Best Filmic Events of 2011

The Devils

Electric Sheep‘s pick of the best filmic events, screenings, festivals and retrospectives in 2011.

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1972 - East End Film Festival, May 2011)

The recent passing of Ken Russell adds retrospective poignancy to the screening of his flamboyant masterpiece, restored to its full glory, at the East End Film Festival in April. The director attended the screening and was given a standing ovation by a rapturous packed auditorium. Vilified by parts of the critical establishment and struggling to find funding in later years, Ken Russell could be as silly and camp as audacious and visionary and we will be paying homage to his anarchic spirit in March next year, to mark the DVD release of The Devils.

Scala Forever (13 August - 2 October 2011)

Electric Sheep was very proud to be involved in Scala Forever, the celebration of the legendary Scala cinema across a range of London venues organised by the Roxy Bar and Screen. We presented a sold-out screening of Thundercrack! (1975, dir Curt Mcdowell, starring and written by George Kuchar), followed by a talk with former Scala programmer Jane Giles and horror maestro Kim Newman on September 20 at the Horse Hospital. The rest of the excellent Scala Forever programme included John Waters, Dario Argento, Russ Meyer and Fassbinder nights, a Turkish Grindhouse evening, a Jack Smith programme, a screening of one of our favourite 60s Italian exploitation films The Frightened Woman, and much more.

Flatpack (23-27 March 2011, Birmingham)

Inventively and energetically curated, Flatpack offers a stimulating mix of offbeat delights, forgotten gems, animation and experimental film in unusual settings, exploring the connections between art, music, history, place and film. Intelligent and fun, it guides audiences through enchanting cinematic adventures off the beaten path. The festival returns from 13 to 18 March 2012.

Theatre Scorpio (Close-Up) + Shinjuku in London (BFI Southbank) - July-August 2011

The summer’s seasons focusing on The Art Theatre Guild of Japan offered a unique chance to see works from the 1960s and 70s Japanese independent and experimental film scene. The Close-Up screenings of Masao Adachi’s cryptic, surreal Galaxy and Katsu Kanai’s delirious dreamscape The Desert Archipelago (1969), the latter in the presence of the director, were particularly memorable nights.

The Dybbuk (dir. Michal Waszynski, Poland 1937 - Kinoteka, 5 April 2011)

Now here’s exotica: a supernatural drama filmed in Poland, on the brink of the Holocaust, entirely in Yiddish, in 1937. You won’t see many like this. Michal Waszynski’s The Dybbuk is as rich and strange an artefact as any aficionado of fantastic cinema could hope for. It overflows with esoteric rituals, customs and superstitions, some of which seem unfamiliar even to the characters on screen: there’s numerology, bits of Kabbalah, odd bursts of song and poetic turns of phrase, mannered acting, and vaudeville schtick. To a decided non-believer, this comes across as a weird little bubble of cinema, both familiar and strange, a film overlaid with real tragedy, created by artists long disappeared, dispersed and destroyed, but one still brimming with life and soul and artistry.

Read Mark Stafford’s full review.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye

Format: Cinema

Date: 28 November 2011

As part of Cine-City Festival

17 Nov – 4 Dec 2011, Brighton

Director: Marie Losier

USA/Germany 2011

65 mins

After a 40-year career in music and performance art, during which he co-founded COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Genesis Breyer P. Orridge and his late wife and collaborator Lady Jaye are the focus of Marie Losier’s unique take on the ‘rockumentary’ genre. By turns irreverent, touching and eye-opening, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye places its subjects’ romantic and performative relationship at its centre and incorporates archival material of Orridge’s various bands in action. Losier adopts a ‘cut-up’ technique to construct the portrait of Orridge, Jaye and their various friends and collaborators similar to the one so intrinsic to the work of one of the art and music worlds’ great outsiders. Hand-held footage, home videos, stills and graphics, with a soundtrack culled exclusively from Orridge’s diverse back catalogue, create a collage-like portrait of the man, the great love of his life and their ‘Pandrogyne’ project – wherein the married couple dressed alike and underwent various cosmetic surgery procedures to look like one another. Rather than appear as a narcissistic ‘freak-show’, Orridge and Jaye, with their clear devotion to each other, open-minded, creative instincts and disinterest in conventional mores, are engaging, inspirational and good-natured figures. The music may not be to everybody’s taste – ranging as it does from the grinding, proto-industrial drone of Throbbing Gristle to the psychedelic dance of Psychic TV – and the physical extremes of the ‘Pandrogyne’ project may disconcert some viewers (Orridge’s breast implants especially), but you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more strikingly candid, and unexpectedly moving, portrait of life, love and creativity at the experimental end of the rock’n’roll spectrum.

Neil Mitchell

2011 Big Expectations, Great Disappointments

The Tree of Life

Electric Sheep writers review the films that turned out to be big disappointments in 2011.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

I like trees. Sometimes I talk to them - like Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon. When I forget to take my meds, the trees politely talk back. In spite of the mysterious uttering, so common in one’s dotage, I can assure you I was a happy child. I loved dinosaurs, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and inhaling the misty aroma of DDT as it wafted gently through my suburban paradise, keeping it bereft of mosquitoes (but also numerous birds and other small animals). I attended church regularly - cherishing the solace, architecture and magical dapplings of light piercing the stained glass. And dearest Dad, being an ex-cop of Ukrainian descent, was (understandably) of the authoritarian persuasion - strict to be sure, but a hard-working fellow who wished only to provide for his family. And Mom? She was a saint, not unlike Mother Teresa. Winnipeg, where I grew up during the 60s and 70s always seemed a couple of decades behind the rest of the world - very post-war, if you will. ‘Twas, I might add, a leafy city - thus rendering the aforementioned tree worship… Hey! This is all starting to sound suspiciously similar to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. That said, my relatively uneventful childhood was, finally, more interesting and poetic than this lugubrious Battle of Ypres upon the gluteal muscles - wrought by a filmmaker whose work I otherwise adore. Far too many critics are pretending they actually find merit in this picture - often resorting to extolling the virtues of Malick’s ambition and praising him for taking a bold risk. For me, the only thing Malick takes is a bold dump on audiences. By the way, my own Dad never looked like Brad Pitt - sleepwalking through his role as the taciturn father who eventually weeps at the death of one of his sons. (I’m not sure if Brad Pitt knew which of his sons died. I certainly didn’t.) My own father, though no Brad Pitt, bore the visage of that late, great Ukrainian of the Silver Screen, Jack (Wolodomyr Palahniuk) Palance (crossed, ever so delicately, with Tony Curtis in Taras Bulba). And yes, I talk to the trees and they, in turn, talk to me. The Tree of Life is rich and bountiful. Unless you’re talking about the movie. Greg Klymkiw

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

I would have been surprised if A Dangerous Method - about the rivalry between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, with the mediocre Keira Knightley playing the love interest - had been any good, but it’s always a shame when such a renowned director as David Cronenberg delivers something so banal. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own stage play, the film stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, who helped pioneer psychoanalysis with his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen, the only good thing in the film). In this interpretation, Jung is an insipid, upper-class man, shackled by turn-of-the-century mores. He eventually breaks his ethical code when he starts having sex with his patient, Sabina Spielrein, a woman who suffers from ‘hysteria’ before being ‘cured’ and becoming a psychotherapist in her own right.

Beaten by her father as a child, Sabina has a thing for authority figures and masochism - basically, she likes being spanked, and Jung, once he gives in to his baser urges, seems to have no problem fulfilling her fantasies. If these scenes were meant to be titillating, Cronenberg failed; the underwhelming, mechanical film is mostly forgettable, except for Knightley’s tortured, painful acting. The film has received glowing reviews from other (mostly male) critics who have found something meaningful in the film that I somehow missed; personally, I can’t think of anything, except a perverse curiosity, to recommend it. Sarah Cronin

Extra gripe from Greg Klymkiw: Sadly, no proper views of open palms connecting with buttocks or slap imprints on said buttocks are afforded to us.

The Future (Miranda July, 2011)

Make that Meander July - as this overly self-conscious ‘indie’ effort tries to turn twee into art. With the most annoying performance by an actress this year (she doubles as the irritating voice-over for the cat narrator, Paw Paw - Puke Puke is nearer the mark), this empty and phony pseudo-slacker romance is completely unrewarding - unless of course you get a kick out of this ‘performance’ artist’s inability to gyrate and move when she is supposed to be a trained dancer. At no extra cost, you get an entirely unmotivated love affair with an older single dad who apparently wears a semiotic ‘fuck me’ gold chain around his neck. Existential, man! Avoid. James B. Evans

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Period drama was ripe for a radical rethink. The BBC aesthetic of clumping hardwood floors, pretty frocks and trees in blossom had all the historical validity and bloodlessness of an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Andrea Arnold’s third feature film promised to blow the cobwebs away from one of the most under-served novels of the Eng. Lit. canon and restore grit and passion and realism and grit. The problem was that after destroying the clichés, Arnold installed a whole bunch of her own. The social realism was obviously in the tradition of Ken Loach, but Ken Loach first and foremost makes you feel for the people, Billy Casper in Kes (1969), or the struggling father of Raining Stones (1993). With Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is not so much enigmatic as blank. People gaze at the distance and get blown about in the wind. The camera follows with the insistence of Darren Aronofsky, but we fail to get under the skin of the characters. The photography at times is beautiful, but its beauty becomes too self-involved and by the end of the film close-ups of beetles will feel like a new cliché. Finally, the re-reading of Heathcliff as black is bold only to the Daily Mail and the validity of the reading is unfortunately not taken advantage of by the lacklustre performance of the non-professional actors lucklessly lumped with what should be one of the most powerful characters born from the 19th century imagination. John Bleasdale

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

Fast cars and existential male angst make for great bedfellows - or rather, they MADE for great bedfellows. The 1970s were full of them, the tent posts being Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. Drive comes closest to Hill’s nutty car chase thriller, but lacks that picture’s drive (as it were) and pulp sensibilities blended with art-house-style chic.

Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who doubles as a heist getaway driver and who falls in love with his dewy-eyed, perpetually open-mouthed and equally soulful neighbour. He agrees to help out her recently released jailbird husband to pull a heist that goes horribly wrong and predictably leads to a couple of bad guys, who coincidentally are backing a stock car Gosling will be racing. It’s fine when a genre picture keeps it simple and stupid, but the plot of Drive is, well, just plain simple. (Simple-minded, that is.)

The car chases are proficiently handled, but have none of the urgency of the true greats; some of the violence is satisfactorily shocking, but the movie - loaded with pretension and fake portent - seems even more disingenuous than, say, a Michael Bay movie. At least, we all know Bay is a knothead. Nicolas Winding Refn clearly has more going on upstairs, but he’d have been far better off playing things with the same kind of relentless pulpiness he brought to Bronson instead of a preciousness that just drags the movie down to Dullsville. Greg Klymkiw

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

I’ve always had a take it or leave it approach to the films of Spain’s most celebrated director, the darling of the European art-house scene. While I can revel in his mastery of colour, unashamed campiness and dedication to writing strong female roles I’ve too often been left feeling that substance plays second fiddle to style in Almodóvar’s films. His loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, The Skin I Live In, had me pre-emptively convinced that this was the Almodóvar film for me. An emotionally damaged surgeon, a mysterious captive, murder, rape, madness, a (supposedly) killer twist - all orchestrated under Almodóvar’s aesthete’s eye - what’s not to love, right? Wrong.

I was completely underwhelmed by The Skin I Live In. Its mix of black comedy, thriller elements and body horror themes didn’t gel for me one bit. It should have been nasty, oppressive and unsettling but instead it was shrill, ironically skin-deep, shot through with risible dialogue (‘no, not the handkerchief!’) and not nearly grotesque enough. It felt like an inadequate marriage between Cronenbergian themes and an English sex comedy - Carry On Raping, if you will. Trash is trash whether it be made by Jess Franco or Pedro Almodóvar and this was the worst kind of trash, trash masquerading as art. A big disappointment. Neil Mitchell

Best DVD/Blu-ray Releases of 2011

The Colour of Pomegranates

Electric Sheep writers review the best DVD and Blu-ray releases in 2011.

The Colour of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov, 1968, Second Sight)

Inspired by Armenian miniatures and icons, its tableaux slowly evoke - rather than tell - the life of the 18th-century poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Laden with the poet’s suffering and biblical and folkloric symbolism, there is an epic, earnest solemnity to The Colour of Pomegranates; and while such gravity and careful construction could lead to austerity and artificiality, there is also a consuming warmth and sensuality. The extraordinarily striking actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the part of both poet and muse, exploring male and female sexuality (Paradjanov was himself bisexual and first imprisoned for a homosexual act with a KGB officer) and the film is joyously abundant with melodic folk music and heightened sounds: the crinkling of books’ pages; the squelch of pomegranate seeds; the urgent chirping of bird song. The Colour of Pomegranates is an emotionally affecting film and is especially poignant given Paradjanov’s own suffering in prison and the loss of his first wife. Lost loves and issues of ethnicity, subjects raw to his heart, are treated with immense compassion. And yet, The Colour of Pomegranates is also a film that joyously arouses all the senses: a truly sensory experience without precedent or successor. Eleanor McKeown

La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969, Park Circus)

The pristine swimming pool of a glamorous couple’s private villa in the French Riviera is the focus of Jacques Deray’s 1969 tale of lust, co-dependency and revenge. Of ample size and stylish design, it’s where lovers Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) fool around during a long hot summer, far from the madding crowd of St Tropez. It’s also where Jean-Paul challenges Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) to a symbolic swimming race, and where the film reaches its shocking and deadly climax. Deray does a deft job in capturing the hedonism and abandon of the period, where good looks and chic clothes conceal dark feelings that lurk beneath the surface, helped by a toe-tapping soundtrack by Michel Legrand. Legrand is a name often associated with the French New Wave, as is Maurice Ronet, who plays smooth-talking music producer Harry, but La piscine‘s connection with the movement ends there. Instead, with its smoulderingly attractive cast and focus on relationships, it owes more to American film noir and psychological thrillers of the previous two decades. Lisa Williams

Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibañez Serrador, 1976, Eureka)

Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution until Eureka finally released it on DVD in the UK this year. Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Once the misjudged moralising prologue is over, Who Can Kill a Child? is a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. Jim Harper

Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988, Manga Entertainment)

Based on Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s serialised comic, in which telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world, Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film on its release in 1988, presenting concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation. While some aspects have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art. Alex Fitch


Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988, BFI Video)

Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. The characters have become much more explicitly threatening than in Carroll’s original. Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue Alice at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. Peter Hames

The Kingdom (Lars von Trier, 1994 + 1997, Second Sight)

Set in Denmark’s largest hospital, Lars von Trier’s 90s TV series The Kingdom is perhaps best described as the mutated offspring of a hospital-based reality TV show and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The Kingdom‘s horror might seem tame to viewers of Saw and Hostel, but von Trier manages to establish - and increase - a surprising level of tension and atmosphere, something that suits the work much better than explicit violence and gore. The Kingdom is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of horror or fantasy, as well as anyone with a passion for the weird. Originally broadcast in two seasons of four episodes each, the first season was edited into a single movie for a British VHS release in 1998, but this is the first time that both seasons have been available in this country. Jim Harper

Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970, BFI Video)

Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made, but there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski’s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. Frances Morgan

Shôhei Imamura releases (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema)

Eureka continue to make the work of the great Japanese director Shôhei Imamura available to UK audiences. Following the release of Vengeance is Mine (1979) and Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) in previous years, 2011 brought a bounty crop: Pigs and Battleships (1961), A Man Vanishes (1967) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983).

Pigs and Battleships
A vivid indictment of a nation struggling with a serious identity crisis, Pigs and Battleships is a biting social satire by a truly brilliant filmmaker. John Berra

A Man Vanishes
Over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay that reveals with cunning wit concerns of veracity and corruption and anticipates the traps reality will lay for filmmakers. John Bleasdale

The Ballad of Narayama
The cruelty of survival is the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film. His achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. John Bleasdale



Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 5 December 2011

Distributor: BFI

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Writer: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Cast: Maria Callas, Giuseppe Gentile, Massimo Girotti, Laurent Terzieff

Italy/France/Germany 1970

111 mins

This fantasy vision of Greek myth seems to be some kind of hymn to the primitive, paean to the pagan: but better not to try to theorise it, just feel its poetic power. The vision is certainly alien and arcane enough to grip the imagination.

The early sections of Medea are trademark Pasolini: flesh, pain, cruelty, and death, in exotic garb, with much wordless standing around. But once he’s got that out of his system the rest is surprisingly tasteful, by his standards.

Maria Callas lends grandeur and gravitas as Medea the sorceress, equally expressive in stillness and in passionate animation. Giuseppe Gentile (an Olympic triple-jumper!) is an attractive and natural Jason. But what really makes a success of Medea, as with Pasolini’s subsequent films on mythic themes, is the beautiful cinematography (and production design). First, in Medea’s Caucasian homeland, the palette is blue and pale brown, foreground and background. The distinctly Italian faces of the supporting cast peer out from furs, skins, dyed cloaks and patchwork blankets, against sand, rock and scrub, and the wide blue sky. Then the shift to Corinth (played by Pisa) is signalled by saffron, turquoise and gold against the stones of the palace.

Certainly Pasolini’s Greece faces east, not west, as we are reminded by a suitably archaic soundtrack: quavering pucked strings, keening mourners and a women’s choir evoking the remote musical roots of the Orthodox Church.

Well-edited in comparison to some of this director’s work, the film is swift when it needs to be and doesn’t drag when the pace needs to slow. The weakest points are a couple of plonking explanations of the story by a centaur who sounds as though he has spent too long at the University of Bologna. I don’t think words were really Pasolini’s medium, but he gives us a few effective bursts of Euripides towards the end, as Medea simmers amid her chorus of attendants, as she is banished by King Creon, and then in her final confrontations with Jason.

Pasolini may not have created a work with the dramatic subtlety of Greek tragedy, and reports of its depth have been much exaggerated, but he realised some powerful and memorable scenes, and gestured at something fierce and elemental in Greek myth. In this symbolic representation of the clash of Mediterranean civilisation with the ‘barbarism’ from which it emerged, his sympathies seem to be with the latter. ‘Nothing is possible now’ is Medea’s closing line, and perhaps also Pasolini’s own cry of disenchantment.

Peter Momtchiloff

Best Festival Films of 2011

Midnight Son

Electric Sheep writers review the best films seen at festivals in 2011.

Midnight Son (Scott Leberecht, 2011, Film4 FrightFest)

A vampire movie with a melancholy indie feel, Midnight Son was one of the best films seen at Film4 FrightFest this year and is an outstanding feature debut by Scott Leberecht. Jacob is a night security guard with a skin condition that prevents him from going in the sun and who starts experiencing physical changes after he blacks out at work. He meets Mary, a girl who sells cigarettes and sweets outside a bar. They are attracted to each other, but Jacob’s deteriorating condition and Mary’s drug habit conspire to keep them apart. In addition, Jacob starts getting troubling flashbacks of a young woman who was found dead in the underground car park at work. The film uses the vampire motif to evoke the tenderness, heartache and destructiveness of two outsiders’ tormented love. Like Let the Right One In, it is sweet and creepy in just the right amounts. The moody feel, the hazy look and a low-key soundtrack all combine beautifully to conjure Jacob’s strangely detached, dreamlike life in a shadowy, oddly empty LA. Virginie Sélavy

Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, 2010, Cannes)

Takeshi Kitano returns to the cut-throat world of the yakuza for the first time since Brother (2001) with this darkly humorous thriller. Outrage concerns a misunderstanding between two organised crime syndicates that becomes a feud, then a fully-fledged war when neither side is willing to back down. Scenes of torture and murder ensue, as enforcer Otomo (Kitano) finds himself caught in the middle of a rapidly escalating situation that causes shifts in organisational structure. Outrage delivers all the grim laughs and sudden violence that one would expect from a Kitano crime saga, but also serves to comment on the gradual legitimisation of the underworld as bosses have business meetings and subordinates await instructions in anonymous ‘company’ offices, while the killing of civilians is strictly forbidden. Codes of honour are frequently cited, but this is a fiercely modern world where such traditions are reduced to sake toasts and conveniently forgotten when an opportunity arises for advancement in the ranks. Kitano seems to have lost his status as an essential international auteur of late - Outrage has been relegated to a direct-to-DVD release in the UK - but this typically cool genre exercise is one of the best entries in his considerable yakuza canon. John Berra

Keyhole (Guy Maddin, 2011, Toronto)

What’s not to love? Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before - playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his Dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing. Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. But as in all of Maddin’s work, beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce) populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole - a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in. Greg Klymkiw

The Glass Man (Cristian Solimeno, 2011, Film4 FrightFest)

An excellent mid-recession British take on one of David Fincher’s finest movies (I won’t say which one or you’ll get the twist immediately), The Glass Man concentrates on the travails of Martin (Andy Nyman), a businessman who has been fired from his job for an unknown reason; the film implies some kind of whistle-blowing. With a mortgage to pay and a lifestyle he and his wife have become accustomed to, he has been lying to her about still going to work for some time and amassed crippling debts when a hitman (James Cosmo) comes to his front door and gives him a choice between becoming his accomplice for the night or waking up Martin’s wife and… A belated addition to the ‘yuppie in peril’ sub-genre that flourished briefly in the mid-1980s (Into the Night, After Hours), The Glass Man‘s relentless atmosphere of impending doom and Nyman’s constant nervousness about unarticulated peril keep the audience transfixed even though not a lot happens on screen for much of the running time. A terrific directorial debut by Cristian Solimeno, who proves himself to be an actor’s director, in a film dominated by the interaction between Nyman and Cosmo, judged exquisitely well. Alex Fitch

Once upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011, Cannes)

The winner of the Cannes 2011 Grand Prix, Once upon a Time in Anatolia (a nod towards Leone) stands as one of acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s finest achievements. With a filmography including Uzak and Climates this is no small feat. Full of piercing insights, dark humour and a finely tuned wit, this is an epic and rigorous tale of a night and day in a murder investigation. Beautifully photographed in the Anatolian steppes by Gökhan Tiryaki, this meticulously constructed police procedural concerns bickering police and prosecutors grimly locating a buried body following a local brawl and a hasty confession. As the corpse is exhumed, many long-buried thoughts and fears are disinterred in the minds of the hard-bitten lawmen, one of whom happens to bear a passing resemblance to Clark Gable. Replicating the ebb and flow of human life, Once upon a Time in Anatolia unfolds like a fascinating game of chess with clues and gestures ambiguously revealed. A film interested in the concept of truth, and the manner by which we arrive at it, it is fascinating and flawless filmmaking. Jason Wood

Killer Joe

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011, Toronto)

A welcome return to some sort of form for Friedkin, who has not soared of late. This neo-noir tale of trailer trash who hire a moonlighting cop/hitman to bump off their own mother for her insurance policy - the plan of course goes completely tits-up - is an over-the-top delight with Matthew McConaughey playing against type as the cop/hitman. The weirdest fried chicken leg blowjob you will see this (or any other) year. Beats this year’s efforts by other veterans like Woody or Francis. James B. Evans

Without (Mark Jackson, 2011, London Film Festival)

The debut from writer-director-editor Mark Jackson, Without features an outstanding performance from newcomer Joslyn Jensen as an unstable young woman who’s secretly coping with a terrible loss. Joslyn takes a job on an island off the coast of Washington State, caring for Frank, an elderly man in a near-vegetative state who’s confined to a wheelchair. The set-up - it’s just the two of them, alone, in a remote house in the woods - suggests a thriller, but the suspense and mystery really revolve around her perilous emotional state. As the film unfolds, Joslyn’s charming, seemingly innocent character begins to evolve into something deeper and darker. The director hints throughout the film at her reasons for taking the job, but never gives away too much at once, leaving it to the audience to try and piece together the rest of the puzzle. Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia’s cinematography is superb; much of the film is shot with a shallow depth of field, lending a rich, soft-focus look to the visuals, while the warm hues contrast with the darkening tone of the film. It’s a remarkable, original feature that will hopefully get the recognition that it deserves. Sarah Cronin

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011, Venice)

Steve McQueen’s second film, after his astonishing debut Hunger, surely places him at the forefront of British cinema. Despite McQueen’s day job as a renowned video artist, there is no tricksy-ness to his film, no radical inventiveness. Rather, his images reveal his artistic validity by dint of patience. Shots are held. We don’t watch this film, we stare at it. The tale itself could easily be a soap opera melodrama: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful urbanite living an almost antiseptically perfect life in Manhattan, which is put at risk by his compulsive sex addiction and by a visit from his messy (but altogether more conventionally promiscuous) sister, Sissy, played with thrift store charm by the ubiquitous Carey Mulligan. So far, so sensationalist, as we see the would-be Michael Douglas being serviced by high-end prostitutes, prowling the streets and bars, and masturbating with painful frequency. His inability to look at a woman without immediate sexual desire makes his sister’s visit uncomfortable, if not dangerously complicated. This is not only sex without love, it is sex that is mutually exclusive to love, the opposite of intimacy. And yet, at the same time, as Hunger eschewed straightforward political argument, so Shame, despite its title, avoids a merrily reductive morality. Fassbender’s performance is at once comic and tragic, ferocious and sensitive, strange but remarkably common, the brutal buffoonery of the male face in orgasm. John Bleasdale

Carré blanc (Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, 2011, Toronto)

Harking back to the great 70s science-fiction film classics, Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature Carré blanc is easily one of the finest dystopian visions of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time. The tale is, on its surface and as in many great movies, a simple one. Philippe and Marie grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state - he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator. Marie is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe is transforming into indifference. In this world, though, hatred is as much a luxury as love. Tangible feelings and simple foibles are punished with torture and death. Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is ultimately the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and it is at the core of this story. If Philippe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope - for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style and makes it an instant classic of science fiction. Greg Klymkiw

Sons of Norway (Jens Lien, 2011, Toronto)

A little curiosity from Norway about the growing pains of Nikolaj, whose eccentric father encourages his adolescent rebellion, which erupts full force with his discovery of the Sex Pistols and neo-punk. Better than this plot outline sounds, the film is touching and offbeat without trying too hard (see The Future review). If you liked the Norwegian film Fucking Amål, this is for you. It was executive-produced by John Lydon, who also has a small but key role in it. James B. Evans

Night Fishing

Best short: Night Fishing (Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong, 2011, London Korean Film Festival)

The most innovative short of the year was the star attraction of the shorts programmes at the London Korean Film Festival, Night Fishing, a collaboration between Park Chan-wook and his brother, Park Chan-kyong. Steeped in Korean folklore and traditional religion, the film passes through three distinct atmospheres. It begins with a stylish musical prologue with a jerking, twisting front man and his band performing amid colourless reed beds. The camera soars away to a lone man sitting on a riverbank, his fishing rod primed and tinny radio playing, and the film takes on the air of an ominous horror film. Then, in a gloriously unexpected twist, the film makes a high-energy ascent into a colourful cacophony of mournful wailing and religious chanting. It is a strange journey, even more so because of the way in which the film was made: every single shot was filmed on an iPhone 4. It would have been a bizarre, beautiful film regardless, but the technology creates further interesting effects as the camera flips 360 degrees or shoots the fishing scenes in grainy night vision. Eleanor McKeown

Best Films of 2011

Black Swan

Electric Sheep writers review the best films of 2011.

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter is Michael Shannon‘s second collaboration with Jeff Nichols since the director’s acclaimed 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Shannon plays the troubled construction worker Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who slowly loses touch with reality as he becomes haunted by nightmares and apocalyptic visions about a fatal cyclone whose exceptional strength causes devastation on an unprecedented scale. Being the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Curtis decides to seek the help of a doctor, but as the hallucinations grow, he scraps the advised psychological treatment and instead takes out a risky bank loan to rebuild and fully equip the shabby storm shelter in the family’s garden. Shannon makes the story work, with support from an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand her husband, while Nichols’s remarkably assured directing style creates a deep sense of unease about an unsettling near-future, in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Safe. Shot with a careful eye for colour, light and framing, and refined with an array of stylish visual effects, the film impresses most in the way Nichols manages to keep the tension at a nerve-racking level in a film that deliberately refuses to give much space to hope and optimism. Pamela Jahn

Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowsky, 2010)

Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Vincent Gallo is an unnamed (possibly Afghan or Iraqi) fighter, taken prisoner and flown to an alien country; confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, he becomes increasingly animal-like. Despite the initial, politically charged prison scenes, legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is not interested in making specific political points, but rather in presenting a universally resonant story. Gallo gives an extraordinarily intense performance and his astonishing emotional involvement in the character keeps the audience firmly on his side as extreme circumstances force him to commit increasingly desperate and brutal acts. Poetic, savage and beautifully expressive visually, Essential Killing is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience that should not be missed. Virginie Sélavy

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010)

Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined but their bodies stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical. Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naí¯ve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing and unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band). There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors. Sarah Cronin

Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín, 2010)

This third feature film from young Chilean director Pablo Larraín revisits the 1970s Santiago of Tony Manero (2007), his story of a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed loner, but sets the scene some years earlier, in the midst of the 1973 military coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as the country’s leader. Larraín’s stylistic restraint in Post Mortem is entirely appropriate, creating an atmosphere of quiet horror and incipient crisis, and reflecting the morbid, flat world of his new protagonist. Mario (Alfredo Castro), who describes himself as a ‘functionary’, is surrounded by death: his job is to type up autopsy reports at the local morgue. His neighbour, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), is a cabaret dancer with whom he develops a sexual obsession that turns into a vague affair. In the background of this, far from the screen, the momentous events of a revolution are occurring. The only criticism of Larraí­n’s confident and brutal minimalism might be that it’s hard to see where he could go next with this subject matter, and perhaps with this cast and crew; but I will be watching whatever he and Alfredo Castro do next, however harsh. Frances Morgan

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Released in the UK in January after a striking festival run in 2010, Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan remained one of the most exciting films to come out this year. A dizzying, intoxicating dark tale of passion, obsession and jealousy, the film follows young ballet dancer Nina (Nathalie Portman) who becomes dangerously caught up in her aspiration for perfection when she is offered the difficult dual part of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of the classical ballet. During rehearsals, Nina performs a technically perfect White Swan but consistently fails to deliver an equally convincing Black Swan breathing sex appeal and malevolence. Pushed by her impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), her narcissistic former dancer mother and Lily (Mila Kunis), the feisty new arrival in the company and potential rival, Nina becomes increasingly embroiled into a maze of delusion, lust and violence until fantasy and reality collide in the film’s formidable last act. Blurring the line between the supernatural and the psychological with touches of horror, Aronofsky pulls off some astonishing visual twists in a glorious melodrama that might bring nothing new to the table but certainly makes for a thrilling ride. Pamela Jahn

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)

When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures. Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. Ultimately, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema. Julian Ross

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Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

A dysfunctional upper-class family gathered for the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies. The film’s take on the End Times is in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Opinions on whether the classy cast succeed in transcending some of the plot’s holes and clunky dialogue will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression. Frances Morgan


Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Werner Herzog has been making documentaries almost his whole career. His approach is that of a man following his own obsessions, his own line of thought. He is the opposite of the parochial, petit bourgeois smugness of a Michael Palin, who doesn’t seem happy unless comparing Timbuktu/an Afghanistan opium market/a Vietnamese wedding to Saturday afternoon on Clapham High Street. Having said that, Herzog’s The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) does have a Palinesque fascination with the foreign only in so much as it reflects on the normal. Of late, Herzog has sought out obsession obsessively: White Diamond, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World are all brilliant in their portrayals of a mad engagement with the world to match Herzog’s own. Cave of Forgotten Dreams includes a similar cast of oddball scientist - Herzog can barely contain his delight on hearing one of the scientist was a circus performer - but it is the place, a unique archaeological site containing the oldest cave art, that is the star. Despite his fun with the scientists (openly scoffing at one boffin’s inability to throw a spear), Herzog is seriously fascinated with the paintings, and his breathless enthusiasm and the patient unveiling of the cave’s wonders create a hypnotic meditation on life and art. The time scales are enormous, tens of thousands of years, and yet, despite this, Herzog manages to convey a sense of both humanity and continuity, arguing persuasively that his own activity as a filmmaker is analogous to the cave painters’ art, crooked little fingers and all. John Bleasdale

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

This intriguing social drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi attracted many awards this year, including Berlin’s Golden Bear for best film and Silver Bears for its ensemble cast. Powerful, convincing performances are essential to the film’s dramatic tension, which starts with middle-class couple Nader and Simin arguing over a divorce. Marital discord is just the beginning. When Simin moves out, Nader needs someone to look after his elderly father. He hires Razieh, a woman from a poor family, and before long, they are making grave mutual accusations of theft, violence and neglect. The film’s surprising shifts in perspective make for a thoroughly engaging experience. Each character has his or her own version of events, but as a spectator you believe that you have a fairly clear sense of what really happened. This impression of omniscience falls apart as the film gradually reveals facts that the characters would prefer to keep secret. A Separation is also notable for its portrait of contemporary Iran: while highlighting stark differences in lifestyle and worldview between bourgeois and proletarian families, the film shows that both groups are vulnerable to the country’s arbitrary judicial system. Alison Frank

Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)

If there was an award for the best opening sequence it would unarguably go to Tetsuya Nakashima for the mesmerising, if not comfortable, first-act monologue in which teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) tells her unruly class on the last day of term that she won’t be returning after the holidays as she believes that the murderers of her four-year-old daughter - whom she refers to as student A and student B - are in the room and that she, knowing that the law won’t help her, has subtly and unobtrusively taken revenge. Adapted from the debut novel by Kanae Minato, Nakashima’s refined, bleakly ironic, yet deeply unsettling thriller is more than just another coming-of-age schoolyard bullying horror tale about the troubled Japanese youth. With wonderfully natural performances and remaining faithful to a script that plays with deft pacing while keeping a perfect balance between hypnotic tension and surprising plot twists, Confessions is an unexpected emotional tour de force that keeps you petrified in your seat from the very moment teacher Yuko begins her lesson in revenge. Pamela Jahn

Red White and Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010)

Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news. Unflinchingly gruesome in parts, yet sensitively, elliptically, edited, Red White & Blue has fully rounded characters who, although capable of the most terrible acts, are neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Director Simon Rumley has crafted an original take on the serial killer genre that flirts with horror but subverts the rules to create a deeply affecting twisted romance. Virginie Sélavy

Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino,2010)

On paper, a virtually dialogue-free art-house movie set in and around a mountain village in Italy, which unfolds at a snail’s pace and focuses on an elderly, dying goat shepherd, a lost kid and a fir tree, might sound like one to avoid for all but the hardiest of cineastes. For my money though, Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s finest movies, charming, delicate and subtly transcendent. Frammartino’s visually poetic docu-essay, advertised by perhaps the year’s most beguiling promo poster - a memorable image of a goat on a table - seduces the viewer with its gently undulating rhythm, flashes of slapstick humour and understated approach to its dominant themes; the cycle of life, inter-connectedness, rituals, communities and time. Frammartino tackles these weighty and complex concerns in a deftly simplistic manner that exudes a quietly reverential understanding of the symbiotic nature between humankind and the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. The relentless cycle of death and rebirth, collapse and rejuvenation, is poignantly threaded throughout Le Quattro Volte, from the shepherd’s death, via the kid’s separation from the herd to the preparation of the charcoal after the fir tree is felled. A contemplative, yet accessible examination of ‘big’ ideas. Neil Mitchell

Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)

This quiet little film is about a mother and her baby who get picked up and driven in a truck the 1,5000 miles from Asuncií³n, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Filmed mostly in the constricted space of the cab of the truck, these two strangers lives slowly open up. It is a spare, affecting and exemplary model of slow cinema and proves that layers of non-diegetic (or indeed diegetic) sound need not be employed to aid the viewer in ‘getting’ the story. The film won best new director and film awards at Cannes, Oslo, Mumbai, San Sebastian and London FF. Patience will pay off with this one. James B. Evans

Surviving Life

Surviving Life

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 December 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Verve Pictures + ICO

Director: Jan Švankmajer

Writer: Jan Švankmajer

Original title: Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe)

Cast: Václav Helsus, Klára Issová

Czech Republic 2010

109 mins

Jan Švankmajer’s latest feels looser, breezier than much of his previous work, as if he’s realised that with that many unsettling gems in his back catalogue he could afford to kick back for once and muck about a bit. Of course, Švankmajer mucking about still involves a cavalcade of grotesque imagery, twisted psychology, looming dread and suicide, but that’s Czech surrealists for you.

It’s the tale of Evzen (Václav Helsus), a middle-aged office worker, who lets his marriage and job go to hell as he pursues the literal girl of his dreams (Klára Issová). His desire for more romantic REM time leads to all manner of aberrant behaviour, and to a psychoanalyst who tries, after a fashion, to make sense of Evzen’s nocturnal adventures. Eventually the dreams reveal a meaning buried in his childhood, and Evzen has to choose between his conscious and subconscious lives.

That summary makes the film sound a lot more straightforward than it is, but from the beginning Švankmajer deliberately blurs and bleeds the lines between Evzen’s waking and sleeping lives. The same imagery permeates both (snakes, cockerel heads, a strange public lottery) but also the same nightmarish frustration, where shifting identities, deception and cross purposes continually thwart Evzen’s desires, and even the simplest of transactions involves a baffling ordeal.

Surviving Life begins winningly with a cut-out Švankmajer explaining why he has been reduced to this form of animation: he wanted to make a proper live action film but decided that since cut-outs don’t need to be fed or looked after, it just made budgetary sense to do it this way. He warns that this is a comedy, but we won’t find it very funny. It ends with one of the most affecting and troubling conclusions I’ve seen in cinema. In between there’s too much indulgence in dreamy business, in recurring imagery and repeated scenes. The Pythonesque cut-outs and office worker/dream girl plot bring Gilliam to mind, but this is a much more claustrophobic, hermetic world than he would offer. It feels dated, too, like an artefact from the 70s or before, when Freud and Jung were the cutting edge of psychoanalysis, and knowledge of lucid dreaming is sought out in antiquarian bookshops rather than Google.

Still, it’s eye-popping, disarming and playful, with a brisker pace than you might expect from this director. The cut-out style (broken up occasionally by Švankmajer’s recurring trope of animated food) seems to have brought out his inner adolescent, and much of Surviving Life resembles a scurrilous old underground comic, full of sex and monsters and barbs aimed at The Man, man. You may find your patience for all this wearing thin a good 20 minutes or so before his does, but that finale will haunt me for some time…

Mark Stafford

A Man Vanishes

A Man Vanishes

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 October 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Writer: Shôhei Imamura, Kôji Numata

Original story by: Akiyuki Nosaka

Original title: Ningen jôhatsu

Cast: Yoshie Hayakawa, Shôhei Imamura, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi

Japan 1967

130 mins

Mockumentaries have hit a rich vein of late, with the is-she-or-isn’t-she flirtation with truth and lies, the fact, fiction or faction of I Am Still Here, Cat Fish and Exit through the Gift Shop; the pranking of Borat and Bruno and the revival of the found footage horror genre of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Much of this can be traced to the nefarious activities of Endemol, and their swinish exploitation of reality to serve up Reality(TM), the human sacrifice (vote who to eliminate!), the pseudo-religious, cod-psychology rituals of the confessional and the gutting of any sense of distinction between the private and the public. Add to this our own starring in social networking sites and the fact that the political event of the decade resembled a set piece from a tent pole Hollywood movie but filmed in a way that anticipated Cloverfield. Jean Baudrillard couldn’t have written a better script for the noughties, the decade that made navel-gazing an internationally popular sport and gave us Saddam Hussein’s execution filmed on a camera phone and uploaded to YouTube.

It perhaps will come as a surprise then that over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay revealing with cunning wit precisely these concerns and anticipating the traps of reality for filmmakers. In 1965, a plastic salesman, Tadashi Oshima, goes missing. There are many possible motives - guilt over an embezzlement at work, which was discovered and probably stymied his chances of promotion, the impending marriage to an overbearing fiancée. We are told that 90,000 Japanese men disappear every year, responding to social claustrophobia, work pressure and the watchful family. It is two years after the fact and a documentary crew, with the aid of Oshima’s fiancée - known as ‘the Rat’ - are on his trail. They try to reconstruct the events leading up to his disappearance, interviewing his family, his various girlfriends, his boss and workmates, and even a medium. We find out details of his life: he was a heavy drinker, successful with the ladies, used a lot of pomade on his hair. The crew often resort to hidden cameras and provocation of dubious ethical grounding. The pace of the film is insistent and driven, conversations and interviews overlap and fall out of synch with the images, still pictures are used and little black oblongs ostensibly preserve anonymity, but actually feel more like a stain of admitted guilt.

And yet for all the busyness and activity, Oshima is elusive. In fact, it is the very investigation itself - as indicated by the present tense of the title A Man Vanishes, not, as might be expected after two years have passed, ‘A Man Vanished’ - that erases his existence. He ceases to be a human being and becomes a missing person poster, an enigma, paradoxically flattened by the process of documentation. He now exists in Reality, and no longer reality.

The film begins to lose interest in him anyway and seems more concerned with revealing and examining its own methodology. The documentary makers meet like a secret cabal, a paranoiac’s worst nightmare. Their apparent objectivity is compromised by their obvious wish to manipulate and produce a good story. ‘It has to be more like an investigative film,’ the director (Imamura himself) mutters at one point. They use subtitles, not only to tell you who people are in relation to Oshima, but to pass on their own judgements. Why is Oshima’s fiancée known as the Rat? They become increasingly intrusive in the film as the investigation (like an investigation, but not actually an investigation) gets stuck on a hypothesis suggested in the interview with the medium. Was the Rat’s sister having an affair with Oshima? A tense dinner is arranged, which seems like one of those Big Brother moments when the contestants decide to have it out, and during which the sister (aka the Witch) is confronted with both the accusations and a witness (constantly referred to as the Fishmonger) who saw them together.

At this point, Imamura decisively intervenes, literally tearing the walls down and admitting the film to be a fiction, but the slipperiness of the construct and even the admission of fictionality doesn’t stop the film from its relentless pursuit of some larger meaning. This ‘meaning’ has completely erased the man of the title. In fact, if the man just turned up, the film would still go on searching for the ‘meaning’ that is only significant via its absence. It is no coincidence that the street argument that concludes the film (and which anticipates Jerry Springer’s spawn), as well as the argument at the dinner, hinges entirely on the veracity (or otherwise) of two mutually contradictory witnesses. Someone has to be lying for someone to be telling the truth. In fact, even Imamura’s confession that the film is a fiction is to some extent a lie. Oshima did exist and did disappear and the two sisters were real, though the Rat was paid a salary to appear in the film.

The intriguing sequel to this is the fact that Imamura went on to spend the next 10 years working exclusively on television documentaries. It’s almost as if A Man Vanishes represents a cautionary preface, an admission of the problematics before dedicating what was to be a significant chunk of his career to that strange and stained genre.

John Bleasdale