Thursday 2 September 2021

Clarke Award 2021

The Clarke Award is always one of my cues to catch up with the year's SF - along with Kitschies and Strange Horizons end of year round ups - but this year it has coincided with a return to reading after a 13 month COVID/depression draught. As you might imagine I've been a bit high on it.

This is not an in depth analysis. My brain is only just beginning to wake up. It's more, an encouragement to read, think and share and a smiley burst of enthusiasm for the world.

Why the Clarke? Why not the Hugo or the Nebula or the BSFA? Because when I started reading SF consistently I discovered Adam Roberts' shortlist analysis on Infinity Plus, then the analysis on Strange Horizons and more recently the Sharkes. I no longer think of the shortlist as trying to represent the best of SF for the year and I no longer get annoyed or harbour feelings of injustice about books I feel passionately about that don't make the shortlist. I was once overly impolite about a book by an author I admire greatly during one of these roundups and still feel guilty. I still think bad books should be criticised, especially reactionary ones, but not mediocre ones that get some life and light through their shortlist spotlight. And having never served as a prize judge I'm not privy to the pressures and the compromises that must be part of the process.

I've read 22 out of 105 of the books on the submisions list: Agbabi, Arnott, Bradley, Charnock, Cook, DeLillo, Harrison, Hughes, Jimenez, Johnson, Kelly, MacInnes, McAuley, McKay, Pinsker, KSR, Schweblin, Solomon, Tchaikovsky, Tidhar, Valdes & Whiteley. I will definitely get to Jingfang's Vagabonds, the only book on the shortlist I've haven't read yet, in the next week or so. At some point I'll read Bear, Gibson, Hinton and Jemisin but maybe not before the prize is announced - I'm anxious to read some of the books on the Booker longlist in September. 

I should also say that I started by reading last year's winner, The Old Drift at the start of the summer and I snook in Hurley's The Light Brigade, Ling Ma's Severance and Susanna Clarke's Piranesi. I loved them all and are perhaps my measuring stick for what 2021's Clarke texts have to offer. 

First the shortlist, I read Agbabi's The Infinite when it was published for school and have been recommending it to our students ever since. Valdes' Chilling Effect was one of the first novels I read and was ideal for the exited-to-be-reading-again-me - generic and fast paced, like an episode of Firefly. McKay's The Animals in That Country is a very fine, ambitious novel and I'm glad more people might read it: I admired it more than I loved it but I admired it a LOT. The Vanished Birds is also well worth reading - I enjoyed its melancholy and its grim trajectory. It also feels very thin in terms of characterisation and that meant, for me, the impact of its politics and atmosphere was diminished. R B Kelly's Edge of Heaven has its heart and its politics in the right place but I disliked its laboured style - detail in all the wrong places - and I found it hard to care about the characters or the plot. You will find plenty of reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere that champion these books so don't be put off by my lukewarm appraisal. We all like different things and yes, clearly I'm going soft in my old age....

So how would I decide on a personal shortlist this year? Which books did I enjoy the most? Sarah Pinsker's A Song for a New Day, despite its troubling, prescent storyline is like a REALLY long hot bath with candles and a rubber duck. It's clever, subtle, hopeful and lovely. I read it in a day. I seem to love every book Lavie Tidhar writes and By Force Alone was no different. I've already written about it briefly ( and even though I enjoyed it in ways I'm not sure Lavie would appreciate...I don't care :-) James Bradley's Ghost Species is tender and beautiful;  Rivers Solomon' The Deep is vivid, powerful and moving; War of the Maps has all the usual McAuley magic; as does Anne Charnock's Bridge 108: Aliya Whiteley's Greensmith IS funny but its also wonderfully weird and full of compassion (I think it's my favouite Whiteley and that says a LOT) whilst Martin McInnes Gathering Evidence is cerebral and exciting in all the right ways (I may well now try Infinite Ground again - I found its density cloying and unrewarding the first time around).

Mike Harrison's The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is the only book I've read twice so far. As usual, images spring into my brain unbidden and I find myself reflecting on it at the weirdest times. And as usual, I don't understand all the things that are going on but that's part of the joy! It's already won the Goldsmith's prize. I don't love it like I love the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy or some of the short stories but then, I don't think I'm supposed to. 

Clearly, many writers are thinking about the near future. I'm fascinated by the politics of it all and how they envisage our climate crisis turning, much sooner than we thought, into climate hell. Some authors seem to favour the worst of evolutionary psychology or an inability to throw off capitalism's selfishness and stupidity, whilst others give us the hope of say, Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, in their imaginings. I'm interested that Diane Cook's The New Wilderness found a place on last year's Booker shortlist. Will other (better?) books with a SF component follow? [It IS an interesting book btw with two fascinating protangonists - even if some of the other characters are cliches or way too thin]

A few words on Rian Hughes' XX. It is, at nearly 1000 pages, too long. It is almost obnoxiously clever: it has an annoying main character - another one of those neurodiverse geniuses; it has some facile politics, as though the author had been reading too much Anne Applebaum; it badly misjudges some of the sections where it tries to replicate news reports or other media and a couple of imaginary interviews featuring ultra-left lefties are monumentally stupid. A decent editor should have insisted on some rewrites and reimaginings. And yet, I really enjoyed it! It's a LOT of fun, it has a lot of ideas and is full of ambition. I loved debating with it and disagreeing and rethinking. I've already lent it to a friend. 

And then there is The Ministry for the Future..... Does KSR need even more exposure? Do I think it is too hopeful? (Yes) Do I think it sidesteps important questions? (Yes) Do I think people should be encouraged to read it and debate it and explore/research the ideas and politics anyway? (Yes) I should also say that, unlike others, I found it incredibly readable and I wanged through it in a couple of days.

Honestly, there's no book that I regret reading and most of them I enjoyed a great deal. Also, I wish I could remember my response to Samanta Schweblin's Little Eyes more clearly but it's a good 15 months since I read it! I know I liked it a lot though.

And so my shortlist? What would I read again? What would I want to discuss? What would I want others to discuss? What would I want people to discover? And yes, what did I love?
Ghost Spcies - James Bradley
Gathering Evidence - Martin McInnes
The Ministry for the Future - KSR
The Deep - Rivers Soloman
Greensmith - Aliya Whiteley

....with a final spot for Pinsker, Johnson (The Space Between Worlds has already won a Kitschie Tentacle) , Schweblin or Lingfang. Lolz - 6 is never enough! 

Tom Hunter enthuses about the shortlist on 5 Books here: 

You can get the full submissions list plus a look into the current state of SF publishing in terms of diversity here:

A shout out to Nina Allan, Adam Roberts, Abigail Nussbaum and Steven Shaviro who continue to blog and of course Strange Horizons for intelligent, questioning analysis week in week out. They all inspire me to keep engaging however difficult it gets.

Thursday 6 May 2021

April films 2021

I’ve watched 43 films, 28 directed by men and 15 directed by women (basically I’m trying to make sure a third are directed by women each month). 14 are rewatches – definitely a 2021 and beyond determination to rewatch films a LOT more.

This year’s awards bait has proved to be hugely disappointing – Minari, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and Black Bear do not represent the wonderful year of movies that 2020 produced. Nomadland, I admired a lot and of the best film contenders in the Oscars and Baftas it would have got my vote too….though I would have included Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Rocks, Miss Juneteenth and others in my shortlists. 

Disappointments? Quite a few I’m afraid but especially Carpenter’s Escape from New York. I DO NOT understand how this is a cult film. Also, Ratatouille = BORING! Also, Moulin Rouge is NOT the film I remembered ☹

Loves? Ammonite – destined to be underrated I fear, and Catherine Corsini's Summertime. Obviously, I try to search out and champion films directed by women but I’ve arrived at the stage, fairly seamlessly, where female directors are making most of my favourite films – this month I went back to Debra Granik, Kelly Reichardt, Jane Campion and also discovered Ildikó Enyedi. Asian cinema continues to provide me with a well of rich, meditative films - Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiere was probably my pick of the bunch this month; I’m continuing my journey through exploitation and this month and tried Jean Rollin and Walerian Borowczyk with mixed results. However, Borowczyk’s Blanche is FUCKING GLORIOUS and now I’m wondering whether I should check out his mid-70s erotica too. Weird but true.

I listen to quite a few podcasts to send me off to sleep and I tried Jack Howard’s The Screen Test where he and guests pits three films against each other to decide what’s best. I’m not sure why I did this because I don’t really like Jack Howard and I think the idea is pretty stupid but hey. In this episode he pitted the latest A Star is Born v La La Land v Whiplash. No brainer right? A Star is Born wins every time! Apparently not. So I watched all three again and, who knew? A Star is Born wins hands down 😊 Also, Damien Chazelle, on reflection and without all the hype, turns out to be a reactionary asshole wasting whatever talent he might have. Who knew?

Great performance in a mediocre film? Katherine Hepburn in David Lean’s Summertime (1955)

Feminist Friday: The Piano & Mouthpiece OR Ammonite & Summertime (2015)

Weird Wednesday: Viy and Blanche 

Chill-the-fuck-out Saturday night: Palm Springs & Space Sweepers

And have you seen the new Verhoeven trailer for Benedetta ( – a Verhoeven lesbian nunsploitation film – sorry to make it sound so sleazy – but, yeah, can’t wait.

Short reviews for all films on Letterboxd: My profile on Letterboxd

1. Full Moon In Paris (1984) (Éric Rohmer)
2. Space Sweepers (2021) (Jo Sung-hee)
3. Friday Foster (1975) (Arthur Marks)
4. Ratatouille (2007) (Brad Bird)
5. Viy (1967) (Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov)
6. The Nude Vampire (1970) (Jean Rollin)
7. The Shiver of the Vampires (1971) (Jean Rollin)
8. Whip It (2009) (Drew Barrymore)
9. The Piano (193) (Jane Campion)
10. Begin Again (2013) (John Carney)
11. Starship Troopers (197) (Paul Verhoeven)
12. Real Women Have Curves (2002) (Patricia Cardoso)
13. Moulin Rouge! (2001) (Baz Luhrmann)
14. Palm Springs (2020) (Max Barbakow)
15. Minari (2020) (Lee Isaac Chung)
16. Christmas in August (1998) (Hur Jin-ho)
17. Ammonite (2020) (Francis Lee)
18. Requiem for a Vampire (1971) (Jean Rollin)
19. A Star is Born (2018) (Bradley Cooper)
20. Summertime (2015) (Catherine Corsini)
21. My Twentieth Century (1989) (Ildikó Enyedi)
22. Love and Monsters (2020) (Michael Matthews)
23. Wendy and Lucy (2008) (Kelly Reichardt)
24. Meek’s Cutoff (2010) (Kelly Reichardt)
25. Imagine Me and You (2016) (Michael Tuviera)
26. Possession (1981) (Andrzej Żuławski)
27. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) (Walerian Borowczyk)
28. Café Lumiere (2003) (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
29. Summertime (1955) (David Lean)
30. Escape from New York (1981) (John Carpenter)
31. Blanche (1971) (Walerian Borowczyk)
32. Promising Young Woman (2020) (Emerald Fennell)
33. Black Bear (2020) (Lawrence Michael Levine)
34. Sound of Metal (2019) (Darius Marder)
35. Strange Days (1995) (Kathryn Bigelow)
36. Winter’s Bone (2010) (Debra Granik)
37. Mouthpiece (2018) (Patricia Rozema)
38. Leave No Trace (2018) (Debra Granik)
39. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
40. On Body and Soul (2017) (Ildikó Enyedi)
41. Somewhere (2010) (Sofia Coppola)
42. Whiplash (2014) (Damien Chazelle)
43. Queen and Slim (2019) (Melina Matsoukas)

Monday 5 April 2021

March films 2021

I watched 42 films in March, 26 by men and 16 by women with 11 rewatches. For some reason my French, US and Japanese intellectuals are interspersed with all kinds of horror, sleaze and exploitation cinema from all over the place. Lockdown is clearly interfering in my usual encounters with perversion and desire – lol, I wish. 😁

Lows? Josie and the Pussycats, Russ Meyer

Highs, keeping me vaguely sane? Mia Hansen-Løve (rewatched all of them, reinforcing my admiration and love), Miranda July, SHOWGIRLS, Mädchen in Uniform, Shunya Ito and Meiko Kaji, Éric Rohmer. My favourite bit of knowledge was learning in Adam Naman's It Doesn't Suck that Mia Hansen-Løve loves Showgirls. First viewing for me and straight into my favourite films of all time.

Feminist Friday: Mädchen in Uniform & Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Weird Wednesday: The Wicker Man & The Future.

Super Showgirls Saturday: Eden, Showgirls & You Don’t Nomi.
Sublime Sunday: The Green Ray & Pauline at the Beach.

1. California Suite (1978) (Herbert Ross)
2. Ginger Snaps (2000) (John Fawcett)
3. All is Forgiven (2007) (Mia Hansen-Løve)
4. Let the Right One In (2008) (Tomas Alfredson)
5. About Some Meaningless Events (1974) (Mostafa Derkaoui)
6. Father of My Children (2009) (Mia Hansen-Løve)
7. Eden (2014) (Mia Hansen-Løve)
8. Once (2007) (John Carney)
9. Little Woods (2018) (Nia DaCosta)
10. Moxie (2021) (Amy Poehler) 
11. Things to Come (2016) (Mia Hansen-Løve)
12. Mädchen in Uniform (1931) (Leontine Sagan)
13. Crossing Delancey (1988) (Joan Micklin Silver)
14. Sing Street (2016) (John Carney)
15. Air Doll (2009) (Hirokazu Koreeda)
16. Hospital Massacre (1981) (Boaz Davidson)
17. Josie and the Pussycats (2001) (Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont)
18. The Aviator’s Wife (1981) (Éric Rohmer)
19. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) (Shunya Ito)
20. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) (Piers Haggard)
21. WandaVision (2021) (Matt Shakman)
22. The Wicker Man (1973) (Robin Hardy)
23. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) (Amy Holden Jones)
24. Showgirls (1995) (Paul Verhoeven)
25. Vixen (1968) (Russ Meyer)
26. You Don’t Nomi (2019) (Jeffrey McHale)
27. Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) (Teruo Ishii)
28. Supervixens (1975) (Russ Meyer)
29. Total Recall (1990) (Paul Verhoeven)
30. Flesh + Blood (1985) (Paul Verhoeven)
31. A Good Marriage (1982) (Éric Rohmer)
32. Daughters of Darkness (1970) (Harry Kümel)
33. Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) (Shunya Ito)
34. The Green Ray (1986) (Éric Rohmer)
34. Pauline at the Beach (1983) (Éric Rohmer)
35. The Future (2011) (Miranda July)
36. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) (Miranda July). 
37. Fascination (1979) (Jean Rollin)
38. But I'm a Cheerleader (1999) (Jamie Babbit)
39. You Were Never Really Here (2017) (Lynne Ramsay)
40. Frankenhooker (1990) (Frank Henonlotter)
41. American Honey (2016) (Andrea Arnold)
42. Booksmart (2019) (Olivia Wilde)


Wednesday 3 March 2021

February films

I watched 51 films in February with 17 of those directed by women. Overall 16 were rewatches. I’m continuing to rewatch Mark Cousins’ Women Make Film a bit at a time too. Its miserable that so many of the films he showcases aren't available.

I visited Greece, Germany, Austria, the US, Denmark, the UK, Finland, Lesotho and Italy on my cinematic journey. Why did I watch these particular films? Letterboxd reviews jogged my memory; Christopher Plummer died; continuing my Jessica Hausner obsession from January; Reading about Boarding Gate in a Nick Pinkerton article started an Olivier Assayas journey; witches; subscriptions to Mubi, BFI Player and Netflix. 

Lows? Jeremiah Johnson (!!) & The Goodbye Girl.

Highlights? The films with an asterisk are ones I would urge everyone to watch but honestly I’d recommend 80% of them. And I am LOVING my Olivier Assayas journey...which has now led me to a complete Mia Hansen-Løve rewatch too.

Weird Wednesday Night: Penda’s Fen & Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Feminist Friday: Be Natural & Girlfriends
Alternate Feminist Friday: Sherrybaby & Clean

Horror Night: The Witch & The White Reindeer (and/or A Girl Walk's Home Alone at Night)

Silent Sunday afternoon: Diary of a Lost Girl

With the onset of Spring, and because I’m also managing to read a little – mainly about films and film theory (!) this will now slow down. More quality hopefully in my analysis.

Here is the full list in the order I watched them:
1. Attenburg (2010) (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
2. They Might be Giants (1971) (Anthony Harvey)
3. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) (Ana Lily Amirpour)*
4. Appropriate Behaviour (2014) (Desiree Akhavan)
5. Lovely Rita (2001) (Jessica Hausner)
6. Kajillionaire (2020) (Miranda July)*
7. The Goodbye Girl (1977) (Herbert Ross)
8. Girlfriends (1978) (Claudia Weill)*
9. Beginners (2010) (Mike Mills)
10. The Sound of Music (1965) (Robert Wise)
11. Hotel (2004) (Jessica Hausner)
12. Lourdes (2009) (Jessica Hausner)*
13. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) (Carl Theodor Dreyer)*
14. Day of Wrath (1943) (Carl Theodor Dreyer)*
15. Vampyr (1932) (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
16. Ham on Rye (2019) (Tyler Taormina)
17. Splash (1984) (Ron Howard)
18. News of the World (2020) (Paul Greengrass)
19. Minority Report (2002) (Steven Spielberg)
20. The Matrix (1999) (Lilly Wachowski & Lana Wachowski)
21. Penda’s Fen (1974) (Alan Clarke)
22. Near Dark (1987) (Kathryn Bigelow)
23. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970) (Jaromil Jireš)
24. The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)*
25. Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) (G.W. Pabst)*
26. Innocent Blood (1992) (John Landis)
27. Viva Maria! (1965) (Louis Malle)
28. Sherrybaby (2006) (Laurie Collyer)
29. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018) (Pamela B. Green)*
30. Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (Sydney Pollack)
31. Boarding Gate (2007) (Olivier Assayas)
32. Summer Hours (2008) (Olivier Assayas)
33. Wasp Network (2019) (Olivier Assayas)
34. Personal Shopper (2016) (Olivier Assayas)*
35. Demonlover (2002) (Olivier Assayas)*
36. Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) (Olivier Assayas)*
37. Charlie’s Angels (2019) (Elizabeth Banks)
38. Something in the Air (2012) (Olivier Assayas)
39. Mona Lisa Smile (2002) (Mike Newell)
40. Non Fiction (2008) (Olivier Assayas)
41. And Breathe Normally (2019) (Ísold Uggadóttir)
42. The Demons (1973) (Jesús Franco)
43. The Devils (1971) (Ken Russell)*
44. The Edge of Seventeen (2016) (Kelly Fremon Craig)
45. The Kids Are Alright (2010) (Lisa Cholodenko)
46. This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2019) (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)*
47. Clean (2004) (Olivier Assayas)*
48. Irma Vep (1996) (Olivier Assayas)*
49. Beyond Clueless (2014) (Charlie Shackleton)
50. The Witch (2015) (Robert Eggers)*
51. Goodbye First Love (2012) (Mia Hansen-Løve)

You can read find individual reviews and thoughts here: 
My profile on Letterboxd

Friday 5 February 2021

January films 2021

I watched 46 films in January with 18 of those directed by women. Overall 16 were rewatches. I’m also rewatching Mark Cousins’ Women Make Film a bit at a time. 

Lots of really great films here and only Chain Reaction is a complete waste of time.

I visited Germany, the US, South Korea, Norway, France, Japan, Australia, Finland and Sweden on my cinematic journey. Why did I watch these particular films? Following interesting people on Letterboxd throws up films I’ve never heard of or forgotten; I got to Elaine May from Mark Cousins; I’ve been meaning to watch early Koreeda for an age; searching out films because of LGBTQ History Month; Dolly Parton’e birthday; snowfall; realising toward the end of the month I hadn’t watched enough films by women (very unlike me); subscriptions to Mubi, BFI Player and Netflix. 

Highlights? Discovering Elaine May; the wonder and compassion of early Koreeda; passions for Jessica Hausner and Marielle Heller; finally watching Blind and In the Cut; rewatching Gas Food Lodging, Peppermint Soda and Pariah; the joy of Alice Júnior; one film leading to another for comparison. 
The films with an asterisk are ones I would urge everyone to watch but that’s probably unfair because I’m still thinking about several others. 

A great Sunday afternoon triple bill would be Mermaids, This is my Life and Gas Food Lodging – all films about a single mum with two daughters.

A great Saturday night Horror double bill would start with Creepy and finish with Little Monsters.

I’m still having problems with concentration and depression – I’m finding lockdown hard – but watching in bulk is starting to help me think, make comparisons and contrasts and ask better questions. Watching Koreeda and Hausner you can’t help but consider the movements of the camera and careful painterly framing and compositions – their effect and the way they can construct/influence meaning. Watching Elaine May’s two films and then reading these two essays ( ( helped me to think more again about direction – and what might constitute different types of good/bad/effective/distinctive direction.  

Here is the full list in the order I watched them:
1. Good Posture (2019) (Dolly Wells)
2. System Catcher (2019) (Nora Fingscheidt)
3. Parasite (2019) (Bong Joon-ho)
4. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) (Colin Trevorrow)
5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) (Charlie Kaufman)
6. Mermaids (1990) (Richard Benjamin)
7. Holiday Affair (1949) (Don Hartman)
8. Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (2020) (Taylor Swift)
9. Legally Blonde (2001) (Robert Luketic)
10. Chain Reaction (1996) (Andrew Davis)
11. Blind (2014) (Eskil Vogt) *
12. Only the Animals (2019) (Dominik Moll)
13. Sneakers (1992) (Phil Alden Robinson)
14. This is my Life (1992) (Nora Ephron)
15. Creepy (2016) (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
16. Maborosi (1995) (Hirokazu Kore-eda) *
17. Babyteeth (2019) (Shannon Murphy) *
18. Alice in the Cities (1974) (Wim Wenders)
19. A New Leaf (1971) (Elaine May)*
20. The Heartbreak Kid (1972) (Elaine May)
21. Little Monsters (2019) (Abe Forsythe)
22. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) (Jalmari Helander)
23. February (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) (2015) (Oz Perkins)
24. Jennifer’s Body (2009) (Karyn Kusama)
25. Instant Family (2018) (Sean Anders)
26. Nine to Five (1980) (Colin Higgins)
27. Alice Júnior (2019) (Gil Baroni)
28. The Duke of Burgundy (2014) (Peter Strickland)
29. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
30. After Life (1998) (Hirokazu Kore-eda) *
31. TransSiberian (2008) (Brad Anderson)
32. Cactus Flower (1969) (Gene Saks)
33. Peppermint Soda (1977) (Diane Kurys)
34. The Apartment (1960) (Billie Wilder) *
35. G.B.F. (2013) (Darren Stein)
36. About Endlessness (2019) (Roy Andersson)
37. In the Cut (2003) (Jane Campion) *
38. J.T.Leroy (2018) (Justin Kelly)
39. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) (Marielle Heller)
40. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) (Marielle Heller) *
41. The Savages (2007) (Tamara Jenkins)
42. Gas Food Lodging (1992) (Allison Anders) *
43. Infinitely Polar Bear (2014) (Maya Forbes)
44. Pariah (2011) (Dee Rees) *
45. Little Joe (2019) (Jessica Hausner)
46. Amour Fou (2014) (Jessica Hausner)*

My Letterboxd diary is here: and for each film I wrote a paragraph or two. 

For February…
In the mood for loneliness and longing: How Wong Kar Wai depicts emotion (
Wong Kar Wai season coming to BFI Player and the ICA’s Cinema 3 throughout February 2021

Friday 29 January 2021

The 'BFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time’ revisited

I’m slowly rewatching Mark Cousins’ Women Make Film and it made me want to revisit the BFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time – their regular survey, done every ten years. It was last done in 2012 so clearly we are on the cusp of a new one. Of those hundred films 87 are directed by white men, 11 by Asian men (Japan, China, India, Iran and Taiwan) and 2 by women – one Belgian (Chantal Akerman) and one French (Claire Denis). To be clear I’ve seen nearly all the films and most of them I’ve either admired or loved at some point in my life; and, of course I understand that the history of cinema has been dominated by white men.

I thought about getting the numbers for the critics and directors who took part in the survey but life is too short! According to the BFI they tried to be much more democratic than ever before and “approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films” They also conduct a separate director’s poll and around 350 directors sent lists. I spent a little bit of time going through the contributors and though the BFI succeeded in including larger numbers of people from around the world, white men, again unsurprisingly, dominate. 
Their criteria was pleasingly open: “As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.”

It seems to me fairly obvious that cineastes have a duty l to celebrate the voices and skills of women, of men and women of colour, as well as the LGBTQ community. Anyone’s definition of ‘best’ or of ‘historical importance’ is a matter of strategy, effort, rediscovery and critical thought – even when taking taste and personal preferences into account.

I decided to set myself some rules to create some Top 10 of All Time lists that had to include films directed by women and by men and women of colour. 

1. The first has to include a film from each decade since the 30s (30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s) allowing the tenth from 2020 or repeating any other decade. 
2. The second, easier, list has to include a film from every continent but with a slight adjustment – so at least one film from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the US and one from any other part of North or South America. Thus those without any knowledge of South American cinema can choose something from maybe Mexico or Canada. The other four could be from anywhere.
3. I appreciate that people who mostly confine their viewing to particular genres or Hollywood fare might find these too difficult and so the third and easiest was with no restrictions or rules.

In all the lists I leave it up to you to judge what is an acceptable number of white male directors! And yeah, I’m no slave to auteur theory but doing it by director is the easiest way to keep it relatively simple.

Need some help?

• The All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women (indiewire)
• The 100 greatest films directed by women (BBC)
• Top 100 films directed by women: A new golden age of cinema? (BBC)
• Films Directed by Women (Mubi)
• The female gaze: 100 overlooked films directed by women (BFI)
• The Black Film Canon (Slate)
• Best films of the decade (by women of colour) (Offscreen) 
• 85 Compelling Films Starring and/or Directed By Women of Color: A List Created by Director Ava DuVernay & Friends on Twitter (Open Culture)  
• The Best Black Movies of the Last 30 Years (Complex) 
• Film HERstory: 75+ Classic Films Directed by Women (and Where You Can Watch Them) (Nitrate Diva)
• 10 great British films directed by women (BFI)
• The 100 best feminist films of all time (TimeOut)
• The 100 Best Films of the 1930s (Mubi)
• 10 Influential Female Directors From the Silent Film Era (Reel Rundown)
• The best Japanese film of every year – from 1925 to now (BFI)
• The 25 Best Latin American Films of the 2010s (remezcla)
• The 50 Best Latin American Films of the 2000s (remezcla)

The lists

List 1a – The Decades
1. 1939 - The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi)
2. 1947 - One Wonderful Sunday (Akira Kurosawa)
3. 1952 - Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen) 
4. 1966 – Daisies (Věra Chytilová)
5. 1979 – My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong)
6. 1985 – Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch)
7. 1999 – All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar)
8. 2004 - La Niña Santa (Lucretia Martel)
9. 2016 – Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) 
10. 2019 – You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

List 1b – The Decades
1. 1930 – The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg)
2. 1948 - Late Spring (Yasujirō Ozu)
3. 1957 – Pyaasa (Guru Dutt)
4. 1966 – The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
5. 1971 – A New Leaf (Elaine May)
6. 1983 – Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy)
7. 1996 – Bound (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski)
8. 2008 - The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
9. 2015 – Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
10. 2019 – Portrait of a Woman on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

List 1c – The Decades
1. 1938 – Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
2. 1941 – The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)
3. 1954 – Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)
4. 1962 – Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda)
5. 1978 – Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
6. 1989 –  Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
7. 1999 – Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
8. 2009 – Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
9. 2014 – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
10. 2018 – Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)

List 2a – The Continents 
1. Africa: Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine) (1958)
2. Asia: Maborosi (Hirokazu Kore-eda) (1995)
3. Australia: Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir) (1975)
4. Europe: Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson) (1981)
5. US: Selma (Ava DuVernay) (2015)
6. North/South America: Zama (Lucrecia Martel) (2017)
7. In the Cut (Jane Campion) (2003)
8. Queen and Slim (Melina Matsoukas)( (2019)
9. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott) (1982)
10. D.E.B.S. (Angela Robinson) (2004)

List 2a – The Continents 
1. Africa: Abouna  (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun) (2002)
2. Asia: Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano) (1993)
3. Australia: The Piano (Jane Campion) (1993)
4. Europe: L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni) (1960)
5. US: Logan (James Mangold) (2017)
6. North/South America: Gloria (Sebastían Lelio) (2013)
7. Eve's Bayou (Kasi Lemmons) (1997)
8. The Long Kiss Goodnight (Renny Harlin) (1996)
9. But I'm a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit) (1999)
10. Vagabond (Agnès Varda) (1985) 

List 3a – Free for all
• Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki) (2001)
• Alien (Ridley Scott) (1979)
• Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade) (2015)
• Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda) (2018)
• Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner) (1940)
• Pariah (Dee Rees) (2011)
• 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen) (2013) 
• Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami) (1997)
• The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (1960)
• Saint Maud (Rose Glass) (2019)

List 3b – Free for all
• Kill Bill: Vol I (Quentin Tarantino) (2001)
• Rocks (Sarah Gavron) (2020)
• Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash) (1991)
• Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa) (1950)
• Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) (2018)
• Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) (1968)
• Girlhood (Céline Sciamma) (2014)
• Audition (Takashi Miike) (1999)
• Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah) (1962)
• The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye) (1996)

These are honest, sincere lists of films I love and consider important. I could happily do this for hours – I’ve got ideas for dozens more combinations without any repetition of films. So far I've used well-known films too. Spend a little time on Letterboxd to get a sense of how many interesting films out there waiting to be rediscovered and reappraised.
It’s a good way to reflect on weaknesses in your film knowledge – for me that’s Africa, especially and films by African American creators pre 1980. But it’s also to see how hard it is to get hold of whole swathes of important films – loads of the films in Cousins’  Women Make Film are inaccessible or prohibitively expensive. Films like Sugar Cane Alley are just a fond, long lost memory from decades ago.  So, for many film enthusiasts even finding films beyond the white canon can be hugely challenging. 

One last thing occurred to me - an objection someone could make - if I continued making lists like this would I run out of films by women or people of colour whilst still leaving plenty of gems by white men unlisted? Maybe, but a better question.... is if films were easily available how long would it take me to watch all those films by women and people of colour and what gems would I find to fall in love with? Cousins' film makes me believe the answers would be a long time, and a lot.

Friday 13 March 2020

By Force Alone - random thoughts!

Be aware..
I haven't written anything for about 2 years! 
Read an interview with Lavie here – I think it is fair to say that the author of By Force Alone might be slightly bemused by what follows! His starting point and mine are a long way apart. Though, I should say, I loved it.

I – anatomy of a love – ancient forests, greenery, winter, music.

I don’t know when I first saw John Boorman’s Excalibur but it was at some point during my teen years and I fell for it hard. I still love it – it is bonkers in all the right ways: low comedy and inflated gravitas (is that a tautology!?); weird giggles and absurd seriousness; Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson! Later I tried watching BBCs Merlin and hated its tepid lack of risk and anaesthetising safe-blanket of mediocrity (lol).  Camelot, despite the mad genius of Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero is unwatchable. I didn’t really watch Robin of Sherwood when it was first on – we were one of those bizarre households that shied away from ITV - but I watched the repeats. Actually I can watch almost any incarnation of Hood and be happy. As a (young) 13 year old I loved the mysterious wintery atmosphere of the BBC’s Box of Delights. Weirdly perhaps I associate Blakes 7 with all of this too, partly to do with tone and atmosphere. A favourite episode was/is Season 1’s Project Avalon – even the word is enough to set me off - and there were enough woods and forests in various episodes to reinforce the connection. The evocative music that accompanied all of these – Wagner and Orff (yes, problematic I know), Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, Clannad (!), THE BLAKES 7 THEME (!!) – were all incredibly important for connecting meaning, atmosphere and tone in my yearning, impressionable brain.
Clearly I am a child of popular culture. No Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Mallory for me, even in adulthood. Later in life I relished Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. As a school librarian I finally got round to Alan Garner (love) and Susan Cooper (wanted to love) too. There is something about the mystery and the history of it all that I find irresistible. Plus I love swords and monsters, weirdness and witches, ancient forests and dreams of a better world. So can I happily romanticism all that Celtic, foresty, standing stones, myths of Britain nonsense? Indubitably yes. 
Love and critique can go hand in hand of course - my other favourite Arthurian tale is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur. And I’m sure there have been other irreverent takes on mythic Britain without having to reference Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
But is the residing emotion in all this nostalgia? Or something infected with nostalgia? Well, I think there are good reasons to appreciate, or love, all the books, films and TV programmes above. By Force Alone critiques the Arthurian legend - and rightly so – but it is also imbued with wonder and mystery, weirdness and a surreal atmosphere at one with many of those other loves.

II – patriotism, yawn.

By Force Alone raises questions about nationalism, Englishness and other thorny issues and so is extremely relevant and topical.
We’re being fed the poison of nationalism in larger and larger doses by a ruling class beginning to choose reaction, and fascism, over democracy and law.
We’ve always had progressives, from George Orwell, through Billy Bragg to Rebecca Bailey Long try to reclaim patriotism for the left. Now we have the reactionary environmental nationalism of Paul Kingsnorth and his ilk crystallizing into even more dangerous formulations as the Right comes to terms with the climate crisis. Nationalists call on every resource they can summon up to convince us that Englishness is a Thing to be treasured and protected, nurtured and returned to its former glory. 

III – anachronism (and I don’t mean the Blade Runner or the Talking Heads references)

The risk with anachronism in By Force Alone is that you might reinforce the idea that certain concepts and ideologies really did exist before their time. That risk – when it comes to ideas about nationalism – is worth considering because most people are unaware of how new these ideas really are. Most nationalists won’t have read Anderson, Gellner and Hobsbaum, let alone recent books by Valluvan, Niven and others. Nor will they care. They are content with spinning common sense, founding myths, supposed golden ages and the rest. Does By Force Alone destabilise and ridicule nationalism whilst still, paradoxically, keeping it in place? [Genuine question and I would have to reread the novel to take it, and myself, more seriously]

IV - serendipity

I knew nothing about By Force Alone. It has just been serendipity that my renewed ability – more, urgent need - to read coincided with a new Tidhar novel. Arthur, Excalibur, Camelot…wtf, I thought. But I love Tidhar’s writing so…wtfn, I thought.

V – the profane and the sacred

There is some on the nose silliness in this novel. There are parts I might even call cheesy. There were moments when I worried that writing nationalism back into the Dark Ages, as discussed above, was a dangerous game. There were moments when this reader who generally tries to think the best of his fellow humans was dismayed by the tired view of humanity, the violence and the miserableness on display.


Tidhar uses bathos and anti-climax in VERY funny ways. It is funny in a way that reminded me of Douglas Adams. I’d suggest that this is more Hitchhiker’s Guide for the 2020s than a companion to the novels of Richard Morgan or Joe Abercrombie. I was reminded again of comparisons I made between Tidhar and Mike Harrison when I reviewed Central Station. Something to do with skill involved in the use of lists and language, and the way they build their worlds.
It works as a bestiary and compendium of mythical Britain. It works as a book of monsters. It works because Tidhar’s love and relish for the writing of all this stuff is so apparent. It works because somehow it is incredibly moving – despite the Pythonesque irreverence, the changes in tone that should be jarring, the abundance of references to popular culture that should be jarring. It works because, somehow, the book manages to set its righteous anger and its harshness alongside genuine compassion. It works because it is, to sound far too much like a blurb, a work of wonderous imagination and extraordinary skill. It works because there is reverence for history, for learning and the wonders of the universe that sits side by side with its low humour and burning fury. It works because of the ZONE!

VI – a disagreement

Warren Ellis has just recommended the novel and concludes that it is “very, very cold”. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s full of heart. If Tidhar’s Guinevere has a little bit of The Bride in her then By Force Alone is for me is more Kill Bill than Goodfellas (make sure you read the interview above!). And I think Kill Bill has a LOT of heart. I raced through it, and kept trying to slow myself down so I could relish the details. Fool that I am, it made me cry. I loved it. I refer you to Part I….


Don’t you love how the sequence of your reading raises new questions and forces you to rethink? The book I’m reading now is also mind-blowingly good (in very different ways) - Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor and translated by Sophie Hughes. Blimey, if I thought there was some pessimism and misanthropy in By Force Alone then I’ve been forced to rethink!