of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie which sets the film apart from its competitors. The plot is a plainly absurd mixture of well-worn genre tropes and contrived techno-babble, but it works perfectly as a stage for the most awe-inspiring stuntwork and special effects since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s exciting, crowd-pleasing cinema which doesn’t require leaving your critical faculties at the door, and I can’t wait to see what McQuarrie does next with his next two Mission: Impossible sequels, due for back-to-back release in 2021 and 2022.

9. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Dir. Barry Jenkins

Adapted from James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story which chronicles the black experience in modern America, in both its joy and its injustice. Following on from his stunning 2016 directorial debut, Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has again demonstrated a knack for immersive cinema, pulling his audience through the frame into an authentic vision of 1970s Harlem. The characters who populate this world are compelling and full of life, while Nicholas Britell’s delicate score provides a sultry backdrop. The result is a deeply atmospheric experience which pays tribute to the human capacity for love and denounces our complicity in cruelty and prejudice. For a much more eloquent and insightful perspective on the film than I could ever produce, I heartily recommend checking out Tayler Montague’s review for Little White Lies.

8. A Star is Born

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Dir. Bradley Cooper

It’s not often that remakes are among my favourite films of the year, but there’s a reason A Star is Born is now in it’s fourth iteration. As an exploration of the music industry, its themes are simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper has offered a deeply affecting meditation on art, artist, and how celebrity can bring about both the making and the destruction of a person. But all this would be meaningless if the romance at the centre of the film didn’t feel utterly believable. Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are astonishing in the lead roles, disappearing into their characters and fizzling with chemistry during intimate moments as well as bombastic musical numbers. Significantly, the film’s tactful depiction of male mental health feels relevant and essential at a time when such conversations are much-needed.

7. Sorry to Bother You

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Dir. Boots Riley

In the best possible way, Sorry to Bother You is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. It drifts between razor-sharp satire of modern capitalism and python-esque absurdist comedy – and often both at the same time. With shades of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Sorry to Bother You is a consistently hilarious but damning critique of the consumerist rat-race in which we all live. Writer and director Boots Riley, a veteran rapper and activist but unproven film-maker, helms the film with a lightness of touch which results in an enjoyably surreal experience, despite the script’s earnest subtext. Constantly second guessing its audience, Sorry to Bother You is not the film you expect going in, nor is it the film you think it is after watching for an hour – and you won’t see anything like it this year.

6. Widows

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Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen has never been known to shy away from sensitive subjects. His previous films have dealt with the Northern Irish troubles, sex addiction, and slavery, and Widows follows in a similar vein. The film confronts the issues of politics, race, gender, and violence which plague modern America, but all within an exciting and deftly executed crime thriller. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV television series, Widows masterfully follows the heist movie textbook, complete with a chalkboard planning sequence, a vehicle chase, and a last minute twist, but McQueen gives the genre a contemporary makeover. It’s probably his most accessible film yet, but that doesn’t mean it has any less to say. All this is supported by a magnificent ensemble cast including Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall, and a typically aggressive score from Hans Zimmer.

5. First Reformed

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Dir. Paul Schrader

No one makes films about disturbed and reclusive men like Paul Schrader does, and First Reformed marks a welcome return to form for the seasoned film-maker. It’s a slow-moving and deeply contemplative film which stars Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance as Reverend Toller, the pastor of a small-town church who has become a husk of himself following the death of his son and collapse of his marriage. As he tries to reconcile his faith with the cruel and decaying world he sees around him, Toller finds a new and obsessive purpose upon meeting an expectant mother called Mary (no points for subtlety there, Paul). There are undeniably shades of Travis Bickle in Toller, but the quiet rural parish of First Reformed is a world away from the scum-filled streets of Taxi Driver‘s New York. More than a character study, Schrader’s script examines the role of faith and the church in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, and a discomforting sense of impending disaster appropriately permeates the whole film. What begins at an unhurried pace gradually builds in intensity until a breathless climax and the best cut-to-black ending of 2018.

4. The Favourite

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Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The reign of Queen Anne has never been a popular arena for cinema, and it feels appropriate that the idiosyncratic talents of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos should be directed towards this neglected era with The Favourite. As usual, he brings his subtly disorientating camera work and an acerbic script, but this time he’s joined by three fine leads in the form of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, who bounce off each other with alacrity. It’s a subversive take on the costume drama; from the foppish absurdity of almost every male character to the liberal use of the word “cunt”, this certainly isn’t Pride and Prejudice. Although the results are generally hilarious, there are sudden and very effective moments of tragedy which are handled masterfully by Lanthimos and give real depth to characters who might otherwise seem caricatured. It’s also fantastic to see Olivia Colman receiving the roles and recognition she deserves as one of this country’s finest actors. Having followed her career since the days of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s difficult not to feel a peculiar sense of pride in watching her ascent to international stardom.

3. Cold War

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Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Probably the most difficult film of the year to find on Google, Cold War perfectly demonstrates the simple power of visual storytelling. Following the tumultuous romance of two lovers in Communist-era Poland, the film is an epic tale which spans across years and borders, as the two suitors drift passionately, and often destructively, through each others’ lives. Despite this tremendous scope, the film runs slightly less than an hour and a half in length, an admirable effort in brevity from co-writer and director Paweł Pawlikowski. Above all, he is a film-maker who understands the primacy of the image as a means of telling his story, avoiding the need for lengthy exposition or protracted dialogue. Each frame of the film is more beautiful than the last, but more impressive is how these images capture the unspoken intensity of true love and the cruel world which seeks to extinguish its spirit. The power of Pawlikowski’s approach would have been dulled  were it not for the subtle work of his two lead performers, Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, who, with barely a word, communicate both the excitement and melancholy of love.

2. Roma

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Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

A loosely biographical tale of a housemaid in early 1970s Mexico City,  Roma is a study of both the personal and the political, and how these two worlds intertwine in powerful but almost imperceptible ways. The experience of a single woman, and the family for which she works, is placed against a sweeping historical backdrop of economic and social turmoil, without ever losing focus on the human drama at its core. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the central role, while the film around her is crafted with Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark finesse. Every movement of the camera is executed with a deliberate, almost ethereal omniscience, placing the viewer into an strangely voyeuristic role. As a Netflix production, Roma also represents a turning point in how major films are made and distributed; the much-maligned streaming service is knocking on Hollywood’s door.

1. You Were Never Really Here

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Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Eight years since her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay has again proved herself to be one of the finest film-makers in the business. Visually dazzling with a dark and uncompromising character study at its heart, You Were Never Really Here simply could not have been made by anyone else. Joaquin Phoenix is a brutish and enthralling presence as Joe, a violent enforcer barely clinging to his grip on reality, who must embark on a rescue mission into a depraved underworld he cannot begin to comprehend. Ramsay’s films have always had a preoccupation with the internal experiences of her characters, with their singular perspectives providing a stark new lens through which to see the world. As such, every shot in this film is filtered through Joe’s confused and erratic psyche, enveloping everything in a suffocating intensity. The effect is heightened by Paul Davies’ cacophonous sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s entrancing score, and it all combines into a sensory assault which is experienced as much as it is watched. It may clock in at a lean 89 minutes, but You Were Never Really Here is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about for almost a year.

The Revolution devours its children: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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The year 1968 was defined by political radicalism and civil unrest. From the May demonstrations in France to the American civil rights movement, a wave of anti-authoritarian protests and riots swept much of the world, even reaching behind the iron curtain of the USSR. In Italy, home of director Sergio Leone, almost all the country’s universities were rapidly occupied by a predominantly left-wing counter-culture movement known as “Sessantotto”. This was a period of unprecedented civil strife in the post-war world, and film-makers had never had it so good.

It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Leone, along with collaborators Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, devised another of his spaghetti westerns as a follow-up to his acclaimed “Dollars” trilogy and the upcoming Once Upon a Time in the West. This next project was to be set against the chaos of the Mexican Revolution around the year 1914. It followed a great heritage of films about the conflict, but where those had typically charted the revolutionary heroics of Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, this was to tell the story of two luckless bandits stuck in the middle.

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The result was the curiously titled Giù la testa, or “Duck your head”, which arrived in Italian cinemas in 1971. This became Duck, You Sucker for the English-language release, although later American prints carried the title A Fistful of Dynamite to capitalise on the popularity of Leone’s first western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Despite this awkwardly enforced association, Duck, You Sucker is a much harsher and more cynical film than any of Leone’s earlier work. In many ways, it feels like a conscious reflection on the director’s career thus far. Where he had previously deconstructed the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns in his “Dollars” trilogy, here he critiques the archetypes found in his own films, and how they, in turn, had influenced contemporary Hollywood. As such, Duck, You Sucker is a fascinating example of self-reflection from one of history’s great film-makers, and a cruelly underappreciated work in the western canon.

With this in mind, it may come as a surprise that Leone never intended to direct Duck, You Sucker himself. He had hoped that Once Upon a Time in the West would be his final statement on the western genre, and wanted instead to focus on an adaptation of Harry Grey’s prohibition-era crime novel The Hoods (this would eventually become 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America). A series of alternative directors were approached to helm the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s long-term assistant director Giancarlo Santi. In fact, the latter was ten days into shooting when a series of on-set problems forced Leone, reluctantly, to step behind the camera himself.

Having been coerced into another Western, Leone seems to have been determined to cast the film in a very different mould from his previous efforts. The film’s opening moments make perfectly clear that this is not the light-hearted hijinks of his “Dollars” trilogy, nor the romanticised heroism of existing films on the Mexican Revolution.

Our protagonist, Rod Steiger’s hapless bandito Juan Miranda, is introduced urinating onto an ant-hill in the film’s first shot, and within moments he has robbed a stagecoach, executed a man in cold blood, and raped a terrified woman. A ruthlessly amoral character, Juan is a far cry from Tuco, the lovable rogue played by Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and this brutality sets the tone for the rest of film’s world. Instantly, Leone is asking his audience to cast aside their romanticised preconceptions of the gunslinging Old West in which his films exist.

The film shortly introduces us to its secondary protagonist, John Mallory, an expert dynamiter and veteran of the Irish struggle for independence (in one of the film’s many anachronisms, he carries a flag marked “IRA”, an organisation formed years after the story takes place). Played with an admittedly questionable accent by James Coburn, John seems to be cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s morally ambiguous “Man With No Name” archetype, but a series of flashbacks reveal a darker truth to his past. By the film’s climax, John is discovered to have murdered his best friend while escaping from British authorities in Ireland. Now finding himself embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, he continues to seek atonement for this personal betrayal committed in another, distant war.

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James Coburn and Rod Steiger as John and Juan, two bandits caught in the middle of the Mexican Revolution

A tenuous friendship is formed between these two characters, but the essential contrast between them is made clear in their conflicting perspectives on the ongoing revolution. John is an idealist; in his pocket he carries a copy of The Patriotism by Russian Revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, and he appears willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good. Juan, on the other hand, has no such creed, nor any inclination to selflessness. His only allegiance, he insists, is to himself and his own family. Of these two perspectives, Leone seems to sympathise with the latter, who’s world view is made explicit in an impassioned speech delivered mid-way through the film:

“I know all about the revolutions and how they start! The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change. And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat. But what has happened to the poor people? They are dead! That’s your revolution!”

Juan’s speech is vindicated later in the most tragic of circumstances, when his entire family are slaughtered while resisting government troops. However, this is not to suggest that the film is on the side of the oppressive authorities. Indeed, emphasis is placed on the brutality dealt by government forces, with a number of lengthy sequences depicting massacres and summary executions.

Throughout all these events, the specifics of the Mexican Revolution and the various factions fighting it are only alluded to in vague terms. Rather, the conflict appears to stand for the concept of revolution in a generic sense. An opening quotation from Mao Zedong (which was removed from the American release) states that “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”

The sentiment of this quote is echoed in the brutality of the film’s violence, in stark contrast to the stylised, larger-than-life gunplay of Leone’s earlier westerns. In depicting the bloody massacre of civilians and combatants alike, the film makes clear that revolutions are never clean, nor is the violence inherent to them in any way honourable. In short, revolution is a dirty business, and anyone proposing such a thing from the comfort of an Italian university should understand the consequences.

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If Duck, You Sucker has a philosophy, it might be best described as something approaching nihilism, or at least individualism. When caught in a revolution, Leone seems to argue, the best option is to look out for number one – in other words; duck, you sucker! Indeed, Leone himself called the film a “reverse Pygmalion” story; the intellectual revolutionary (John) meets an uneducated petty criminal (Juan), and it is the simplistic, selfish world view of the latter which appears to win out.

Such a cynical interpretation of the Mexican Revolution caused controversy in Mexico itself, where the film was banned until 1979. This was hardly a proportionate response, as Leone is evidently more concerned with elaborate action set-pieces than he is with politics. A lengthy bank-robbery-turned-prison-break in the second act is one of the finest sequences of his career, accompanied by an unusually jazzy yet typically masterful score from composer Ennio Morricone.

With Duck, You Sucker, then, Leone continues the cinematic finesse of his previous westerns while exploring more thematically interesting territory, with occasionally refreshing results. The stylised, almost balletic violence which characterised his earlier work is exchanged for a grittier and less glamorous atmosphere. Likewise, his characters are no longer appealing archetypes but flawed and thuggish killers.

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In the years between the first conception of Duck, You Sucker in 1968 and its release in 1971, much had changed. At the same time as the world was in turmoil, Hollywood had experienced a revolution of its own. Taking influences from European cinema, a new wave of young American auteurs were pioneering a fresh style of film-making which cast aside the taboos and stuffiness of the old Hollywood. In this vein, westerns like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969) had drawn upon Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to popularise a new form of so-called “revisionist” western. These films thrived on moral ambiguity, anti-authoritarianism, and stylised violence, and they appealed to cinema audiences living in a world of rapid social and political change.

 

Much as John Mallory is atoning for his past in Duck, You Sucker, Sergio Leone is likewise reflecting upon his own influence on world cinema. The irreverence with which he had portrayed violence and cruelty in his “Dollars” films had helped to transform not just the western genre, but the very way in which Hollywood operated. Having pioneered this new western for the counterculture age, Leone seems to ask, “Is this what you really want?”

The 2018 clued-down Movie Awards

Say what you like about the last year, but it’s been a marvellous time for movies. Whether you’re into blockbusters, art house, or anything in between, there’s been something for every film fan, and it feels unfair to single out any one film or film-maker for praise – but that’s why I’m here. Below you will find my nominees and winners for the best achievements in film of 2017/18.

Best Film

Nominated

Call Me By Your Name

John Wick: Chapter 2

The Death of Stalin

Get Out

Good Time

The Shape of Water

Lady Bird

Paddington 2

Phantom Thread

Winner

Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a miraculous cinematic achievement, a perfectly executed tour-de-force of visual storytelling. Its technical triumph in recreating the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk is matched only by its narrative ambition, weaving together three competing perspectives from the land, sea, and air. Nolan makes no effort to clumsily tackle the moral or political implications of the conflict, only the senseless terror of its experience, and the result is a heart-pounding deconstruction of heroism, tragedy, and triumph in the face of defeat.

Best Director

Nominated

Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

Winner

Guillermo Del Toro – The Shape of Water

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This year’s selection of directors represent a refreshingly diverse mix of voices and artistic ambitions, and any one would be a worthy winner. Nevertheless, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a technically stunning and emotionally uplifting masterwork which could only have spawned from the brilliant, demented brain of this Mexican auteur. Del Toro manages to weave together elements of thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and romance into a single, spellbinding tale of tolerance in the face of prejudice.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Nominated

Vicky Krieps – Phantom Thread

Soarise Ronan – Lady Bird

Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water

Meryl Streep – The Post

Winner

Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Frances McDormand has never been known for playing your typical big-screen heroines. Before now, she was probably best known as the kind hearted and heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996), for which she won her first Academy Award. Now, over two decades later, she has at least matched that performance with an wholly different but no less affecting role. As grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, McDormand provides a nuanced portrait of a physically and emotionally aggressive woman, yet she manages to imbue her performance with a hint of repressed vulnerability beneath the surface. The result is a wholly believable and multi-layered rendering of a person’s journey through loss, anger, and forgiveness.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Nominated

Daniel Day Lewis – Phantom Thread

Chris Kaluuya – Get Out

Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Robert Pattinson – Good Time

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The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time was entirely overlooked by most major awards bodies this year, perhaps unsurprisingly for a film so unashamedly rough around the edges. Nevertheless, it’s an unusual and aggressively compelling crime-caper, thanks in large part to the efforts of Robert Pattinson. He stars at the centre of the film as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a morally unscrupulous bank-robber determined to show his disabled brother a “good time”. It’s a restless performance which demands attention, particularly as the camera lens pushes into insistent close-ups to capture every twitch of a muscle or bead of sweat. The London-born actor entirely disappears into the part of a New York lowlife, and it’s exciting to see the bloke from the Twilight films continue to prove himself as a compelling lead performer.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Adam Driver – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Craig – Logan Lucky

Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Michael Stahlberg – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Hugh Grant – Paddington 2

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Having long been typecast into bumbling romantic leads, Hugh Grant is an actor of underestimated versatility. As the villainous Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, he is finally given the opportunity to flex his theatrical muscles in a delightfully camp romp across a plethora of accents, prosthetic disguises, and song-and-dance numbers. Paddington 2 wasn’t eligible for this year’s Oscars, having only arrived into American cinemas in early 2018, but here’s hoping that Hugh Grant receives the recognition he deserves in next year’s ceremony.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird

Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound

Allison Janney – I, Tonya

Winner

Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread

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A veteran of stage and television, Lesley Manville is nonetheless a remarkable cinematic presence, even when going to-to-toe with the fearsome Daniel Day Lewis. In Phantom Thread, she does just that in the role of Cyril Woodcock, sister to the obstinate Reynolds Woodcock (Day Lewis) and matriarch of the haute couture House of Woodcock. She regularly steals the scene from her venerable co-star, as their ambiguous relationship plays out with all its affection and conflict. Every put-down and backhanded compliment is delivered with satisfying bite, but this acerbic façade is only part of the story. Indeed, Manville takes what could have been predictable old crone and develops her into something much more interesting and sympathetic. It’s a delicate performance which reveals more upon repeat viewings, as the true nature of Cyril’s intentions become less transparent.

Best Original Score

Nominated

Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk

John Williams – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Lopatin – Good Time

Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water

Winner

Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread

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Arguably better known as the lead guitarist and co-songwriter for Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood’s contribution to the world of film has been every bit as essential as to that of rock music. A long-term collaborator of director Paul Thomas Anderson, Greenwood was previously robbed of an Oscar nod for his work on There Will Be Blood (2007). Fortunately, this is no consolation prize; his score for Phantom Thread is his best work yet. Managing to be both whimsical and sinister at the same time, the music provides almost every scene with a heft and intensity that never feels intrusive. It’s a magnificent, sweeping evocation of Bernard Hermmann’s best work, cementing Greenwood and Anderson as one of cinema’s great director/composer partnerships.

Best Cinematography

Nominated

Hoyte Van Hoytema – Dunkirk

Sean Price Williams – Good Time

Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour

Rachel Morrison – Mudbound

Winner

Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049

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I’m not sure if Blade Runner 2049 really is the best achievement in cinematography from the last year – after all, Dunkirk did stick an IMAX camera onto a Spitfire – but this award still goes to Roger Deakins, more for his incredible body of work than any single film. Probably the greatest living cinematographer, Deakins lends each of his films a picture-postcard quality, from the snow-swept vistas of Fargo to the intimate brutality of Sicario. Characteristically, every shot of Blade Runner 2049 is a masterclass in framing, colour, and lighting, with an expertise that goes beyond just looking pretty and weaves itself into the fabric of the storytelling.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominated

Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water

Winner

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career writing complex, languorous character studies; from a Californian oil magnate at the turn of the century to a porn star in late-70s Los Angeles. Phantom Thread delivers a story in a similar mould, dropping the audience into a dizzying slice of 1950s London and its lavish haute couture scene. What begins as a familiar study of artist and muse is quickly subverted into a richly rewarding tale of love, passion, and control. While asking profound questions about the very nature of human intimacy, the script also manages to feature more laugh-out-loud zingers than most comedies. Phantom Thread cements Anderson’s place as one of the finest writer/directors currently working in American cinema.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated

Paul King and Simon Farnaby – Paddington 2

Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows – The Death of Stalin

Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green – Logan

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist

Winner

James Ivory – Call Me By Your Name

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Adapted from the novel by André Aciman, James Ivory’s screenplay for Call Me By Your Name is an affecting, delicate, and occasionally painful portrait of a fleeting summer romance. In a story where the characters rarely have the words for what they truly feel, Ivory manages to communicate their innermost desires and conflicts. It articulates the confusing and overwhelming sensation of being in love, and the inevitable agony of knowing that it must come to an end. The power of the script lies in its abstraction, functioning as both an intimate study of gay discovery and sexuality, and a universal tale of love, passion, and heartbreak.

Top Ten… Christmas Films

Christmas is a time of year at which we often find ourselves watching some truly terrible films in order to satisfy our friends and relatives, occasionally resulting in heated post-luncheon arguments. In fact, the very definition of what constitutes a “Christmas film” is a contentious issue (just ask anyone what they think of Die Hard). Thankfully, there are some genuine classics to be enjoyed over the holidays. The following list is a selection of the best Christmas films I have watched over the last month. From action, to comedy, to romance, there’s a choice for every mood.

10) Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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The only film on the list to feature a masked illuminati orgy, Eyes Wide Shut isn’t the sort of Christmas film you can watch with your Nan. Nevertheless, it provides a dark and eerily erotic take on the season of goodwill, skewering the fiercely exploitative nature of modern consumer culture in the process. Stanley Kubrick’s final work, it makes for an intoxicating experience as we follow Dr William Hartford (Tom Cruise) on a journey of self-discovery amidst New York’s sleazy and surreal underworld. It’s a complex film with myriad implications and interpretations, revealing more upon each viewing. What better way is there to escape the monotony of a family Christmas than to immerse oneself in Kubrick’s final, erogenous misadventure?

9) Joyeux Noel (2005)

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Chronicling the 1914 Christmas Truce during the First World War, Joyeux Noel follows the experiences of British, French, and German soldiers as they come together in No Man’s Land. The film lacks the battle sequences and destruction of other films set during WWI, and instead focuses on a moment of peace. The result is a touching and ultimately tragic film which provides a testament to the strength of human compassion amidst the most inhumane of conflicts.

8) Home Alone (1990)

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Home invasion films aren’t typically a barrel of laughs, but the brilliance of Home Alone is that it essentially functions as a live-action Disney cartoon. As eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) defends his home from violent burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), the invaders are set on fire, beaten, shot, and pierced with spikes, but quickly bounce back without any serious injuries. It doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, but this is slapstick comedy in its purest form, elevated by charismatic performances from Culkin and Pesci. Several lacklustre sequels have since followed, but none have dampened the appeal of this anarchic original.

7) Trading Places (1983)

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Director John Landis’ last great comedy before his subsequent decline into mediocrity, Trading Places is a wonderfully subversive Christmas romp. Drawing from Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince and the Pauper, the film sees a wealthy business executive (Dan Aykroyd) exchange lives with a poor street hustler (Eddie Murphy) in order to satisfy a bet between two aristocratic brothers. Both Murphy and Aykroyd are at the height of their comedic powers, complemented by scene-stealing turns from Jamie-Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliot. Dealing with issues like racism, drug abuse, prostitution, and inequality, it’s an atypical Christmas comedy which delivers laughs year-on-year.

6) Carol (2015)

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Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol is the story of a yuletide romance between an unhappily married woman (Cate Blanchett) and a young, aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara). It’s an achingly tender film, in which every glance and touch is palpably weighted with unspoken longing. Edward Lachman’s sumptuous 16mm cinematography transports the viewer to the early 1950s, capturing an idealised vision of a snow-swept New York. All this serves to underpin the fizzling chemistry between Blanchett and Mara, resulting in a Christmas love story which speaks to anyone who has ever found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly in love.

5) Brazil (1985)

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Depicting a deeply bureaucratic and consumerist dystopia, it’s no accident that Brazil takes place around Christmastime. Hymns, Christmas trees, and men in Santa costumes provide an inane and incongruous backdrop to the futuristic tyranny of the film’s world, but it also provides a commentary on the hollow materialism which often characterises Christmas in the real world. Deftly swerving between comedy and horror, the film makes a rewarding change of pace from the forced sentimentality of more conventional Christmas classics. Beside its festive credentials, Brazil remains the pinnacle of director Terry Gilliam’s career – an intimate study of the human condition in a world devoid of humanity.

4) The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

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There is a sequence at around the halfway point of The Bishop’s Wife, lasting about ten minutes, in which three characters go ice-skating on a frozen lake. It’s a spellbinding chapter which acts as a useful demonstration of what makes this film so magical; this is Christmas as it appears in children’s picture books, a fantastical ideal of snowbound streets and icy parks. This serves as the perfect backdrop for a funny and charming story of romance and the true meaning of Christmas. Cary Grant is perfectly cast as Dudley, a suave angel sent to provide guidance to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), an overworked clergyman who is losing touch with his faith and, more crucially, his wife Julia (Loretta Young). Grant oozes the charisma which defined his on-screen career, and it’s worth watching for the immaculate contours of his haircut alone – perhaps explaining why the film was retitled Cary and The Bishop’s Wife for some US markets.

3) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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For my money, this is the finest cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ widely filmed novella, and the best entry in the Muppet franchise. The tunes are all appropriately catchy and the Muppets are as hilarious as ever, but it’s Michael Caine’s central performance as Ebenezer Scrooge which elevates this film into the classic it is. Despite acting against the surreal and slapstick stylings of Kermit and gang, he plays his part entirely straight, injecting genuine tragedy into the character of Scrooge. His journey from pitiless miser to benevolent altruist is entirely believable, as an icy exterior slowly thaws with feelings of sorrow, regret, and finally compassion.

2) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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It’s easy to understand why this film continues to resonate with audiences over 70 years since its release. Dealing with the same doubts and fears which we all face throughout our lives, It’s a Wonderful life is an archetype of life-affirming cinema. James Stewart gives one of his finest performances as George Bailey, a down-on-his-luck family man who considers suicide on Christmas Eve – that is, until a guardian angel arrives to show George what the world would be like had he never existed. It’s a film which affirms our collective responsibility towards our fellow man and the dangers of greed and cynicism. Most importantly, a Christmas viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life serves an annual reminder that your life matters, and that every act of kindness, no matter how small, helps to make the world a better place.

1) Die Hard (1988)

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Over the past few weeks, an irritating assembly of naysayers have tried to argue that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film at all, but merely an action movie which happens to be set on Christmas Eve. It must be asked whether any of these dullards have actually watched Die Hard – this is a quintessentially festive tale of redemption and rekindled romance, which happens to take place during a terrorist siege. The hero of the film, NYPD Officer John McClane, is a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge; a cranky misanthrope more concerned with catching crooks than being with his estranged family. Over the course of an explosive Christmas Eve, he begins to recognise the error of his ways and eventually finds redemption in the arms of his wife. The fact that he blows up a few people doesn’t detract from the film’s essentially festive themes. Die Hard is a timeless reminder that Christmas is a time to reconnect with those you love, even when Alan Rickman is trying to shoot you.

Top Ten.. War Films

War films have always been a huge part of why I love cinema. I spent a large portion of my childhood watching old war movies with my Grandad, and that probably explains why I came to be so fascinated by both history and film. Next month sees the release of Christopher Nolan’s new war epic, Dunkirk, and to celebrate I thought it would be appropriate to assemble a list of my top ten favourite war films.  I’ve loosely and arbitrarily defined the genre as “films which are about war”, rather than films which happen to have a bit of war in them or use war as a setting (so Dr Zhivago, Casablanca, and Barry Lyndon, for example, did not qualify). I also can’t claim to have been in any way objective or comprehensive – this is an entirely subjective collection of the war films which I enjoy the most. My honourable mentions go to The Great Escape, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and The Thin Red Line, which just failed to make the cut.

10. Das Boot (1981)

dasboot

No film has ever established a sense of claustrophobia as effectively as Das Boot. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a German U-Boat in the Second World War, the film examines the psychological toll of intense confinement at sea, and strikingly captures the excitement and terror of naval combat. It’s the distant nature of submarine warfare which gives Das Boot its unique character, as glimpses of the enemy are fleeting. Instead, the camera remains trapped within the oppressive metal hull of the U-Boat, forced to exist intimately alongside the crew just as they live and work alongside each other. It’s a heady and immersive atmosphere which benefits from authentic set design and ingenious use of sound, bringing the audience constantly closer to the actors on screen; tension becomes suffocating while brief moments of relief are jubilant. Director Wolfgang Petersen has gone on to helm a number of American action films, including Air Force One and Troy, but none have come close to this maritime triumph.

9. Zulu (1964)

zulu

Zulu is the quintessential film about a siege, a classic tale of outnumbered heroes desperately defending themselves against overwhelming odds. The film avoids the jingoistic trappings which could so easily have defined it, and the bloody consequences of battle are never shied away from. The result is a three dimensional and often melancholic tale of heroism, punctuated by rousing battle scenes and superlative performances. Michael Caine is a revelation in his first major role as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, an upper-class officer whose preconceptions about his enemy and the very nature of war are rapidly challenged. Meanwhile the South African locations are vividly captured in bold technicolour photography as John Barry’s iconic soundtrack swells underneath. Zulu adopts an unrelenting pace almost immediately, and the first act is a masterclass in building tension. The taut structure unsurprisingly served as the inspiration for, among others, the Battle of Ramelle in Saving Private Ryan and the Battle for Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. An undisputed classic of British cinema, Zulu remains a touchstone within the war genre.

8. Land and Freedom (1995)

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Land and Freedom is an atypical film from Ken Loach, a name usually associated with kitchen-sink dramas about tragedy in the North of England. This story focuses on the tumult and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, told through the experiences of a Liverpudlian, David Carr, after he volunteers to fight in late 1936. Although historical accuracy is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of drama or the director’s political leanings, it’s one of the few English-language films to address the Civil War in Spain, and isn’t afraid to confront its political complexities. Indeed, the film’s central characters spend more time debating land collectivisation than they do fighting fascists, but Loach never loses sight of the humanity at the heart of his story. Thus, with Land and Freedom, a human perspective is given to a conflict which is often confusing and opaque, and the result is an emotionally affecting and heart-wrenching experience.

7. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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The last of the truly epic war films, it would be impossible to make a movie like this today. Chronicling the last major allied defeat of the Second World War, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far plays out with a mind boggling scope. The screen is decorated with unquantifiable numbers of aircraft, troops, and ground vehicles, while the credits are the stuff of fantasy; Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal, Liv Ullman, Hardy Kruger, Elliot Gould – the list goes on and on. The film undeniably creaks under its own weight at times, and Robert Redford’s late-70s hairdo is one of many anachronisms, but the immense scale of A Bridge Too Far remains an impressive achievement. Above all, it demonstrates the potential of film to transport audiences to another time and place, communicating history as a living, palpable reality.

6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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It is difficult to overstate the influence of Saving Private Ryan on the war genre, or even cinema as a whole. Steven Spielberg’s visceral style captured the brutal sights and sounds of battle with a greater verisimilitude than had ever been seen before, and in doing so reinvented the popular understanding of the Second World War. Bookended by two combat sequences which remain as shocking today as they were almost twenty years ago, Saving Private Ryan exposed war for the hell that it is; an unrelenting and confusing frenzy of gore, death, and destruction. However, to define the film by its moments of violence is to do it a disservice. At its core, Saving Private Ryan is the story of men at war, and how they are able to come to terms with, if not justify, their actions whilst remaining in touch with their own humanity. The film’s most effecting moments are not firefights, but conversations, a fact which been largely missed by its many imitators. An overdose of Spielbergian sentimentality undeniably creeps in at times, but the movie remains a mature reflection on the corrupting and dehumanising influence of war. The pervasive influence of Saving Private Ryan may be observed as recently as last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but Spielberg’s anti-war epic remains unmatched.

5. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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Not every war film can be a profound, anti-war lecture on man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes, watching people pretend to kill each other can actually be a lot of fun, and this is never truer than in Brian G Hutton’s Second World War thriller, Where Eagles Dare. In 1944, an allied commando team is parachuted into the Austrian Alps in order to rescue a captured American general, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Twists and double-crosses ensue as a complex and rewarding plot unfolds, which goes far beyond the usual expectations of escapist entertainment. More importantly, Where Eagles Dare combines an infinitely hummable soundtrack with an array of superbly executed action set pieces, whilst Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood offer effortlessly charismatic lead performances.  The ultimate “blokes-on-a-mission” movie, this is the best example of a genre which includes classics like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and Inglourious Basterds – a perfect accompaniment to a lazy bank holiday or Sunday afternoon.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now often feels more like an ordeal than a movie. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, this film is the definitive cinematic treatise on the Vietnam war; a bloody, surreal, and darkly comic odyssey down the Nung River. At every turn, Coppola fills the frame with iconic images, from the opening shot of a jungle doused in napalm to a swarm of helicopter gunships descending on a beachside village. The eclectic soundtrack relies as much on The Doors as it does Richard Wagner, providing a perfectly intoxicating backdrop for the increasingly hellish events on screen. By the time of the climactic montage of death, it’s difficult to argue with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz as he whispers his final words; “The horror. The horror.” Perhaps more impressive than the film itself is the story of how it was made, an astounding tale which is excellently chronicled in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

3. Paths of Glory (1957)

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Stanley Kubrick’s First World War drama spends most of its time in a picturesque chateau far behind the front lines, but still provides a powerful commentary on the inhumanity and callousness which guided the so-called Great War. The first act of Paths of Glory contains one of the most visceral sequences of trench warfare put to film, showcasing Kubrick’s rarely observed talent as a director of action. Kirk Douglas has never been better than in this dominating performance as Colonel Dax, a French officer who defends his three of his men against trumped-up charges of cowardice. The emptiness of death hangs over the film like an unbearable stench, serving as a constant reminder of the utter hopelessness and terror of war. Despite its cynicism, however, the film’s final moments are a plea to the essential goodness of the human spirit – a much needed tribute to humanity within an atmosphere of oppressive inhumanity.

2. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Set in a Japanese forced labour camp in Burma during the Second World War, Bridge on the River Kwai serves as a powerful testament to the madness and futility of war. What the film lacks in historical accuracy it more than compensates for in drama, as the perilous construction of the eponymous bridge is contrasted against the allied commando unit who are despatched to destroy it. Alec Guinness stars in an Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Nicholson, a British commanding officer who’s pride and upper-class fortitude lead him to unwittingly collaborate with his Japanese captors. It’s a brave and complex story for a film made so shortly after the war’s end, and was not without controversy upon its release. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson’s script deals in weighty and existentialist themes, but they’re packaged within an exciting World War Two adventure and complemented by David Lean’s characteristically stunning cinematography.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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David Lean’s finest cinematic achievement and probably the most beautiful film ever made, it feels like a disservice to call Lawrence of Arabia a “war movie”. Of course, this First World War drama deals heavily and effectively in epic battle sequences and sweeping desert panoramas, but these serve as an accompaniment to the nuanced character study which forms the centre of the film. Peter O’Toole’s performance as the enigmatic and controversial TE Lawrence is rightfully iconic, masterfully moving between charisma, melancholy, and madness, while the camera lingers lovingly over his absurdly striking features. Over the nearly four-hour runtime, Lawrence remains a frustrating and impenetrable figure, a perfect cipher for the confusion of war and what it does to the human soul. In its final act, Lawrence of Arabia moves beyond the personal to cast a cynical eye over the political machinations which control and manipulate conflict for their own benefit. It’s a multi-layered experience which reveals more upon every viewing, and should be seen on the largest screen possible.

New Articles on Den of Geek!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to write a couple of pieces for the amazing people over at Den of Geek. Hopefully this relationship will continue for the foreseeable future, but to find everything I’ve written for the Den so far you can click here.

Alternatively, I will be using this blog to curate all of my work which has been featured on other websites, just head over to the Other Stuff I’ve Written page for the full list.

For now though, here are my first two articles for Den of Geek:

Bond 25, and the untapped stories of the novels – Den of Geek
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Putting the film back into films – Den of Geek
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Keep checking back for more content!

Lots of Love,

Mark.