VOLUME 5: PAGANS – Locating the Folk Heroes of British Cinema Ask someone to locate British cinema, and the best they will be able to do is point to the … Continue reading VOLUME 5: PAGANS
Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!
Like any self-respecting, self-defeating publication, we at Cinema Year Zero lack immunity to the lure of the end of year poll. We asked everyone who contributed in our first six months to submit two ballots: of 10 2020 films, and 10 older films that were new to them in 2020. That list of discoveries shows the breadth of curiosity, accessibility, and cinematic excitement that our odd year allowed. The individual ballots are fascinating.
For the new releases ballot, our rules were vague. We are unperturbed by theatrical release dates in a world without a monoculture. We asked what 2020 meant to our voters. That is how The Lighthouse (Cannes 2019) and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (1990, new cut 2020) both feature on ballots. Unlike most voting bodies, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Minari, and Mank didn’t receive a single vote. Of those standards, we can be thankful.
Generally though, and despite our lackadaisical rule making, a consensus appeared that closely reflects the list-making industrial complex at large. New York Critics Circle winner First Cow is healthily represented in the ballots, as is LA critics winner Small Axe. We will discover how the London Critics voted on February 7. We let our voters decide whether Small Axe is a single film or five. Lovers Rock got nearly as many votes as the full opus, but finally we split the difference.
Eliza Hittman’s extraordinarily detailed American Neo-realist film Never Rarely Sometimes Always nearly pinched the top spot. It’s the type of crowd-pleaser we need more of. But our number one is a big screen experience like no other. It was the top spot on all three of our editor’s lists. Perhaps it is too mainstream. Perhaps it is an instant classic. Days finds the future of cinema by reaching through its minimalist mise-en-scene to find the past.
- Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
- First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
- Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
- Small Axe (Steve Mcqueen)
The Assistant 4, Dark Waters 3, Da 5 Bloods 3, Los Conductos 3, małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore 3, Rocks 3, Siberia 3, The Woman Who Ran 3
About Endlessness 2, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets 2, 40 Year Old Version 2, I’m Thinking of Ending Things 2, My First Film 2, The Invisible Man 2, The Lighthouse 2, Wolfwalkers 2, Talking About Trees 2, To the Ends of the Earth 2, Parasite 2, Malmkrog 2, Undine 2, Point and Line to Plane 2, People on Sunday 2, Her Socialist Smile 2, Nasir 2
- Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)
- El Año del Descubrimiento (Luis Lopez Carrasco)
- Fauna (Nicolás Pereda)
- Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
- Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)
- Autoficción (Laida Lertxundi)
- Isabella (Matías Piñero)
- The Cloud in Her Room (Zheng Lu Xinyuan)
- Malni – Towards The Ocean, Towards The Shore (Sky Hopinka)
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise just how much the moving image was eulogized in a year where uncertainty consumed every aspect of the artistic world. Its dire state and the many stages of its assumed demise were thoroughly dissected all over lockdown, and still, somehow we’re in December celebrating the artform. Sure, this isn’t just another time for “best of year” stuff; more than any other moment in recent history, the last couple of months have recontextualized our relationship with the screen. As we’ve seen ourselves secluded to an apparently never ending loop of transitions between living room and bedroom, the long-sheltered essence of the cinematic forms has diluted even more. We’re now projecting our shared sensory yearn into what’s in front of us, making our approach to film viewing almost aspirational; a quixotic quest to recapture any remnant of collective feel left.
Little glimpses of solace amidst emotional isolation, pure and unfiltered elation by watching uncompromised bodies interact with each other, suffocating encounters dealing with language and images as political weapons; the virtues of these listed works shouldn’t be circumscribed to any given context, but even if unintentionally, by putting them together they now also represent a very personal snapshot of these trying times.
Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross)
Small Axe (Steve McQueen)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanić)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Apiyemyeki (Ana Vaz, Brazil)
Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito, USA)
Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong, Thailand)
Liberté (Albert Serra, France/Spain)
małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (Sky Hopinka, USA)
Meridian (Calum Walter, USA)
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
This Is Not a Burial, It Is a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, Lesotho)
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
In alphabetical order.
Days has been my film of the year ever since I saw it back in March. A few movies I saw only in the year-end catch-up almost knocked it off its perch (Liberté, Krabi 2562, To the Ends of the Earth), but it has remained steadfast, perhaps Tsai Ming-liang’s finest hour as a filmmaker. Honourable mentions go to Miss Juneteenth, She Dies Tomorrow, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, N.P, The Inheritance, Tesla, Tenet, Time, The Year of the Discovery, Let Them All Talk, Da 5 Bloods, Small Axe: Education, s01e03, The Grand Bizarre, First Cow and The Woman Who Ran. Save for one still quite good film, all of the features that played in the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival’s feature competition are to be found somewhere in my ballot or my honorable mentions. BFMAF forever.
The worst new film I saw all year (and dear reader, it was a crowded race to the bottom, cc: Kajillionaire, Shirley, The Social Dilemma, The Prom) was Charlie Kaufman’s i’m thinking of ending things, a polished turd if ever there was one.
While I’m in constant fear of beloved institutions disappearing because of what’s transpired this year (Film Comment, Peckhamplex Cinema), the silver lining is that I didn’t have to have a single conversation about a new Marvel or Disney product that sucks oxygen and arse. Instead, the vacuum in my personal film discourse was filled by a great many interesting critics and writers whom I had never encountered before, and I found even deeper enjoyment in ones I had been following for ages. For that, I am thankful, and remain confident that cinema culture will always persist even when the cinemas do not.
Always Amber (Hannah Reinikainen, Lia Kim Hietala)
Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed)
Time (Garrett Bradley)
The Assistant (Kitty Green)
Futur Drei (Faraz Shariat)
The Hardest Working Cat in Showbiz (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
The Man Standing Next (Woo Min-ho)
The Forty Year Old Version (Radha Blank)
A Dim Valley (Brandon Colvin)
Strasbourg 1518 (Jonathan Glazer)
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, (Francis Ford Coppola)
Rocks, (Sarah Gavron)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, (Marielle Heller)
Small Axe, (Steve McQueen)
Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart)
Hubie Halloween (Steven Brill)
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
1. Red, White & Blue (McQueen)
2. Days (Tsai)
3. Dark Waters (Haynes)
4. My First Film (Anger)
5. The History of the Seattle Mariners (Bois)
6. Let Them All Talk (Soderbergh)
7. Los Conductos (Restrepo)
8. Da 5 Bloods (Lee)
9. Things to Come (Jacobs)
10. Rocks (Gavron)
- Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)
- About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)
- Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross, Turner Ross IV)
- Los Conductos (Camilo Restrepo)
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
- Siberia (Abel Ferrara)
- Undine (Christian Petzold)
- Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood)
- The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
- Small Axe (Steve McQueen)
- Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
- First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
- David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
- Lovers’ Rock (Steve McQueen)
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
- Alex Wheatle (Steve McQueen)
- Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)
- Mangrove (Steve McQueen)
- Ema (Pablo Larraín)
- Rocks (Sarah Gavron)
maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (sky hopinka)
The Giverny Suite (Ja’Tovia Gary)
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
Nasir (Arun Karthick)
We Are (Eugene Kotylarenko)
The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili)
No News Today (Ayo Akingbade)
Wash Us In The Blood (Arthur Jafa)
Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)
The Assistant (Kitty Green)
Kajilionaire (Mirandy July)
Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan)
Saint Maud (Rose Glass)
Misbehaviour (Philippa Lowthorpe)
Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas)
Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Small Axe – special commendation to Education (Steve McQueen)
My First Film – March 31st performance (Zia Anger)
Enormous (Sophie Letourneur)
In Sudden Darkness (Tayler Montague)
Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)
Undine (Christian Petzold)
S01e03 (Kurt Walker)
Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari)
Seeing as I only contributed to the documentary issue of CYZ this year, here are my top docs!
- Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari)
One of my favourite subplots of any film, the Sudanese Film Group’s entire problem solving around what to do about the Isha call to prayer interrupting their planned evening screenings deserves an entirely dedicated think piece. A fantastic way of demonstrating the battle between secularism in art and when challenged with a hyper religious political system.
- Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (Nick Zeig-Owens)
I admit I don’t watch Ru Paul and had never heard of Trixie before the screener for this film landed in my inbox, but before long I was obsessed with trying to screen Moving Parts for audiences (damn that Netflix deal beating me to it). Bonus content: I recommend listening to Trixie’s cover of Lana’s Video Games [link] which was released solely to get me through Lockdown 2.0.
- Faith and Branko (Catherine Harte)
Probably one of the most intimate pieces on this list, it almost makes you feel like an intruder on the relationship between husband and wife musical duo Faith and Branko. A fascinatingly relatable account of the entire 7 year journey of their relationship, from meeting to marriage to (spoiler alert) impending divorce, Catherine is granted remarkable access to two public figures and their unabridged vulnerability.
- Trouble Sleep (Alain Kassanda)
Trouble Sleep was so intense and fun to watch – yet a stressful viewing experience for anyone with a driving license. But as a regular fan of University Challenge, I was pleased to see Trouble Sleep proving useful as an education in regional Nigerian taxis, when I found this exciting trivia question show up on my Twitter timeline. Spoiler: the answer is Ibadan.
- Sunless Shadows (Mehrdad Oskouei)
Completing his trilogy of life in Iranian prisons, Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows is a particularly moving portrait of the patriarchy at its worst. This doc felt very close to home, made me angry, and was definitely one of the most important watches for me in 2020.
- Mayor (David Osit)
Essentially a Palestinian spin-off of Veep (or The Thick of It for British readers/purists), Mayor carefully, expertly and successfully seeks humour through the mundanity of everyday life in one of the most devastating occupations in history.
- The Mole Agent (Maite Alberdi)
Putting the age in espionage, Alberdi returns with another doc that really hits all your feels. Getting old is so scary, mostly because it seems so lonely. You will definitely call your parents after watching this.
- The Viewing Booth (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz)
Is there a point in making films to convince everyone that occupying Palestine is a bad thing, if the audience watching them already agrees with you? Alexandrowicz performs a self reflecting experiment on the role of filmmakers and their audience – I’d say more but why spoil the entire article available on the film via CYZ?
- Miss Americana (Lana Wilson)
Before watching Miss Americana I considered myself a feminist. But I was pretty scathing towards Swift, often using the ‘calculated’ term to insult and undermine her success. I watched this doc in January and it taught me to be much kinder, before Covid and doorstep applause was even a thing.
- Cheer (Greg Whiteley)
I can have a TV show in this list right? Nothing gripped me the way watching an 18 year old fall 20 feet and slam her body into the ground did. Cheerleading is brutal.
Top 13 FEATURES:
How to With John Wilson (John Wilson)
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter, Anders Edström)
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
Nasir (Arun Karthick)
Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)
Siberia (Abel Ferrara)
IWOW: I Walk on Water (Khalik Allah)
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (Pushpendra Singh)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
Bottled Songs 1-4 (Chloé Galibert-Laîné, Kevin B. Lee)
Los Conductos (Camilo Restrepo)
Judy Versus Capitalism (Mike Hoolboom)
Top 10 SHORTS:
La France Contre Le Robots (Jean-Marie Straub)
Twelve Seasonal Films (Jorge Suárez-Quiñones Rivas)
Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
Glimpses from a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995 (Ute Aurand)
Still Processing (Sophy Romvari)
Brown Thrasher (Kevin Jerome Everson)
Avant l’effondrement du Mont Blanc (Jaques Perconte)
The Whole Shebang (Ken Jacobs)
People on Sunday (Tulapop Saenjaroen)
SLEEPWALKER (Maximilien Luc Proctor)
THREE FINAL FILMS BY ELI HAYES:
The Projected Rays
Not Dead Yet
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
Siberia (Abel Ferrara)
Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)
The Assistant (Kitty Green)
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
The Nest (Sean Durkin)
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
The Year of the Discovery (Luis López Carrasco)
- Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
- First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
- I Was At Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)
- Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
- Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
- Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
- To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
- City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
- Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)
People on Sunday (tulapop saenjaroen)
N.P (Lisa Spilliaert)
Red Aninsri; Or, Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall (Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke)
The Tree House (Truong Minh Quy)
Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanovicz)
Under the Open Sky (Nishikawa Miwa)
Love Poem (Xiaozhen Wang)
Cenote (Oda Kaori)
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace (Nick Cave)
Monsoon (Hong Khaou)
Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)
Waiting for the Carnival (Marcelo Gomes)
Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
His House (Remi Weekes)
As bad as 2020 has been, the movies were pretty great. This list was even harder to make than last year’s: although I spent December frantically catching up with titles I missed, and still have more to speed through, part of me wants to stop now for fear that I’ll watch yet another gem that knocks something I love off of the top 10. That’s what happened last night when I caught Mikhaël Hers’ Amanda at the 11th hour and fell for it so hard that it knocked Andrea Dorfman’s delightful, smart anti-rom com Spinster off my list.
For honourable mentions, check out my Letterboxd top 40, the top 25 of which I consider absolute must sees (although all of them have my heart in some way or another).
- Proxima (Alice Winocour)
I treasure the experience of seeing Alice Winocour’s awe inspiring Proxima on the big screen, at its world premiere at TIFF in 2019. Although the film is about an astronaut, Sarah (Eva Green), it all takes place before she launches into space, so the film features none of the visuals that typically characterise space movies. Nevertheless, the emotions in Proxima are epic. Winocour takes the intimate relationship between Sarah and her young daughter and blows them up to cosmic scale.
- First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt is my favourite working filmmaker, and First Cow is just another reason why. I think something that characterises a lot of my favourite films, and particularly the top two films on this list, is storytelling that explores big ideas through the prism of intimate relationships. In this case, we follow Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) as they become friends and bake cakes. Through their simple tale, Reichardt delivers one of the most scathing cinematic critiques of capitalism and the American Dream I’ve ever seen.
- The Perfect Candidate (Haifaa Al-Mansour)
The Perfect Candidate is a crowdpleaser that’s also smart and political — something that’s incredibly tricky to pull off, and is never appreciated as much as it should be. Al-Mansour’s film mines the comedy of a young female doctor running a campaign for local office with absolutely zero political experience, but never falls into mocking her determined protagonist. She also manages to critique a patriarchal society without turning the men in the film into villains. Just like the women, they’re caught up in an unjust system that’s bigger than any individual.
- Ammonite (Francis Lee)
Francis Lee’s unfairly dismissed Ammonite is an unconventional biopic of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) that explores her relationship to work and her position as a working class woman in Britain. Her romance with Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), while intimate, is quiet, established through looks and gestures rather than words, and fraught with complicated class dynamics. It’s rare to see a British period piece about working class people, perhaps because it’s rare that a working class filmmaker like Lee is given the support to make a period piece. As a result, Lee’s film is smarter and richer than most films in the genre — and his filmmaking is exquisite to boot.
- The Assistant (Kitty Green)
Kitty Green’s fiction debut, The Assistant, is shot and edited with incredible precision — not to mention the sound design, which makes an office feel like the setting of a horror movie. By chronicling the mundane daily tasks of an assistant (Julia Garner) to a sexually abusive film exec (think Harvey Weinstein), The Assistant says more about rape culture than any bombastic, over-stylised revenge movie could (I’m looking at you, Promising Young Woman).
- Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach)
Despite how prolific he is and his legendary status in the British film industry, I still tend to think that Ken Loach is underrated. Every few years he turns out a scathing, meticulously researched indictment of the British government and the myriad ways it fails working class people. They’re always well made and incredibly well acted. Sorry We Missed You is one of his best in years.
- The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank)
If the words “2 hour long Sundance dramedy” make your recoil, make an exception for Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version. Blank writes, directs, and stars in a film that’s inspired by her own experiences as a middle-aged Black woman in the New York theatre scene. It’s packed to the brim with ideas about art vs. commerce, compromise, poverty porn, gate keeping, gentrification, and more. Plus, it’s fucking hilarious, and features original rap songs that are actually good, performed incredibly well by Blank. Is there anything she can’t do?
- Amanda (Mikhaël Hers)
I’ve only had 24 hours to sit with Amanda, but Mikhaël Hers’ latest thoroughly has my heart. It wins the award for this year’s “Movie in which you most want to step through the screen and give the characters a big hug.” Vincent Lacoste is fantastic as a 24-year-old who suddenly has to learn to be a father after his beloved sister dies in a terrorist attack, leaving behind her seven year old daughter, Amanda (Isaure Multrier). It’s a film in which every character is a good person trying their best, and you’ll root for them every step of the way.
- Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
I wondered if I’d overrated Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ thrilling, stylish film because of the excited atmosphere of watching it in the cinema, at a festival, just before the world fell apart. But upon rewatch, the film only deepened for me — and surprisingly became more moving. It seems conventional on the surface — a repressed housewife rebels against social constraints — but Mirabella-Davis’ film goes in all sorts of directions I didn’t expect.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things so thoroughly perplexed me that I was compelled to watch it twice in one week. It’s a film that has stuck with me for months as I’ve slowly come to understand its twisty plot more and more, peeling back the dense psychological layers. Even on the viewings where I didn’t totally understand what was going on, I was always immersed in the unsettling atmosphere Charlie Kaufman creates.
- Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)
I went through most of the gaps in my Fassbinder during a 2 week stint in April, but Alexanderplatz ended up being a christmas treat. It’s everything you could hope for from an incredibly long film and more.
- Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (Coppola, 1990)
The last film I saw on the big screen. Coppola fixed it. In the build up, I rewatched the whole Coppola oeuvre, including first watches of Cotton Club Remastered/Apocalypse Now final Cut, both of which are superlative. The greatest of the boomers.
- Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2005)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Intolerance.
- Arizona Dream (Emir Kustrurica, 1994)
This should be remembered for the Gonzo masterpiece that it is. I think the cult is growing. Kusturica is a giant of Balkan cinema. Seeing W.R. at Berlinale switched me on to the Yugo Black Wave, and with the guidance of CYZ alum Fedor Tot I am growing my knowledge of the movement.
- Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007)
I’m a Bollywood luddite but watching this Singin’ in the Rain level masterpiece about movies on Netflix Party turned me into a straight up slut for SRK.
- Born in Flames, Losing Ground, My Brother’s Wedding, films of Bill Duke
The ‘reading list’ mentality that took over social media during last summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests was generally cringey, but it nonetheless opened up access to the canon of Black American cinema though free streams and reignited critical attention. I was thankful to catch up with these bangers.
- Foolish Wives (Erich Von Stroheim, 1922)
Just good, horny vibes.
- Glory and Dignity
- Maurice Pialat
I spent years meaning to get around to Maurice. 1 week in the company of his films (I watched everything except for Le Garçu and his mini-series, The House in the Woods) has changed how I look at film and people around me.
- 15.17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, 2018)
I could watch this incredible movie any time or any place.
Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembene, Senegal, 1985)
Dishonored (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1931)
Face-Off (John Woo, USA, 1996)
Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 1997)
Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1998)
In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 2001)
India Song (Marguerite Duras, France, 1975)
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2011)
Wavelength (Michael Snow, USA, 1967)
West Indies (Med Hondo, Mauritania, 1980)
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)
You, The Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Colin Higgins, 1982)
Blood Ah Go Run (Menelik Shabazz, 1982)
Dreamcatcher (Kim Longinotto, 2015)
In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman, 2004)
God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017)
- Francisca (Manoel de Oliveira, 1981)
- Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
- Xiao Wu (Jia Zhangke, 1997)
- Malina (Werner Schroeter, 1981)
- Smooth Talk (Joyce Chopra, 1985)
- Baxter, Vera Baxter (Marguerite Duras, 1977)
- Antigone (Straub & Huillet, 1992)
- Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1959)
- Passe ton bac d’abord (Maurice Pialat, 1978)
- Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982)
- Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934)
- Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983)
- Seasons of the Year (Artavazd Peleshyan, 1975)
- Frágil como o Mundo (Rita Azevedo Gomes, 2001) –
- Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (Paul Wegener & Carl Boese, 1920)
A Flame at the Pier (1962)
Whispering Pages (1994)
Hour of the Star (1985)
Running on Karma (2003)
Scandal Sheet (1952)
Black Sun (1964)
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)
What’s up, doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)
Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, 2017)
The Outsiders (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
Cemetery Man (Michele Soavi, 1994)
To Be Or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
The Silent Partner (Daryl Duke, 1978)
Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)
Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007)
Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976)
The Daytrippers (Greg Mottola, 1996)
1. Deja Vu (Scott, 2006)
2. India Song (Duras, 1975)
3. The Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1996)
4. Ashes of Time/Redux (Wong, 1994/2008)
5. The Moon (Ito, 1994)
6. The American Friend (Wenders, 1977) / The Muppet Movie (Frawley, 1979)
7. Dil Se.. (Ratnam, 1998)
8. All My Life (Baillie, 1966)
9. Right On! (Danska) / Sometimes It’s Gonna Hurt (Dunlap, 1983)
10. Our Daily Bread (Vidor, 1934) / Panelstory (Chytilova, 1979)
Whisper of the Heart
The Green Ray
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
Wendy & Lucy
Stop Making Sense
Eyes Wide Shut
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
(honourable mentions: Terrorizers, Seven Samurai, Daisies, L’Avventura)
Graceland (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2006)
Parsi (Eduardo Williams, 2018)
Johnny Mneumonic (Robert Longo, 1995)
The Joycean Society (Dora García, 2013)
Aidol (Lawrence Lek, 2019)
BLKNWS (Kahlil Joseph, 2019)
His Motorbike, Her Island (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)
Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)
Jobe’z World (Michael M. Bilandic, 2018)
Parallel I (2012) & A New Product (2012) – Harun Farocki
Woman on the Run
The Clock (Minnelli, 1945)
An Autumn Afternoon (Ozu, 1962)
Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945)
Bombay (Ratnam, 1995)
Girlfriends (Weill, 1978)
Candyman (Rose, 1992)
The Innocents (Clayton, 1961)
Tilaï (Ouedraogo, 1990)
Faust (Murnau, 1926)
Not Even Nothing Can Be Free of Ghosts (Kohlberger, 2014)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
Klute (Alan Pakula, 1971)
I Vitteloni (Federico Fellini, 1953)
The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
Rheingold (Niklaus Schilling, 1978)
Tabu (FW Murnau, 1931)
Germany, Pale Mother (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1980)
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990)
the watermelon woman (cheryl dunye)
challenge of the lady ninja (lee tso-nam)
the glamorous boys of tang (su hui-yu)
the scent of green papaya (tran anh hung)
chungking express (wong kar-wai)
song of the exile (ann hui)
suzhou river (lou ye)
like grains of sand (ryosuke hashiguchi)
an elephant sitting still (hu bo)
i are you, you am me (obayashi nobuhiko)
An unconventional year calls for unconventional lists. I’ve structured my list of 10 favourite 2020 discoveries not in order of preference, or release order, or alphabetical order, but in the order I watched them. I spent this year sitting relatively still, as we all did, with little else to do than work and consume art. My experience of these films was shaped by the point of lockdown in which I watched them, but even more so, these films shaped that period of time for me.
March 17th: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)
I find it hard to believe Sami Blood is a feature debut, because it’s breathtakingly accomplished, and structured like an epic. Kernell’s 1930s-set film follows a young Sami girl (the Indigenous people of Sweden) who attends a boarding school run by white Swedes, who aim to beat her culture and language out of her. She then has to choose between returning home, or assimilating into white Swedish society while being ostracised from her family. It’s both a horrifying film about the violence of colonialism and a brilliantly told coming-of-age tale.
April 5th: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Cristian Mungiu’s bleak and brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days follows two friends — the scatterbrained, pregnant Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), and the resourceful Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) — in 1980s Romania, as they try to arrange Gabita’s illegal abortion. One of the most famous screen faces of illegal abortion is Vera Drake in Mike Leigh’s film, but while Leigh imagines the illegal abortionist as a kind and noble woman, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes a darker tack. The abortionist is a seedy man who takes the secrecy and urgency of the operation as an excuse to sexually exploit the two women. As Mungiu points out, illegal abortion doesn’t just put women’s health at risk, it also renders them with less social power, which opens a door for exploitation.
June 1st: Our Loved Ones (Anne Émond, 2015)
In the space of a week, to prepare for an interview with her, I watched all four of Anne Émond’s films, and with each subsequent feature, I grew more and more angry that she isn’t an internationally celebrated auteur. The Quebecois director has incredible range: from Nuit #1, which I like to call “depressed Before Sunrise,” to experimental biopic Nelly, to one of the best teen movies of its decade, Jeune Juliette, each of her features is accomplished and none of them are anything like each other. Our Loved Ones, an emotional epic about cycles of suicide, is my favourite. It begins with two men retrieving the body of their father, who has hung himself, and then follows one of those men as he starts his own family. The film is a series of mundane moments that build to something monumental.
June 7th: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Madeleine Olnek, 2011)
I rarely ever laugh out loud at films — not even ones I find extremely funny — but Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same had me audibly howling. I became acquainted with Madeleine Olnek’s work through her third feature, Wild Nights with Emily, which is one of my favourite films of the last 10 years. Her first film, Lesbian Space Alien (as I’ll refer to it), is an ultra low budget, black and white, New York-set comedy about, well, lesbian space aliens who arrive on Planet Earth and date women. It’s just the right amount of absurd.
June 25th: Augustine (Alice Winocour, 2012)
2020 was the year I fell in love with Alice Winocour’s films, after becoming enamoured with Proxima at TIFF 2019 (and eventually naming it my film of this year). Céline Sciamma was rightly celebrated for upending notions of “artist” and “muse” and exploring the female gaze in her 2019 feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This year, I was surprised to discover that Winocour did all of that back in 2012 with Augustine (the two films even share the same editor, Julien Lacheray). The film is a rich, gothic tale about the star teenage patient (Soko) of Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), a 19th-century neurologist who researched female hysteria. Critical discourse has advanced far enough now that Sciamma was celebrated for Portrait, whereas reviews of Augustine at the time, written mostly by male critics, complained that we didn’t get enough of the male perspective.
July 11th: Conversations with Other Women (Hans Canosa, 2005)
When I recommend you watch Conversations with Other Women, I mean a very specific version of the film. The film was originally released in split screen, as it was shot and intended: one half of the screen stays on Helena Bonham Carter, the other on Aaron Eckhart, as they play old lovers reconnecting over the course of one night. Perhaps due to a muted critical reception or a misguided attempt to make the film more commercial, the studio later re edited the film into a single camera version, and that’s the version you’ll find on any streaming service or newer DVD release. The only way to watch the original is to seek out the first run DVD, which is easiest to do via eBay — and you must, because the split screen device is fascinating, compelling, and an essential part of the film’s storytelling. It’s a bracing, exciting way to communicate that these two characters are in completely different movies in their own heads. We get to see both play out side by side.
July 18th: Career Girls (Mike Leigh, 1997)
I spent a few blissful weeks in summer marathoning Mike Leigh films, some rewatches, some first time views. Career Girls was my favourite discovery, an intimate little gem about female friendship nestled chronologically inbetween two of his more lauded films, Palme d’Or winner Secrets & Lies and Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy Turvy. Leigh and his actors have crafted some wacky characters over the years (Timothy Spall in Life is Sweet, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky). But even in comparison to them, Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman turn it up to 11 in the flashback scenes of Career Girls. It takes some time to get used to, but when contextualised with the scenes of them older, reuniting and reminiscing, their manic extremity makes sense as a heightened memory of their youthful energy.
August 17th: The Secret Garden (Agnieszka Holland, 1993)
Hollywood seems to have forgotten the art of making great childrens films, which has never been better evidenced than by the atrocious 2020 remake of The Secret Garden. The one good thing to come out of that film was giving me an excuse to revisit Agnieszka Holland’s incredible 1993 version — and yes, I’m counting it as a discovery since I was too young to remember watching it the first time. I was charmed by the story of The Secret Garden as a child — particularly the book — but watching the film as an adult reveals emotional complexities that I could never have fully appreciated as a kid. It’s magical, but it’s also smart and wise about dealing with young orphan Mary’s trauma, and not trying to artificially resolve it as the 2020 version does.
November 22nd: The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)
Cheryl Dunye’s landmark New Queer Cinema film, The Watermelon Woman, is every bit as imaginative, invigorating, and funny as I’d heard. It’s a film that leaves its audience in a state of confusion over what they’re watching — is it a fiction film, a documentary, or a bit of both? I saw a lot of great new films, mostly nonfiction, in 2020 that aimed to reclaim the history of marginalised people, like No Ordinary Man and Cane Fire. The Watermelon Woman feels like an essential predecessor. Dunye plays a fictionalised version of herself, a filmmaker who is determined to find out more about a 1930s Black actress dubbed ‘The Watermelon Woman’. Through this meta device — the filmmaker-actress playing a filmmaker who is investigating the life of an actress — Dunye effortlessly weaves together her character’s contemporary life with queer Black history.
December 21st: A Short Film About Killing (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)
Watching A Short Film About Killing with a pizza dinner was one of the worst decisions I made in 2020. My food instantly started to taste slimy and gross as soon as Kieslowski’s film began on a shot of a dead rat in the street, and next, a cat hanging from a noose, all bleached in grim yellow tones. What follows is an unrelentingly bleak film about murder and capital punishment. Like last year’s Clemency, it indictes capital punishment simply by observing how the system works in a removed, somewhat mundane way. I appreciate any film that’s able to make me feel viscerally horrible, and if nothing else, A Short Film About Killing did that.
Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!
Empire in Decline: The Paddingtonisation of British Cinema 2012-2020
January 2021. Not the easiest time to continue one’s love affair with the city of London. As the city remains the national epicentre of the Covid pandemic, it exists in a limbo state. Mostly closed, there are enough chain supermarkets and takeaway restaurants to attract movement across the streets. Trains and busses still operate, because things are still to be done. There are still things to see. From my vantage point in South London, I can visit scenes from Blowup, Babylon, and Legally Blonde within a half hour walk. The novelty doesn’t get old. But then, novelty is what the city is all about. From the popularity of cartoonishly designed cans of beer to the mayor who promised a garden bridge (whatever happened to him?) the vastness of London is offset by both consumer and company with the aid of modern trends to smooth our sad existences, and our brains.
In Paddington 2, the Peruvian immigrant bear celebrates the city by purchasing a book of London’s landmarks, a gift to convince his aunt to come and visit. Watch the film though, and you won’t feel a city so much as a softened collection of streets and signifiers like bearskin hats. Paddington is a kids film; you might expect the edges to be rounded. But it almost meets London in the middle. British culture has been on a trajectory of corporate blandness for over a decade. The decline of the British high street has the masses excited at the prospect of a Wagamama’s opening next door. As with everything in the UK, the centre of this is London, a gentrification project epitomised by the London 2012 Olympics. In an effort to regenerate the industrial wastelands of London’s East End, and to present the nation as welcoming following a history of murderous colonialism (particularly fresh at the time was the war in Iraq), somewhere in the region of £93 billion was spent on a two week sporting event that celebrated our cuddliness. Did this figure include the eviction of Occupy London from various Paddington-visited landmarks, just months before the games began? This is a period remembered fondly as the peak of British multiculturalism, but from my vantage point in an Essex town on just the wrong side of the M25, the common refrain was “keep out of London for a month; you don’t want to get blown up.”
The Games were a huge success, and popular culture followed its smiling blandness. In a search for ad revenue, so-called bastions of taste like The Guardian and NME full-throatedly embraced ‘poptimism’ as an ethos, opening the doors for the likes of Ed Sheeran to be seen as a legitimate rock star by the British public (eventually crowned our King of Pop with a Glastonbury headline slot). This era presented a switch where not only were PR and Marketing terms the driver of cultural narratives and writers of headlines, but dissent was quashed. You must like Adele, you must watch Bake Off, you must read One Day (this era seeing the effective death of the novel as a cultural force while book Instagrams blew up and Waterstones finally turned a profit are no coincidence).
Nothing hailed niceness like The London 2012 Opening Ceremony. Possibly the most viewed British film of all time, this live event directed by then recent Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, cost £27 million, about twice the budget of his triumphant Slumdog Millionaire. Performed from the Olympic Park stadium in Stratford, it presents a potted history of Great Britain and Northern Ireland filtered through Boyle and the Olympic Committee’s kaleidoscopic, box-ticking style. Kenneth Branagh commands as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who announces the arrival of the Industrial Revolution by reciting The Tempest while frightened feudal country folk look on. Hundreds of extras dance their way through the moving of sets to show the passage of time, while Boyle raids the BBC archive for the most impressive moments of British sporting achievement. In one moment of mournful pause, Boyle closes up on the faces of Suffragettes and First World War soldiers (complete with a blurry poppy in the foreground), before chimneys grow higher and higher. The march of progress is completed by a hundred white extras in Sgt Peppers outfits and a hundred black extras in Sunday Best, carrying suitcases to represent the Windrush generation. In a musical montage that includes J.K. Rowling reading from Peter Pan and a giant baby made out of hospitalised children’s beds, British compassion is streamlined into its value for achievement; the NHS reduced to a logo that equals goodness in a chilling foreshadowing of the Clap for Carers initiative.
The film climaxes with its most telling sequence: where those chimneys once raised, now an ugly new build house sits. The multi-racial, multi-generational family commune with technology through their phones, the TV and a Nintendo DS, to access a dance party that interpolates 30 years of youth culture into a few signifiers of colour and light. Papier mache punks leap on pogo sticks and lycra-suited dancers lindy hop to Tinie Tempah’s ‘Pass Out’. Here Boyle’s frantic style is most clearly felt. Social media messages jump up on screen, the live footage is intercut with pre-recorded scenes and clips from Classic British TV Comedies. Finally, the house itself lifts from the ground to reveal Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of The Internet, inside, waving, and happily hacking into the mainframe. British ideology is revealed as a globalising promise of innovation, linking to everyone, wherever they are, sublimating their culture and motives as information and data that can be used to sell Britishness. Boyle here perfects the British filmmaking metier: perfect advertising that performs an individualist freedom while bowing to the authority that is national myth.
His niceness is everywhere. See him in Jonathan Glazer, another amusing example of the ad-man-cum-artist. His 1999 advert for Guinness is one of the most poetic evocations of alcohol ever captured in moving images. His three feature films, the beer ad Sexy Beast, the perfume ad Birth, and Under the Skin, an ad for an app, are entertaining films all. They have no real daring or point of view, but still, he has been crowned this nation’s Kubrick. Boyle’s most subversive act was rejecting a knighthood, saying it would be unfair to all of the people who worked on the opening ceremony to take full authorship of the event. Branagh accepted his honour that year, and since has churned out content as hired hand for the Disney mill. Now even Boyle’s style is too much for the kino. The sequel to his Trainspotting (Empire magazine’s film of 1996) was met with a shrug by audiences and critics despite sending up notions of nostalgia and sequelitis in reasonably successful ways. He was fired from No Time to Die for wanting to kill James Bond. His most recent film, Yesterday, a Richard Curtis-penned rom-com without discernible features but with an Ed Sheeran cameo, felt like an endpoint for the Boyle aesthetic. Chewed and regurgitated, it could have been a Glazer joint.
At the same time, a different figure of British Literature has become emblematic of this time: Paddington bear. Paddington and its sequel Paddington 2 are huge global hits. Ebert heir apparent David Ehrlich has used the film’s cuddly aesthetic as a signal of his own ‘niceness’. Paddington’s refrain, ‘If we are kind and polite, the world will be right,’ has the same energy as Keir Starmer’s abstention on the Spycops bill. Paddington director Paul King, like Boyle before him, started out as an arbiter of (00s) cool by directing The Mighty Boosh, a surreal 3-season sitcom that captured the energy of Camden in those days when you could famously spot Amy Winehouse having a pint. His reward for making Boosh a phenomenon was Bunny and the Bull, a practically unwatchable blank cheque movie, The Holy Mountain for BTEC students (or for Brits in general – Jodorowsky’s film has rarely been available on UK home video). Disgraceful, hellish garbage it might be, but they don’t make ‘em like Bunny and the Bull anymore. They don’t make films at all.
Instead, we make nice. The Chancellor, ‘Dishi’ Rishi Sunak, has been angled to seem cute (BBC drawing of him as Superman/The Times literally photoshopping a Halo into a picture) and kind (Eat Out to Help Out) – his complicity in the recession of ‘08 a mere sequence of the happy bear failing to stop exploding bathroom pipes in the Paddington story for the richest man in parliament. King’s penance for Bunny and the Bull was to direct the BBC series Come Fly With Me, which readers may remember as the 2011 black/brown/yellowface equal opportunity offender mockumentary featuring characters like Taaj, a Pakistani man played by Matt Lucas with the indelible catchphrase “if you don’t like Avatar, you gay.” When the Black Lives Matter protests happened in June 2020, the Right responded to the felling and plunging of Bristol’s Colston monument to slavery by turning the conversation into an identity politics debate about whether it was right to censor old BBC sitcoms. They had treasured memories of Come Fly With Me. And so they should. Just 12 months later, BBC viewers would tune in to watch Mr Bean play Vangelis on keys at the Olympic Opening Ceremony and ascend like Ray Winstone and Amanda Redman in Sexy Beast.
King won’t ever be seen as an auteur like Boyle or Glazer. He can’t sell himself, only others. Instead, the new filmmaker foisted upon us by the British Cinema Class is Rose Glass. She appeared on the cover of Sight & Sound’s Halloween edition, with a profile appropriately written by Kim Newman. This was notable because it is so rare for a British filmmaker to grace the cover, unless they have the name recognition of a Danny Boyle or a Steve McQueen. So why is Glass being sold to us? Her film Saint Maud is a tepid, timid religious provocation disguised as a Horror film, for all Horror films must now come cloaked as awards-worthy for mass appeal. There are numerous reasons why she and not Carol Morley or Debbie Tucker Green would have made the cover instead. For one, their films have an identity. Who is Glass, other than a plant to soak up BIFA nominations and eventually make an American Southern Gothic film or streaming series? Boyle covered the whole of enlightened British history with his Olympic Games film, and even he has fallen. The British identity no longer exists at all. A smiling, waving Mr Man is the best we can hope for. If Mr Sunak is the happy bear for our times, then I’ll sit back and let the spirit of 2012 wash through me.
The notion of “Britishness” is, for all the feverous endorsements it receives from the UK’s buoyant far-right, difficult to define. The causes are manifold. The United Kingdom has long sought to expand its political control – often perfidiously, rarely successfully. It has no formal political constitution. It comprises four constituent nations – one of which isn’t even in Great Britain and boasts its own endlessly complex identity issues. Furthermore, it has historically been home to a vast array of immigrant settlers. The British ethnic identity was already nebulous before the 20th century welcomed the greatest diversification of British culture in recorded history. So it is no wonder that “Britishness” is an especially difficult notion to pin down, just as it is no wonder that British cinema struggles with establishing an identity of its own. One person’s Britain may be dramatically distinct from another’s, and while the same is true for a great many nations, their citizens often share a common view of what their country should be or, in some kind of abstract, actually is. Within British cinema, expressing national identity in such broad, even universal terms, distilling it down to a clear, standardized series of cultural signifiers is, well, just abstract.
If the country is a grand collage of cultural expressions authentic and inauthentic, old and new, black, brown and white, English, Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh, each piece of said collage offers us pockets of genuine expression that represent somebody’s perception of “Britishness.” Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City (2008) is as profound a reflection on the lived experience of a British citizen and their connection to their hometown as you’ll see. Davies’ film is both biography of Liverpool and autobiography, both his opinions on a city he has loved and hated and a poignant, provocative exploration of how that city has informed the man he is. Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil (2013) illuminates a critical facet of modern British life in its incisive, conversant story of second-generation Egyptian immigrants in East London. El Hosaini’s compassionate understanding of her material makes for a palpably authentic film with an audacious empathy for all its major characters.
As for what might come closest to constituting a single definition of British cinema, look to the films of Andrew Kötting. Forget the umlaut – his work is as British as they come. That apparent “Britishness” in Kötting’s work may have more to do with perceptions on Britishness than informed testimony or day-to-day realities, but then what else is such a notion as Britishness if not a perception? Born in Bromley and a lifelong resident of South-East England, Kötting’s takes on the culture and character of his nation are too idiosyncratic to speak for anyone but himself; yet, it’s that very idiosyncrasy and its acute import in his work that engenders its remarkable accessibility.
The personal expression exhibited in the melancholy Gallivant (1996), the mischievous Swandown (2012) or the brazenly alienating Edith Walks (2017) is as foreign to a fellow Brit as to a fellow human from anywhere on Earth. Kötting’s films often concern pilgrimages or other journeys – returning artefacts to their place of origin, tracing the footsteps of others, or simply placing footsteps of one’s own in exploratory journeys across lesser spotted Britain. Gallivant was a coastal tour of Britain featuring Kötting’s grandmother and daughter; Swandown followed Kötting and fellow artist Iain Sinclair on a brief nautical voyage aboard a swan-shaped pedalo; Edith Walks charts an imagined journey by foot by the lesser-known English historical figure Edith the Fair. Family is a fragile, precious entity – sweetly so in Gallivant, dangerously so in Ivul (2009) – objects have historical identities and even spiritual qualities – as in The Whalebone Box (2019) – and place, above all, is sacred. His is the gloriously odd, rough underside to the crass, glossy Brexit Britain of England’s rural and small-town south-east; a similar spirit can be found in Mark Jenkin, whose portraits of his native Cornwall achieve something in the same vein for England’s wilder south-west. Yet it’s notable that, Kötting, a most pointedly, identifiably “British” auteur, hails from Kent, or about as geographically close as mainland Britain comes to continental Europe.
For all its worth as a sincere, meaningful chronicle of Britain through the eyes of one of its own, the Kötting canon is not merely a limited purview on British identity but an increasingly irrelevant one in a progressively more multicultural country. Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree (2019), Sarah Gavron’s Rocks (2019) and Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe (2020) are all recent cases of the Black British identity finding space within the common cultural impression of the UK, though even here there are shortcomings. Most such movies are situated in London, many do not come from black filmmakers, and a substantial number are but the first and, sadly, final film in the initially promising careers of directors then shuffled into for-hire work on TV to earn a living, directors such as pioneering black queer filmmaker Campbell X, and Destiny Ekaragha, whose sole feature to date, Gone Too Far (2013) suggested the arrival of an exciting new voice in British cinema.
Small Axe is striking in that it achieves within the UK something which McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) achieved within the US – a straightforward, uncompromising acknowledgement of the country’s historical, racial wounds. But British cinema remains reluctant to examine this ugliness inherent in the British identity; indeed, in the predominantly white, historical narratives it prefers to tell, it’s a pervasive ugliness that’s almost wholly erased. Even Kötting, for all that his distinctive qualities may set him decidedly apart from British cinema’s upper echelons, is innately ill-suited to address this issue, being a 61-year-old, heterosexual, white, native English, cisgender man. The older, wealthier, more conservative influences within the British film industry who once felt no need to pay calls for more diverse on-screen representation any heed still feel no need to do so. And yes, they’re still in charge – the aging beneficiaries of ever-better living standards, emboldened by a certain generational arrogance, hogging positions they once promised to youths who have since been booted out of the employment landscape by one recession after another.
Under their tenure atop the British industry, production companies like Blueprint Pictures, Archer Street Films, Ecosse Films and Neal Street Productions (whose co-founder, Pippa Harris, is also the current BAFTA chair) continue to churn out the same old costume dramas and light comedies, the same material they’ve been studiously replicating for decades. These aren’t films designed to reflect any particular aspect of British culture, to form a national cinema out of the actual substance of our culture – they’re films designed to satisfy the tepid desires of a wealthy base of ticket buyers, actively diluting the substance of British culture and reducing it to a meek, insipid simulacrum of what the genteel classes suppose it ought to be. Kötting, McQueen, Ekaragha and their ilk have no place in this bland, milksop version of a British national cinema. Yet if that cinema is to exist at all, the only way it can separate itself from the clammy clutch of Downton Abbeys and Potato Peel Pie Societies is by enabling those very directors it so unceremoniously disenfranchises and sends off to work in TV or in the States to develop an unambiguous, consistent, multi-faceted identity within it. A notion of “Britishness,” if you will.
It is unavoidable in having a conversation about British film to not mention Alan Clarke. That fact speaks to some of the extraordinary films Clarke directed before his untimely death in 1990; but it is also, unfortunately, a reminder that Clarke has become something of a rarity in Britain. Filmmakers of his ilk – ideologically attuned, formally bracing and adventurous – are hard to come by in 2020. In his own time, he was part of a talented crowd of political and stylistically diverse directors working in Britain in the 1980s that also included Mike Leigh, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien, Ken Russell, and Stephen Frears. Clarke was the most extreme of all, though, even more than Greenaway’s fantastical mutilation spectacles and Jarman’s queer punk-Renaissance melanges. In fact, it is these directors’ baroque-ness that separates them from Clarke, a much more restrained filmmaker, and thus one more attuned to the hidden-in-plain-sight evils of his own country’s government, military, and ideology.
It is tempting, upon rudimentary examination of Clarke’s credits, to haphazardly slot him into the kitchen sink drama tradition in Britain. His fascination with anti-social Thatcher-era angst (often the right-wing kind) in Scum (1979), Made in Britain (1982), and The Firm (1989) certainly earns him that reputation. This limits the scope of his abilities, though. He is a far more talented formalist than many others who could similarly be called British realists (Ken Loach, anyone?), and his other informal trilogy – on the Troubles in Northern Ireland – testifies to his career arc from a rare talent in teleplay direction to one of the best political directors in the Anglo-American world.
Psy-Warriors, a 1981 installment of the BBC’s Play for Today series of teleplays, was the first of this trilogy. It follows a group of volunteers in a Psychological Operations (PSYOP) experiment to test new forms of psychological torture. Play-acting as suspects in an Aldershot pub bombing, they are kept in white cages, interrogated, and humiliated by their captors, even after the experiment has officially “ended”. So, for example, a prisoner named Richards (Derrick O’Connor) is released from the programme and then charged with recruiting ex-Army members as mercenaries, locked in a noiseless cell, and observed by the same captors who have been acting as faux-adversaries in the PSYOP tests. Whether or not Richards actually did these things is left unanswered.
The defining tension of Clarke’s early 80s TV work was between the TV workmanship that he practically had to adhere to during this period and a much bolder political impulse in his collaboration with screenwriters. He’s formally inventive here, as in films like Stars of the Roller State Disco, and Beloved Enemy, often using blocking in ways that are blunt but effective (if Clarke had a motto, “blunt but effective” would surely be it). But he has to shoot on the ubiquitous video format, giving his films the cheap look that one may recognise from BBC sitcoms of the period. Even when writer David Leland is able to throw in a searing monologue about British colonialism and its place within broader global oppression (in Vietnam and Palestine especially), the psychological effect of watching Clarke working with these resources is to dampen the film’s impact. This is all despite it being by far one of the most shocking pieces of fiction broadcast on the BBC at the time, so horrifying and so timely that Mark Duguid, writing in the booklet for the BFI’s excellent re-release of Clarke’s BBC work, was surprised it didn’t get banned like the original version of Scum.
It’s in Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989) that Clarke’s formal conceit becomes easier to define, though there are still differences between even these two films in tone and intent. Nevertheless, in both films, Clarke invests in a directorial rigor that is almost theoretical in its emphasis on distance and shaking the viewer out of passive viewing experiences. But it’s also not flowery and graceful like film theory; it’s aggressive and forceful, less like someone reading Sergei Eisenstein’s theory than taking the book and smacking you in the face with it.
In Contact, a film about British soldiers on patrol in Northern Ireland, the leap to shooting on film is far more than a mere budgetary bonus. Combined with a handheld cinematography that places the viewer in the thick of the action, the film’s mood is close to documentary, a fact that was pertinent for viewers at the time when they mistook the images for actual dispatches from the front line. There’s an obvious televisual parallel here between Vietnam and Clarke’s documentary-adjacent cinematography. Indeed, the sense of dwindling moral power in both countries that links Vietnam to Northern Ireland is present in Psy-Warriors too. Compare the cultural longevity of Clarke’s film with, say, the American reverence for the Vietnam films of Oliver Stone; it’s as though England has a collective cultural amnesia about its actions in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure what’s worse: England’s fingers-in-ears denialism or America’s revisionist, self-centred trauma stories about Vietnam.
The brilliance of Contact, however, is ultimately in how it so roundly places the audience in the point of view of the soldiers (often the camera runs along with them as though it is a member of the platoon) and still refuses any identification with them. Their psychological interiority is barely hinted at by Clarke and actively suppressed by the film’s unnamed platoon commander (Sean Chapman), who tells them bluntly after one of their members is killed by a bomb that it “comes with the job”. Just as the Northern Irish citizens and dissidents that they observe, torment, capture, and sometimes murder are seen from their Othering point of view, so the very same thing happens to the soldiers.
But perhaps Clarke felt that allowing even the possibility of empathising with the soldiers through some misbegotten notion of imperialist trauma was too much. In Elephant, he strips everything back to its barest essentials: a location, a killer, a gun, and a victim. A series of 18 vignettes, all based on real reported events culled from newspapers, happens one after the other. In each one, someone is killed by someone else with a gun. At the end of each vignette, the viewer is helpless as Clarke moves onto the next one. The killing is unstoppable. As Leland said about the film, its “cumulative effect is that you say, […] ‘The killing has to stop’.”
Elephant’s conceit is no less interesting and direct than Contact. But it is arguably more sophisticated because it is in the little details that Clarke builds his world of terror and violence. There are several elements that, at first, appear to repeat themselves in each vignette. A close-up of the gun as it fires, for example, or a shot at the end of the vignette of the victim’s body after the killer has left the scene. But Clarke will often add new elements, like a second victim or a figure in the distance who seems like they could be the killer, only to never be seen again. And repeated images that one has become used to (if such a thing can be true of cold-blooded executions) like the close-ups of the gun are done away with and then reintroduced later. This tug of war between circular, repetitive hypnosis and sharp stabs at the audience’s inertia with wartime violence is still remarkable and haunting to this day.
There are simply no other British filmmakers like Alan Clarke. It seems absurd that even such basic things as direct, clear-eyed engagement with political issues are still missing from British cinema, by and large. That’s leaving aside the complexities presented when a political formalist does come along in Britain today, often burdened as they are by reductive class assignation that could be paraphrased as: “Thinking about where you place the camera and how you edit your film is elitist”. Clarke’s films were simply too rough, too down-to-the-marrow, for such a reading. The enduring tragedy of Clarke’s early passing is that he appeared to take with him a particular brand of clear-eyed filmmaking that doesn’t lose sight of its political ambitions. When watching the blinkered political landscape in the United Kingdom, I wonder what Clarke would make of it. Like no other director, he saw through the bullshit. These days, most British directors are the bullshit.
Ken Russell – The Last Folk Hero of British Cinema
If British Cinema were to have its own Lord of Misrule it would be Ken Russell. The Rabelaisian flamboyance of his films echoes down the centuries of irreverent theatre, art and literature throughout British history. His blistering attack on formalised religion and its hypocrisy in The Devils (1971) holds comradeship with the libertines and rakehells of Restoration comedy who raged against Puritanism. Phallic imagery abounds in films like Lisztomania (1975) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988), as proud and rude as the Cerne Abbas giant. They are joined to Russell in their unabashed earthiness, rudimentary magnetism and a refusal to kowtow to Christianised ideas of virtue and morality. His work traversed the biographical, the fictional and the mythical. He was the Robin Goodfellow of film, Blakean in his singular, blazing vision.
He also earned a notable reputation as a destructive presence in the British film industry. Lindsay Anderson once said that “British cinema lost its way with the romantic neo-baroque of [Nicolas] Roeg and Ken Russell”. Pauline Kael was on a one woman mission to bury the man. She finished her review of one of Russell’s tamer projects, Savage Messiah (1972), a biographical film about the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, by saying: “One can’t just dismiss Russell’s movies, because they have an influence. They cheapen everything they touch—not consciously, I think, but instinctively.” It’s funny to read this now knowing that his campest and most outrageous films were still a decade in the making. Poor Pauline.
His reputation is that of a coarse filmmaker, devoid of poetic flair for camera work, editing or indeed sound design. Yet the striking Bosch-like visuals of his films and the mythologising reputation he built as a result all play into the everchanging view of British cinema as it waxes and wanes in relevance and strength. Cheap though they may be to Kael, his outlandish adaptations of both the biographical, the fictional and the mythical contribute to storytelling in the same manner of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), her seminal collection of short stories which reframed well-known fairytales through a darker, feminist lens.
Folklore and mythology is never fixed and immovable, for there are always fluid socio-cultural factors in society which change how we view the old tales and the historic figures. As much as figures such as King Arthur were mythologised through tales of their great deeds, in this day and age mythos is found in how we recount the eccentricities and joyous idiosyncrasies of the people who pass in and out of your life. As Brandice Palmer puts it in her essay Seeking Story: Finding the Modern Day Folktale in the Daily News (2005), “Interviews with everyday people, and encounters with their customs and traditions, are living histories of people who helped compose the world we humans live in and give it context.” Oliver Reed, star of perhaps Russell’s most renowned film, The Devils, said on Parkinson in 1973 that having been recommended he join RADA after he left the Navy, he instead spent five years in his local pub. Who we choose to lionise in our cultural memory is a declaration of the values we wish to impart on the world.
In 1998, Russell embarked on a passion project, a surreal and sometimes bizarrely staged 50 minute documentary called Ken Russell: In Search of the English Folk Song. The first half of the documentary doesn’t extend beyond his New Forest village, where he chats with locals about their take on folk songs. He meets with a village neighbour, a born and bred New Forester, who feels an affinity with Native American culture, hates General Custer, and writes songs taking the piss out of rednecks. Later he talks to co-founder of the folk rock group Fairport Convention, Ashley Hutchings, and asks him “What is English folk song, where does it come from? Where is it going?” Hutchings likens it to chasing the Holy Grail, but claims its death in the purest sense came at the advent of television and radio communication. However, he then describes his band’s new take on an old lamenting song, “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime”, sung from the perspective of a man dying from a sexually transmitted disease, and reframes it as a soft, woeful ballad of the AIDs era. There might still be room for new meaning in the old songs.
In no Russell film is this sentiment more evident than in Salome’s Last Dance (1988) which took Oscar Wilde’s adaptation of a Biblical text and gave it the sumptuous, indefatigably camp treatment. Decadence, on decadence, on decadence. Aubrey Beardsley provided artful inspiration for Wilde, whose work is later elaborated and adorned by Russell. Layers of art unfurl themselves from the source material like riotous petals, irrevocably shifting the image conjured in the collective mind when hearing the name “Salome”. The premise finds Wilde and his lover Alfred “Bosie” Douglas calling at an all-male brothel on Guy Fawkes Night 1892, where Wilde is treated to a rendition of his recently banned play Salome performed by Bosie, (a young Douglas Hodge), in-house sex workers, the brothel’s procuror, a mysterious regal actress (played by Russell stalwart Glenda Jackson) and a young maid in the title role, played with impish imperialism by Imogen Millais-Scott.
The art design and costume in this particular film go beyond camp, entering the realm of gender fluidity and queerness. There are nods to the leather community in the studded jockstraps and gladiator skirts worn by the guards. One particular scene finds the Tetrarch Herod, played by Stratford Johns, surrounded by four femme-presenting court gossips, three of them resplendant in gold skin and kohl-rimmed eyes, with the fourth in Antoinette chalk and pastel makeup. Two are languorously retouching their makeup back-to-back before Herod upon the stage steps, while the others hover at his shoulders, puffing on cigarette holders in a modern twist. Both casual and regal in their characterisation, reminiscences of ball culture swim to the surface, further heightened by the theatricality of the performance space, and the geographically queer setting.
By the time the climactic Dance of the Seven Veils is performed, the actor playing Tetrarch Herod has seamlessly taken the place on the audience sofa previously occupied by Wilde – he is now in an intimate corner with the gold-painted actor playing the pageboy. Yet the dance is performed by a femme male dancer (shots of Millais-Scott feature only in close-ups) whose athletic figure transcends gender. This along with what’s been noted in textual analysis as masculinity in Salome’s forceful lust blurs the lines of desire and betrayal to the extent that it’s no longer Tetrach’s entrapment occurring, but Wilde’s. The ideas of gender transgression through desire that captured Wilde’s imagination with Salome are reimagined through a modern approach to gender performance, and as such Russell’s interpretation begets a new cultural story. This is something Russell himself saw as the most vital aspect of creating art: “That’s the role of the artist in society. It’s just stirring things up to make people look at things in a different way – to enlighten them, to give them a bit of magic.”
This ‘stirring things up’ resisted the unsexing and defanging of historical figures attempted by more culturally conservative preferences for historical storytelling, and no one could shatter the pearl-clutching illusions surrounding Britain’s Finest like Russell could. Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With A View (1985) indulged both critics and audiences alike with its billowy romance between Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter. It was Sands’ first starring role, and established him as an ideal romantic figure in the traditional period drama genre. Within a year, Sands had been cast in his second starring role as Percy Bysshe Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), an interpretation of the fabled night in August 1816 when Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), John Polidori (Timothy Spall), Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) regaled each other with ghost stories, the resulting creativity of which spawned Polidori’s novel The Vampyre, (1819) and, more famously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Sands himself later remarked on the abrupt career transition and what it meant for Shelley et al to receive the Russell treatment: “If James Ivory had done a film about Shelley, it would be a much more lyrical and soothing piece of work…With James Ivory you are on a carousel, but with Ken Russell you are on a roller coaster.” Thanks to Ken, Sands went from dreamy Florentine fields and English country gardens in Merchant-Ivory, to being perched naked on the roof of Lord Byron’s Geneva villa like a milk-white gargoyle with an admirable bubblebutt, throwing up his arms in wild abandon to the thunderstorm overhead.
While camp and over-the-top a film like Gothic may be, it offers a characterisation of Shelley which doesn’t shy away from the neuroses which plagued him – his hallucinatory panic attacks, his sleepwalking. It might seem as though Russell was embellishing the tale with his own mad design by including a dramatic scene where Shelley beholds a bare-breasted Claire, with eyes where her nipples should be, but this was an actual hallucination of Shelley’s, as relayed in John Polidori’s account of that night in his foreword to The Vampyre. As for Lord Byron, played with simultaneously predatory and world-weary sensuality by Gabriel Byrne, he is not so much an enfant terrible but a full-on monster. He talks about putrefaction at the dinner table and suddenly squeezes Claire’s cheeks in his hand so that spaghetti spills from her mouth like blanched worms, the camera capturing it from an absurdly low angle. Byron later pleasures Claire (who is pregnant with his child) with oral sex, during which she miscarries and he is shown in closeup smiling triumphantly afterwards, her crimson blood gleaming on his lips. From this dramatic interpretation of a real-life figure it becomes easier to understand why Byron may have been an influence for the modern-day image of Count Dracula, and his reputation as an amoral libertine is given a post-sexual revolution revision. This comes back to what Russell talked about with ‘stirring things up’ – he creates new folklore concerning both the biographical and the mythical through his unique interpretation of chosen texts.
Russell achieved a raucously combative presence alongside his contemporaries, simply by remaining resolute in his style of craft. He becomes a folk hero just through existing in British film culture. The craftwork of his bizarre projects were such that they inspired funny industry anecdotes shared across the years. He used his personal documentary to capture the folklore of exuberant everyday people. He even went on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 and argued with Jade Goody. His existence as a British artist was a vehicle through which localised mythology and dramatic revisioning of old stories could keep ploughing their resonant furrows. Lord of Misrule, yes, but also a spiritual Arthur Pendragon of the film industry. When the time is right and the people are in need, films as ludicrous as his will make their return to adorn the screen once more.
It was uncomfortable, in 2016, to watch the contortions that Sky News reporter Richard Suchet put himself through to justify calling Saoirse Ronan British. The journalist called her “one of our own” after her performance in John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015) earned a BAFTA nomination, and after facing an onslaught of criticism from the Irish twitter community, he opted for the now favoured approach of establishment journalists: the double down. On Twitter, Suchet shot back “She’s from the British Isles & whether you like it or not, Brits will be willing her to win.” This is not a one off mistake. Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender, Ruth Negga, even Seamus Heaney: when an Irish artist gains international attention, it is only a matter of time before Britannia claims them for herself. So why is it that Irish identity is so often brushed aside in this way?
Suchet hadn’t mistaken Ronan’s nationality; in his mind, Ireland was not a separate entity to the UK, not really. While some might be outraged by Suchet’s self-serving interpretations of geography, the structure of the British arts establishment encourages this sort of thinking. BAFTAs’ system of nominating films, which often includes those that are not considered British by the general public, serves as a case study for this predicament: the nationality of talent. It’s one thing to nominate Nick Hornby, a British writer, for his work on the screenplay of Brooklyn, but to nominate the film itself for Outstanding British Picture seems like a stretch.
In Brooklyn, Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a classic smalltown heroine. Faced by poor employment opportunities in Enniscorthy, stifling busy bodies, and uninspiring local men, Eilis is pushed to leave Ireland for America. While Brooklyn is ultimately a romantic movie, as Eilis chooses between suitors on either side of the Atlantic, the road to a happy ending is paved with loss. There are many tragedies in the story, as adapted by Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel: the separation of family, the death of Eilis’ sister, the realisation at the films’ end that Eilis, now married, will likely never see home soil again. But for all of the film’s melodramatic sweep, the most powerful scene is a small one. At a Christmas lunch for destitute Irishmen at which Eilis volunteers, a merry celebration is broken when a man stands up to sing in Irish. The song, ‘Casadh an tSúgáin’ (The Twisting of the Rope), tells the story of a man rejected by the woman he loves, who represents Ireland from the emigrant viewpoint, and pushes him away to foreign shores: “what drove me to this land / In red cloaks, far from my Gaelic friends?” As he sings, the camera focuses first on Eilis, staring hard in an attempt to hold back tears, and then gives us close up shots of the patrons, all old, tired men. In their flat caps and Aran jumpers and with heads dipped in sorrow at the sound of the familiar song, Crowley emphasises just how far from home they are, and what grief they must face in order to survive.
This isn’t just Eilis’ story. Since the Middle Ages, emigration has been a strong element of the Irish experience, and from 1765 records show Irish people departing the country en masse to find employment and opportunity. Such has been the case for their film projects too. Brooklyn was a co-production between the Irish Film Board, Telefilm Canada and BBC Films, among other international producers. Financially, it may be the result of international effort, but there is little evidence as to why the UK should claim primary authorship of the film. For all that Crowley captures of the Irish emigrant experience, there is a certain irony in that the film had to leave its own shores in order to thrive. For Brooklyn, like Ronan, gaining worldwide critical acclaim means relying on UK support.
This paints a dim picture of Ireland’s film industry. But today, Ireland has a flourishing cinema culture, and an audience for it, with the highest movie-going population in Europe. The country nurtures this, with thriving festivals (local and national), plans to build film studios, and even a tax break for artists. The animation studio Cartoon Saloon shows the country embracing both talent and heritage. Across a number of local and international hits, they have utilised folklore tradition and celtic-influenced 2D animation (although even they are not fiscally autonomous: their latest, Wolfwalkers , was part funded by Apple TV+). Like Wolfwalkers’ depiction of Oliver Cromwell, the British film industry exercises cultural sovereignty over foreign films that rely on its resources, while inadvertently exposing its own lack of a definitive film culture. Sight and Sound’s report on the films of 2020 contained a piece about “British and Irish talent”, featuring exactly one Northern Irish film, so the title, we could safely assume, was to avoid any messiness of understanding how to refer to Northern Ireland. There is an argument for celebrating the breadth of British talent and the significance of international cooperation in film production, but platitudes in the form of listmaking and national awards bodies seem to negate this.
Is there some particular transnational element to contemporary Irish actors that makes them so Brit-able? Ronan got her break in Joe Wright’s period drama Atonement (2007) as prepubescent telltale Briony, and her roles since see her more often play British or American than Irish, lending her a “Citizen of the world” appeal. Her ability to slip between roles while maintaining a star presence has led to Ronan being crowned the “new Meryl Streep”, but has kept her at a distance from Irish cinema. The career of her Brooklyn co-star Domhnall Gleeson follows a similar trajectory: first coming to international attention as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise, gaining traction as the Hugh Grant-esque lead in Richard Curtis’ About Time (2013), and cementing his celebrity as Queen’s English-accented General Hux in the Disney Star Wars films (2015 – 2019). Meanwhile, his brother Brian, less polished and possessing a thicker accent closer to their father’s, has stayed close to home, becoming one of Ireland’s most celebrated stage actors, and a breakout star of the canonised RTÉ crime drama Love/Hate (2010 – 2014). Perhaps the Gleeson brothers’ side-by-side performances as Cain and Abel surrogates in Darren Aranofsky’s Mother! (2017), shows a mutual jealousy.
It is probably not these factors that lay the groundwork for actors falling foul of the Brit trap. Rather, without the ingrained cultural understanding of loss that comes part and parcel with Irishness, and which Brooklyn articulates so well, external cultural commentators cannot be expected to understand the weight of their words when they belittle hard-fought-for Irish identity. Donald Clarke put it best: “Once again, [the journalist] knows these people are Irish. He knows Ireland isn’t British. But he thinks this is sort-of kind-of accurate, just as a zebra is sort-of kind-of a horse.” Suchet’s inability to gauge the significance of his words is a symptom of Britain’s colonial hangover. Through the failure to acknowledge the oppression which defined a great majority of these countries’ shared history, Britain performs a kind of gaslighting on Ireland, just as Suchet does when he responds to criticism with his defensive “deal with it” rhetoric.
Being a world-leader in cinema means that your talent has to be nurtured at home, and not just in period dramas or the latest Richard Curtis flick. It means not dismantling your studios, or maintaining them only as a holding place for Marvel and Disney. It is hard to find spaces where British talent is really nurtured at home. Even the original Harry Potter films, a great case of heritage film nurturing British and European talent, have now been Americanised though the New York-set Fantastic Beasts prequels. The studio tour, which at first glance provides a genuinely exciting look into real British cinema, becomes a kind of cinematic graveyard when you realise that the franchise has moved on to greener pastures, that the detailed exhibit is not a celebration of but rather a memorial to the British film industry. How will British journalists react when the passing of time means Harry Potter is remembered as an American project?
“[Women] live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us” says Anne Elliott in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. At the beginning of January I had a few self-indulgent, very soggy crying sessions. Even as they were happening, I thought about the impetuous Marianne (Kate Winslet) collapsing onto her bed and sobbing her eyes out in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. It’s a great spectacle of anguish; equally embarrassing and compelling in its showy but painfully human intensity. Experiencing an emotional connection with Marianne was a surprise. Even as a teenager I was drawn to Emma Thompson’s Elinor, the embodiment of Austenian repression, whose unravelling feels like the story’s real raison d’être. Heritage dramas were the first films I saw that were genuinely concerned with those preying feelings of womanhood which Austen described. My shy teenage self found a space where unspoken emotional undercurrents flowed and where female selfhood felt important. Expressing myself has always been a struggle and I still feel affinity with heroines bound to silence by historical social rules and subsequent internalised shame. How frightfully British.
That Austenian repression I responded to is practically synonymous with (and has contributed to) the stereotype of the British as emotionally constipated. The heritage film’s position as a major production trend within British national cinema had already been cemented by the mid 1990s, largely thanks to the output of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, but Sense and Sensibility, alongside the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice in the same year, kick-started the Austen craze. Like it or not, these films are indelibly connected with our national cinema and perceptions of our national identity.
Briefly — what do we mean by heritage? It is both tangible (works of art, buildings, artefacts behind glass, things to be printed on postcards), and intangible (folk traditions, language, cultural attitudes). It is, of course, what we have inherited, and it is both sellable and untouchable, a complex interweaving of commodity and identity surrounding who we are and where we come from.
Twenty six years on from Sense and Sensibility the heritage film (and TV drama) remains one of Britain’s most successful cultural exports, utilising both the tangible and intangible to perpetuate a marketable incarnation of our nationhood. We know what this looks like: glances across a ballroom, opulent costumes and the rolling hills of southern England. Britain does almost exclusively equal England here, with characters rarely straying beyond the home counties. These films are part of a wider heritage industry: see the film, visit the country house, buy the tie-in edition of the novel in the gift shop and have a scone in the café. And those scones are not to be sniffed at: a 2019 report from Historic England states that the heritage sector produces a total of £31 billion annually for the UK economy. Jane Austen herself appears on the £10 note.
Do these films have any cinematic value? Questioning them is hardly a new endeavour. As early as 1991 the literary scholar Cairns Craig lambasted Merchant/Ivory in Sight and Sound, calling their productions “film as conspicuous consumption” and “drowned in elegance” by their display of the lavish lifestyles of the English elite. As Higson identifies in English Heritage, English Cinema (2008), although rural poverty and the lives of servants sometimes appear (Downton Abbey, 2010-2015, has an edge here, despite its forelock-tugging), the genre’s projection of national identity is “bound to the upper and upper middle classes, while the nation itself is often reduced to the soft pastoral landscape of southern England, rarely tainted by the modernity of urbanisation or industrialisation.” Indeed, “what may seem to be a national representation is in reality an international mythology.”
Craig argued that the rise of the heritage film in the 1980s was “symptomatic of the crisis of identity through which England passed during the Thatcher years,” a conservative need to uphold the old by turning away from postmodernism, postindustrialism and multiculturalism. The emotional repression that made me feel understood is seen here as another expression of that conservatism, the suppression of any kind of change. I can certainly make a case for these films’ prioritisation of women’s inner lives, but I am inhibited by my embarrassment of the undeniable: the overwhelming majority of them cannot be called subversive.
And what about cultural value now? On 7th June 2020, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century merchant who made much of his fortune from the slave trade and was deputy governor of the notorious Royal African Company, was torn down by Black Lives Matter demonstrators and hurled into Bristol Harbour. Colston’s reputation as a philanthropist went largely unchallenged until the 1990s, when his ties to the slave trade became more widely known. The images of its collapse were electrifying; an unflinching confrontation of Britain’s colonial history. In response, both The National Trust and English Heritage released statements regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and their commitment to addressing the real histories of their sites and monuments. Imperialism is our inescapable national heritage.
Will glossy onscreen English heritage be impacted? It’s too early to assess, but a shift was already in motion that suggests a tentative acceptance of multiculturalism. Amma Asante’s Belle (2013) told the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of an African slave and a naval officer. She was raised by her great uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson), who famously ruled that slavery was not binding in British law. Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) adopted colour-blind casting while Bridgerton (2020), an enjoyably daft Netflix Regency-set romp, casts Black actors in several major roles.
Copperfield was the target of the most venomous backlash by far, seemingly due to a racist horror that a character so emblematic of English literature could be portrayed by Dev Patel. Dido Belle was a real historical figure, an indisputable contradiction of the false belief that there were no Black people in Britain before the Windrush, while Bridgerton’s stylistic anachronisms seem to slightly insulate it from thinly-veiled complaints about authenticity. But all three heritage dramas still steer clear of directly confronting colonialism. Race is not addressed at all in Copperfield, in Bridgerton one throwaway line disregards the Regency period’s dependence on slavery, and even in Belle the Lord Chief Justice is presented as more sympathetic towards abolition than he was in reality.
There’s even less sign of a disassembling of that fascination with the upper classes. One of the last major releases to wriggle under the wire pre-pandemic was Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. (2020). Austen may have been visually refashioned for the Instagram generation with its stylish pastel colour palette and fashion shoot-esque cinematography (#regencyaesthetic), but it’s hardly a reinvention. Emma Woodhouse is Austen’s richest heroine by far, and the lavish sets and costumes threaten to overwhelm the frame. Bridgerton is extravagant even by the genre’s standards thanks to its Shondaland budget. At pains to reassure viewers that its protagonists are Nice Aristocrats, Bridgerton’s Duke and Duchess of Hastings are amusingly shocked to discover that their tenants have been mistreated while they were off enjoying the London season. There’s debate as to how sympathetic The Crown (2016-) is towards the royals, but the resurgence of Diana fever feels significant.
The British film industry may well fall back on heritage to resuscitate itself in the months and years to come. But can we still indulge in the fantasy of heritage Britain guilt-free, even with a comparatively more progressive approach? It’s difficult to imagine as we experience the impact of Brexit, the national Covid death toll surges to the highest in the world under a Conservative government that is so reluctant to feed the nation’s hungry children, and think tank IFS reports that Covid mortality rates in the most deprived communities in Britain were around twice as high as those in the least deprived.
I’ve found solace in the quietly emotional worlds of heritage films, in that tug between sense and sensibility. But I, like the characters I feel kinship with, have the privilege of being free from economic hardship. I even have an advantage over Austen’s heroines in that I don’t have to get married to maintain that financial security. My own heritage, my whiteness and my place within the class system, impacts my interaction with these visions of national heritage. Who am I to wag my finger at anyone else’s indulgence and assume that these films and series are being engaged with uncritically by a conservative audience?
Just as The National Trust and English Heritage have promised to reshape their presentations of history and nationhood, so should the heritage film. Challenging its definition might be the best place to begin. Small Axe (2020), Steve McQueen’s anthology of films focused on London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s, and is arguably more emblematic of Britain’s heritage than corsets and carriages. And yet I’m not sure we can ignore that a stubborn nostalgia for a bucolic Britain which never really existed is also part of our national identity.
Sense and Sensibility closes with Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), who we’ve learnt was stationed in India, dressed in his army uniform for his wedding day and throwing coins to the village children. I can’t think of another image in a heritage film that so neatly encapsulates this uneasy interplay between romance, class, and colonialism. And yet, perhaps despite my better judgment, I always cry at the end.
Near the end of last year, I spent ten days in Ghent, where I watched Sean Durkin’s new film, The Nest (2020). Durkin’s attention to mood and composition made it stand out among the usual festival fare. More acutely, I liked Jude Law’s cheerless, glassy performance as the self-made arriviste and paragon of English mobility, Rory O’Hara (a nice joke, hinting at the character’s presumed transatlantic, entrepreneurial Irish ancestry). His tendency to bullshit, ceaselessly inflating others’ expectations, creates schisms in his family, invites disapproval from his colleagues, and precipitates his probable downfall. Rory is a commodities trader seeking to extract maximum returns from London’s mid-80s Big Bang banking deregulation. He’s fixed in the certain pursuit of a faintly sketched outline, an imagined grand total, and an impossible, arbitrary measure of material triumph. The film’s other nice joke, even though its tonal elements are mostly modulated as if it were horror, is that the viewer recognises Rory’s folly as one of serial incapacity: for self-examination, perspective, modesty.
Generally speaking, then, financial ambition is ugly, and it makes people ugly. This statement is axiomatic of the yuppie, an abbreviated form of young urban professional, whose lack of introspection makes him the figurative opposite of TS Eliot’s pitiable ‘Hollow Men’ (1925). In contrast to Eliot’s emblem for the uncertain and inadequate individual, beaten at by all sides, the yuppie is resolutely undaunted by the opportunities afforded to him by modern life. The beautiful failure of the sensitive hollow man, from which so much of art derives, holds little immediate connection to the upstart, transient success of city boys and brokers. Yet in Rory’s case, he appears to embody a memory of his earlier, upwardly mobile incarnation, a private past that the film only insinuates. Rather than use flashbacks, Durkin employs strained, haunted dialogue and lingering shots of faux-conviviality to suggest Rory’s once sparkling reputation. Workplace interactions are freighted with assumed history and present insecurity. What exudes from Rory is a sad-eyed tribute act to his previous indefatigable self, now a little more vacant, exhausted, forlorn.
Would it be possible to depict the avaricious yuppie without seeking recourse to his ugliness? In cinematic renderings, he may be good-looking or coiffured (like Law) but at root should remain repulsive, because he has to snarl and sweat, so as to indicate the physical burden of mostly office-based work, and because he must be driven by the most sickening impulse of all, the accumulation of obscene wealth. If there is heroism to be discovered in him, it is probably located somewhere in his brazenness, which is at once manicured and aspirational, feeding a monochromatic personality through a very simple motivation: pure greed. Law’s Rory is conventionally handsome, made unattractive by virtue of his unconcealed chip-on-the-shoulder desperation, which functions as the characteristic inversion of Law’s Dickie Greenleaf, the assured and moneyed heir to a shipbuilding fortune, from Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). It is precisely the unrefined eagerness found in the former role, which Law plays somewhat delicately, that discolours the eternal olive complexion of the latter.
The cinematic yuppie, elsewhere, risks functioning as the default avatar for evil ideology. In Naked (1993), Mike Leigh alternates between the misadventures of a pretentious down-and-out, Johnny (David Thewlis), and of a sociopathic landlord, Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), both of whom could be plausibly argued to represent the diverse social detritus of Thatcherite economic policy. The unlikeable Johnny survives in our affections because of his protagonist status, and because Leigh frames him without moral condescension, soliciting a kind of sympathy for his self-destructive plight. Jeremy is depicted as the unequivocal villain. Often framed in unappealing close up, he variously grunts at the gym, smothers his mouth with restaurant chicken legs, demands his hairy back and shoulders be massaged, and prances around the flat in a mournful pair of budgie smugglers. Later, he reveals his name is Sebastian. Working on the assumption that the yuppie is ugly, Jeremy succeeds on almost every count. Yet his superficial sheen still manages to impress several women, one of whom he attempts to choke with the exposed jaws of an ornamental dinosaur.
In Naked, where the class divide is starkly delineated, the viewer’s source of identification veers away from the yuppie. If any degree of folk heroism can be applied to this nebulous entity, it is likely through American instances, most potently illustrated by Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). To be coarse, British audiences are more disposed to emulating a US investor like Jordan Belfort, particularly when he’s played by Leonardo di Caprio, because the associations with Wall Street, indicative of a purportedly pure and meritocratic national culture, presents fewer of the rigid class hang-ups prevalent in the UK. Given that the film came out while I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I can anecdotally attest to the excitement of future possibilities it elicited from my peers. This was several years after the Great Recession, so releases like J.C. Chandor’s downbeat and expository Margin Call (2011), which reimagines the composite failures of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, failed to similarly colonise the popular consciousness. Despite the relative comeuppance of major characters in both examples, there’s scarce evidence of the fragile introspection we anticipate from our flawed, ironic anti-heroes. No Hamlets here, only analysts and executives, concerned with calculating market trends and hard equations.
This isn’t to suggest privileged New Yorkers can’t be shown delving into melancholy, existential reflection. Two films released in 1990 tried to encapsulate the faltering aftermath of the city’s super charged brand of finance capitalism. Although elements of Britain’s wannabe banker class have swallowed, digested and excreted the stockbroker aesthetic (think: brick phones, power suits and striped ties), these movies shift the focus from the stereotype and onto its near neighbours. Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan makes fun of the yuppie-adjacent Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (pronounced UHBs), whose declining assets are matched by a lack of economic viability, repeatedly situated in florid intellectual conversations and exaggerated sensitivities. New money, needless to say, is lurid and vulgar, but these fledgling dilettantes seem aware of a collective imminent demise. The ubiquitous late-night parties offer them at least temporary respite from an incoming day-to-day of underwhelming labour productivity.
Jon Jost’s All the Vermeers in New York, which quite deliberately blurs the line of the sublime and the numerical, provides a matter-of-fact account of the yuppie’s demise, despite its apparent art-house stylings. Mark, a broker not too dissimilar in age to Rory, falls in love with a French woman, Anna, who he thinks looks like a Vermeer portrait, which he visits with metronomic regularity in his limited downtime. Mark acknowledges his futile everyday absorption of quantitative data, desiring redemption through the power of painting. Jost replays the crucial scenes from different viewing perspectives, heightening the dramatic irony and emphasising the characters’ doomed search for meaning. As Mark ominously states, just as his client’s stock falls through the floor: “There’s a rapture, and I’m dying with it.” Half-predicting his fate, he suffers a brain haemorrhage in a phone box, expiring with a whimper, the world going on without him.
When Brexit came to fruition on 31st January 2020, the ideology of British Exceptionalism – wielded by Boris Johnson’s government – had fully taken the steering wheel of the country. Just under a year later, and the UK earned the distinction of having the highest death rate from COVID-19 in the world. In this period, two folk heroes have emerged; a duo that embodies the nation and the values it represents. I am, of course, referring to Toby Young and Julie Burchill.
Although both have been in the spotlight before (some may say their best years are far behind them) in a curious way, their haggard appearance today speaks to their stature as the British folk heroes of 2021. Young, whose mixture of Randall Weems-esque weasliness and Oxbridge entitlement gives him the look of a Tory MP’s cocaine-fetcher, is a prominent lockdown skeptic who wrote for the Telegraph in June that “the virus has all but disappeared”. He is also one of the founders of the Free Speech Union, which swooped in to aid Young’s erstwhile colleague Julie Burchill when her book contract was cancelled last December.
Burchill meanwhile – a 61 year old commentator who managed to forge a 40 year career while maintaining the emotional maturity of a teenage gamer – tried to drum up publicity for her opus Welcome to the Woke Trials: How #Identity Killed Progressive Politics in the most cynical way imaginable: she decided to abuse the journalist Ash Sarkar with Islamaphobic tweets. Young’s Free Speech Union managed to get Burchill’s former publisher to relinquish the publishing rights back to her as well as paying her full advance for writing it, foreclosing any possibility of accountability for her bigoted behaviour.
Burchill and Young think they’re truly sticking it to the “woke mob” with their antics but the reality is that they are boring. Burchill’s social media musings are indistinguishable from the ravings of a gammonated relative whose offensive posturing barely masks their own existential terror at an ever-encroaching grave. For someone who is treated as a firebrand by the decrepit middle-aged mass of British media, I expected somebody a bit more interesting. Then again, that probably speaks to the intellectual poverty of the British media class.
When Toby Met Julie is a television documentary that aired on BBC 4 in 2005. It tells the story of The Modern Review; a magazine conceived between Young, Burchill, and her then-husband Cosmo Landsmann while the three were on a trip to Thorpe Park. One suspects that when either Young or Burchill dies, the other will start a campaign to commemorate their journalistic love-child with a blue plaque outside the entrance to Stealth. The aim of The Modern Review as Young puts it in the doc, was to treat “low” culture seriously, a novel notion to an island nation that doesn’t import cans of Campbell soup. Many well-known British writers like Will Self, Nick Hornby, and Tom Shone, started out as contributors to The Modern Review.
The documentary is a piece of myth-making that tries to raise the profile of cultural criticism with Young and Burchill as the rambunctious protagonists; a prospect they must have relished. As the programme tells it: “they wanted to do something that’s old hat now, but was still unusual in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain; to write intelligently about mass culture: movies, tv, pop. Without sneering at all of it, and without being a candidate for Pseud’s Corner.” The idea that Young and Burchill were pioneers in treating popular culture with intellectual rigour is laughable when one considers the intertwined legacies of Stuart Hall and Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. To accept such a position is to concede that Young and Burchill are intellectuals as opposed to chronic self-promoters.
There’s a cheap, by-the-numbers quality to the programme that will be familiar to those who watched any British television documentary in the 2000s. Talking-head interviews with relevant individuals, punctuated by tangentially related archive footage to position these figures as part of a larger historical tapestry. The bow that ties this all together is narration by Mark Halliley, perhaps best-known as the narrator for The Apprentice UK. Halliley also wrote and directed the programme.
What makes When Toby Met Julie entertaining to watch is that this thoroughly middlebrow foundation clashes with attempts at edginess. Quasi-intertitles mimic a 1991 photograph in which ‘The Modern Review’ was written by Burchill in lines of cocaine against a black surface. Presumably this stylistic flourish was created to titillate the BBC 4 audience that dared to stay up post-watershed. There’s an aroma of desperation to these antics, similar in odour to a classroom recently vacated by Year 10s (a possible aphrodisiac to someone like Rod Liddle, apparently). It’s stuff like this that makes the documentary fun to watch and funny to think about, though probably not in the way Young and Burchill would have liked.
Probably the best example of this quixotic quest for edge is during an interview with a cigar-toting Will Self as he’s describing the drug-fuelled social environment at The Modern Review: “when large quantities of alcohol and stimulant drugs come into play these sort of things can kick off.” Suddenly, archive footage of a mortar being fired and other war footage from the 90s is played alongside Will Smith’s ‘Boom! Shake the Room’. They even sneak a quick cut of Toby Young’s face into this montage. In a way this sequence represents Young and Burchill’s mindset better than any interview with them could hope to achieve. There’s this earnest attempt at shock and offence that merely comes across as laughable. It is the mark of a perpetual contrarianism.
This contrarian mindset inevitably finds itself rather snug in the confines of British exceptionalism. Burchill, described in the documentary as “a Stalinist-turned-Thatcherite” is now a Brexiteer and wrote a pro-Brexit play in 2018. People Like Us was panned by theatre critics. According to Claire Allfree’s one-star review in the Metro, Liddle attended the press night and was “braying loudly every time the Brexiteers scored a so-called point.” The play itself was written and read as a “riposte” against the establishment of British theatre, and so the critical drubbing it got could be seen as a victory by Burchill. She also is a pronounced philo-semite which manifests itself in an uncritical support for Israel. Being pro-Israel or a Brexiteer are not in and of themselves contrarian positions, but the manner of her posturing support would suggest that Burchill’s motivations are driven in part by a deeper desire to be seen as separate from the crowd. This can be evinced by the extreme way she expresses these positions. Her pro-Brexit stance, it seems, is borne more out of a disdain for “metropolitan elites” and the social mores of middle-class liberals, rather than a sincere political conviction. People Like Us was more about the friction between members of a North London book club than a genuine exploration of the political and social forces that animated Brexit.
This psychology of contrarianism can also be seen in Young. In his case, the evidence lands closer to the backyard of cinephilia. In the prologue to his memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (which was later adapted in a rom-com with Simon Pegg playing a fictionalised version of Young) he describes his idiosyncratic attitude towards popular culture as a journalist at the time:
The attitude of all my friends towards celebrities was completely phony. They might claim to be indifferent, but they became forelock-tugging serfs the moment a famous person entered the room. They worshipped at the altar of celebrity just like everyone else; they were just too embarrassed to admit it. Consequently, I made a point of erring in the opposite direction. I hammed up my obsession with A-list stars as a way of letting my friends know I found their pretence at insouciance totally unconvincing.
Channeling Holden Caulfield-style individualism, Young and Burchill’s contrarianism stems from a bitter desire to appear unique. What marks them both out as contrarians as opposed to a true individual is the disingenuous way they hold their views.The only true motivation in holding them is to feel superior to others. To stand out from the crowd is to stand above them. This kind of thinking is incompatible with acting on behalf of a collective, whether that is through membership of a European Union, or accepting the necessity of a national lockdown during a public health emergency.
Last summer was marked by large anti-lockdown protests in Trafalgar Square. Even the wearing of face masks is met with incredulity from journalists like Peter Hitchens and members of the public. They know this goes against medical advice and other forms of authority; that’s the point. They can live out the fantasy of being a heroic individual struggling against collective tyranny, no matter the harm that comes to others. Toby Young and Julie Burchill, through their decades as public figures, have embodied living flesh-and-blood versions of that fantasy, and it is in this moment of British history that they have truly become our island folk heroes. They stand alone, like Britain did in the Second World War once you discount the Soviet Union, the USA, and all the countries Britain had colonised. They are solitary figures who, through sheer force of personality, forged their own path in the spirit of Brits like Winston Churchill and Oswald Mosley.
While I was watching When Toby Met Julie, I became increasingly uncomfortable as I noticed similarities between both myself and them, as well as between Cinema Year Zero and The Modern Review. I’m sure Ben, Tom, and Kirsty won’t mind me saying that there is an anti-establishment attitude in CYZ’s stated approach to film criticism, based on our own disillusionment with an environment that frequently produces a lot of ill-informed opinions and samey writing, as recently illustrated by the anaesthetising discourse cycle around Parasite (2019).
The narcissistic desire to stand out as a writer, and to tear down what we don’t like in the writing of others, has its uses in improving the quality of a wider discourse. But by watching and reading Toby Young and Julie Burchill, I came to realise that such an approach can easily turn you into a genuine asshole. Thankfully, both myself and CYZ still possess the youth that gives energy to our fiercely held convictions. It is important for us to hold onto those beliefs with sincerity and only change them when our intellect requires us to, not to change them through careerist thinking or merely as a means to assert our own individuality.