Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973/4) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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A central figure within European art cinema, German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a Marxist, an open bisexual and a drug addict with a violent temper. Always controversial for his films’ radical but nevertheless thoughtful treatment of taboo subject matter, including racism, sexism, homosexuality and sadomasochistic desire, the best of his films also display an emotional tenderness. No film of his does this more than Fear Eats the Soul (1974), which depicts a cross-generational and cross-racial romance between German cleaner Emmi and Moroccan ‘guest-worker’ Ali. Modelled on the aesthetics of the 1950s Hollywood melodrama, but drawing out that genre’s implicit critique of the social restrictions imposed upon human desire, Fear Eats the Soul offers a dark but compassionate display of the power dynamics of social prejudice.

The Puffy Chair (2005) – Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

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An excellent ‘road trip’ comedy that is very sensitive about gender and relationships, in carefully developed characters and with well-developed scenarios that draw impressive natural acting performances. It’s very funny, but also brings up some subtle, adult ideas, particularly in its curious conclusion. Clever nods to Stranger Than Paradise too, including a re-working of the scene in that film in which the characters try to rip off a motel. One of the better mumblecore films…

Francis of Assisi (1961) – Michael Curtiz

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A rich episodic portrait that avoids the camp sentimentality of many religious films, with a strong, underplayed naturalistic central performance from Bradford Dillman and with a swift dramatic pace. Amazing colour compositions throughout modelled on religious paintings, particularly Giotto, and impressive Cinecitta sets and Assisi locations. It’s a very human, politically astute film too, unafraid to show the brutal actions of Christians during the Crusades and to treat Islam and Muslims (Saracens) with respect.

Nowhere to Go (1958) – Seth Holt, Basil Dearden (director) ; Kenneth Tynan, Seth Holt (writer)

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A genuine forgotten classic – a British Ealing drama underpinned by an existentialism that prefigures Godard’s Breathless, with its unromantic hero Paul Gregory, who steals from old ladies, its wilful heroine, the terrific ‘ex-deb’ Maggie Smith who protects him, and its restless jazz soundtrack. It’s also reminiscent of Nic Ray’s noir They Live by Night; the jailbreak reminds of Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor; there’s the odd framing and extreme depth of field of Losey’s later The Servant; and it has a hint of the ‘angry young man’. It’s a shame this film was butchered at the time, as it could have been influential…

The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004) – Chris Marker

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A playful attempt to grapple with the growth of political anger among the young and the failure of a substantial left-wing vision to speak to this mixture of disillusionment and occasional hope. Marker searches for the grinning cat as he appears in graffiti around Paris, at protest marches, flash mobs and among the homeless. For Marker, the cat represents a spontaneous creativity, even art, that can arise as though willed from the streets.

Level Five (1997) – Chris Marker

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French historian Laura sits in a closed-off room researching the Battle of Okinawa on a future internet encyclopedia (basically Wikipedia meets YouTube), while also sending out diary-poems through the screen to an unseen lover. The film is a fascinating docu-sci-fi on individual and collective memory and their mediation by technology. Laura discovers that in this ‘battle’ at the end of WW2 the Japanese state compelled citizens of a small island to commit harakiri out of pride, rather than be taken by US soldiers; the film also critiques US triumphalism in this event and in the coming of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Very rich and well worth watching carefully – beautifully structured too…

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (2013) – Danis Tanovic

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A neorealist film in which a poor gypsy family (playing themselves) struggle to find medical treatment for the mother. So much is got from so little with careful crafting of real events into story drama (only occasionally a little exaggerated) and the use of the children for pathos, as in Bicycle Thieves. Non-professional actors exude warmth. And the iron scavenging gives authentic social context – powerful stuff.

36 (2013) – Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit

36 1 A very simple but beautifully constructed romantic short feature on the role of technology in our lives (particularly in relation to memory), focused on a near-romance between a location scout and an art director who meet while photographing a dilapidated former ‘love hotel’ for a film project. It’s shot on digital film, but uses only 36 shots to mimic a roll of analogue photographic film. And it has odd compositions, with figures often obscured or intentionally cut in half by the edge of the frame. It’s touching particularly in the elements beyond the couple, such as the mother who does not receive a photograph of her dead daughter and the woman who is unsure whether she wants her fixed hard-drive full of photos, for reasons left mysteriously unclear. Simple, thoughtful, touching…

Force Majeure (2014) – Ruben Ostlund

force majeure A controlled avalanche at a skiing resort nearly goes wrong and the father of an IKEA-perfect family, rather than save his kids, runs away; this leads to a psychological ‘avalanche’ within the family. The film’s genius is that it plays so well on that knife’s edge where excessive melodrama builds serious dramatic scenes towards their extreme comic breaking point. Similar to Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago but leaning far more towards comedy and with less of her depth of social/psychological truth. While driven by an extremely carefully modulated script this is a pure cinema of sound and vision that would not be the same in the theatre, particularly in its harnessing of incredibly subtle tragicomic performances.

I Clowns (1970) – Federico Fellini

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A powerful and highly imaginative history of clowning: part mockumentary, part dream-memoir and part loving tribute to a dying art. It’s beautifully constructed and gets at the dark side of clowning, culminating in an elaborate confrontation with mortality in a clown funeral set-piece. And it feels early for such a precise take-down of the clichés of cinema verite, influenced no doubt by earlier debates about neo-realism. One of Fellini’s very best…

Train of Events (1949) – Sidney Cole, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden

25565_train-of-events-1 A rare example of a portmanteau film in which all of the stories are equally enjoyable, with a strong combination of wit, sentiment and macabre thrills. There’s terrific direction here, with a range of visual effects, as in the murder scene, and well-composed ‘noir’ lighting and framing. Impressive editing also manages to give a sense of a ‘portrait of a nation’, hiding the fact that, while the film is framed by the train crash the characters will be involved in, otherwise the stories have little else in common. Some stellar performances throughout too, particularly in the comic scenes…

Fireworks Wednesday (2006) – Asghar Farhadi

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A subtle melodramatic love triangle between an upper-middle-class couple and the hairdresser in their apartment block. It has some contrived drama, centred on gaslighting, but also has a playful performance from Alidosti as the working class maid, soon to be married, who sees (and smells) it all, and whose chador becomes part of the intrigue. A carefully framed narrative, full of interesting details of Iranian life.

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009) – Stephane Brize

Mademoiselle-Chambon-recoit-le-Cesar-de-la-meilleure-adaptation_portrait_w532 An almost-romance between an itinerant, cultured school teacher, who might once have been a successful violinist, desperate now to finally put down roots, and a married builder whose son she teaches. It’s Brief Encounter, but so stripped back that almost all of the key ‘action’ occurs within beautifully-acted silent sequences between the two, set to three short violin pieces, played on violin, on CD and then on the film’s soundtrack. The emotional (and quietly erotic) force of this film is truly amazing – it has to be seen to be believed.

From the Other Side (2002) – Chantal Akerman

5420_vlcsnap-256760 A meditative poem-documentary on illegal immigration from Mexico into Arizona. Akerman’s long, slow takes situate the viewer intimately within the ‘other side’ (i.e. Mexico), as she talks with those affected and those supportive. A night-time ride out with immigration enforcement adds drama with gun-sight shots that pre-echo Wikileaks’ ‘Collateral Damage’. And a local sheriff who criticizes extreme right-wing policies surprises, while a middle-aged American couple with paranoia of dirt and diseases equally disturbs. Intriguing, thoughtful stuff.

ICA, Thursday 18th June, presented by A Nos Amours.

Ballast (2008) – Lance Hammer

ballast02 A mysterious neorealist drama focused on the fallout from a man’s death, as his twin brother attempts suicide while his estranged wife and child escape poverty by setting themselves up at his family’s store. The script is expertly de-dramatized, with narrative ellipses and careful choices of when we are told information, while the hand-held visual style makes good use of shallow focus, jump-cuts and poetic symbolism. The three non-professional actors’ performances, though muted, are extremely powerful.