Throughout the course of last year, amid all the tumult and frenzy, I viewed precisely 447 films; around 247 of these were previously unseen, and 151 of which were movies from past years. As is tradition, a New Year yields an evaluation of the one gone by, but, I must confess, there’s still a bevy of releases that I’ve yet to catch up with — ex. The Post — and I can’t fathom the thought of discussing the year in film without granting them thorough consideration.
While I persist in filling in key 2017 blind spots, mainly the holiday pictures, please consider the following unranked list of the crème de la crème from a year of digging through cinema’s past.
The Cloud-Capped Star (dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1960)
Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s reputation is strong among hardcore cinephiles and critics, yet he’s never achieved the kind of mass arthouse appeal awarded to his fellow countryman, Satyajit Ray. (At the time of this writing, only A River Called Titas boasts a U.S. home video release.) His 1960 feature The Cloud-Capped Star, declared by some as his masterwork, combines the social realism prevalent in India’s Parallel cinema with a certain melodramatic sweep and a formally audacious approach to sound design, depicting the life of Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the put-upon daughter of a refugee family, as she sacrifices her own ambitions, hopes, and happiness for the sake of her mostly unappreciative elders and siblings.
It’s rare for a movie to present some semblance of a full life being lived, but, over the course of 134 minutes, Ghatak deftly characterizes the plight of Neeta and her family, avoiding easy victim-narrative traps and reading between their emotional lines so as to suggest the pains of past afflictions (be they personal or social) and the humanity that remains. Confusion and uncertainty of the future percolate the narrative and are writ on the characters’ visages, as the refugee family struggles to endure and assimilate into life in post-partition India.
Ghatak’s stately camera captures the crowdedness of spaces, observing his characters in clustered neighborhoods and bustling cities, even extending a sense of claustrophobia to the cramped living quarters. His expressionistic flourishes include the fracturing of images (few more mesmerizing than an opening credit sequence wherein rippling water distorts the twinkling reflection of the stars) and chiaroscuro lighting, the latter intermittently evincing inner turmoils. A haunting early image, which effectively delineates the imprisoning burden the family imposes on their daughter, envisions Neeta, in foreground and in focus, her face partially obscured by a lattice window frame, staring vacantly at the world outside, while family members argue in the background; when a portion of this image is restaged in the final act, the meaning is reconfigured into something even more despairing. So long as The Cloud-Capped Star receives play in American rep houses, perhaps the Ciniteca di Bologna’s recent digital restoration will generate further interest in Ghatak, not to mention inspire a certain American boutique label to consider producing a home video release. This was my favorite discovery of the year.
Cuadecuc, Vampir (dir. Pere Portabella, 1971)
This Pere Portabella essay film is a curious beast to say the least: it effectively functions as a behind-the-scenes chronicle of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, starring vampire du jour Christopher Lee and Franco muse Soledad Miranda, and, by turn, an inquiry into horror film craftsmanship (now we know how uncomfortable it must be to have those stringy faux-cobwebs applied to one’s face); an abridged Dracula adaptation (akin to those 8mm Castle Films digests of the Universal Monster classics); an examination of film production as a metaphor (stand-in?) for dictatorial institutions (ironically, the government alluded to also happens to be ruled by a Franco). Shot in high contrast monochrome, featuring some of the inkiest shades of black this side of Begotten (at one moment, the shadows under Soledad Miranda’s eyes, a side-effect of being lit from above, morph her face so as to resemble a skull), Portabella’s transfixing document is a riveting watch for both what’s on screen and the suggestion of the modern world lurking just outside the frame. (As an aside, transportation vehicles, chiefly trains and automobiles, form a rather curious visual motif.)
Dragon Inn (dir. King Hu, 1967)
I’m not yet an expert on the wuxia (translated as “martial hero”) film, having only viewed some of the more popular entries (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, etc.), but, of his two pictures I’ve seen, director King Hu has awed me both times with his galvanizing mingling of graceful kinetics and period lore, leaving me intent on devouring the remainder of his oeuvre and further investigating the wuxia cycle. His second feature, and the first he made in Taiwan, Dragon Inn strikes a folk-ish pose, blending historical detail, mythic characterizations, and a certain ambiance recalling Spaghetti Westerns, as it follows a group of martial fighters joining forces and questing to prevent the destruction of a fallen general’s offspring at the hands of the evil eunuch Emperor Tsao. Mayhem and showdowns punctuate their trajectory, the most impressive being a climactic battle on a mountainside. This is one of the most purely entertaining films of the Sixties. Roll on Touch of Zen and Legend of the Mountain!
El Sur (dir. Victor Érice, 1982)
Another portrait of life under General Franco, as weaved by director Victor Érice with his trademark mold of humanism and mournful nostalgia. Light on plot but heavy on evocation, Érice draws parallels between the solipsism of youth and the secrets suffusing family with the troubles and uncertainties permeating Spain at large. With a tone emphasizing contemplation and reflection, as well as sporting numerous visual callbacks to Vermeer and his still lives, one wouldn’t be surprised if Terence Davies drew influence from this. That El Sur remains an unfinished work doesn’t mar its significance in the slightest. To have a film as exemplary as The Spirit of the Beehive in one’s filmography should be enough, but, clearly, that’s not the case with Érice.
Gli Occhi, La Bocca (dir. Marco Bellocchio, 1982)
Dysfunctional families are a mainstay in the work of Marco Bellocchio, and his first feature, Fists in the Pocket, concerned a bourgeois household’s youngest son incrementally enacting the altruistic murder of his family in order to mitigate the burden imposed on his older lawyer brother. The Eyes, The Mouth, which one might call a “meta-sequel” to Fists, finds Bellocchio further excavating these depths in this drama of familial convergence following the suicide of a wealthy son. Fists star Lou Castel heads the cast as an out-of-work actor — his choice of profession suggests an act of defiance — who incites a love affair with his deceased twin brother’s fiancée (Ángela Molina). Bellocchio’s observations regarding class distinction, shifting social/political spheres, the anxieties of parental influence, and the lifelong effects of familial discontent impart a specificity and nuance which would likely be lost, or rendered schematic, with broader characterizations, and, even with a handful of grandiose flourishes and tell-offs, most spearheaded by the Uncle (Michel Piccoli), underlying tensions help foster the claustrophobic, hothouse milieu. Yet it’s the divergent third-act, which might register as too melodramatic for some, wherein the movie leaps from being exceptional to transcendent.
Il Demonio (dir. Brunello Rondi, 1961)
Brunello Rondi is probably best remembered for his screenplays (mainly those written for Fellini), but his directorial career, consisting primarily of gialli, comedies, sexploitation, and a Women-in-Prison effort, is a subject for further study. His premier solo outing after co-directing a Pasolini script, Il Demonio could almost be described as a neo-realist horror film. Set in a provincial Italian town, Rondi paints, in gorgeous black-and-white, a portrait of hardship and unacknowledged mental illness, as villagers oust a peasant woman, Purif (Daliah Lavi), ultimately accusing her of witchcraft. I don’t feel qualified to compose a feminist defense, but, for what it’s worth, Il Demonio’s depiction of patriarchal institutions as oppressive and ruinous is undeniably effective. (The key to this read may very well lie in the title’s gendered noun: “demonio”, and not “demonia”.) The film’s centerpiece, wherein the town priest performs the rite of exorcism, plainly influenced William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1965)
In adapting Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s novel, Sergei Parajanov defied the Soviet film industry’s mandate for socialist realism, favoring fabulist gestures and ecclesiastical iconography. Parajanov’s radical deployment of expressionist color schemes is not foreign to those who’ve seen his Color of Pomegranates, but, here, his formal wizardry serves myth and ethnography, recounting the tragedies which befall Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk), a Hutsul villager living in the Carpathian mountains, with bravura camera gymnastics and splotches of primary colors (sourced from clothing or interior design), the latter contrasting with the rocky grays and wintry whites of the landscape. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in scrutinizing Parajanov’s thumbing of his nose at the Soviets that one could neglect to realize this functions brilliantly if viewed merely as a slice of folklore.
Sparrow (dir. Johnnie To, 2007)
Known in America for propulsive genre fare centering around cops and criminals, triad organizations and the occasional detective (be he mad or blind), Hong Kong journeyman-auteur Johnnie To (Exiled, Election, Drug War) trades in grit for whimsy in this resplendently buoyant crime-caper, a passion project which he shot over the course of several years between other productions. The great Simon Yam fronts a group of male pickpockets, and his infatuation with a lady (Kelly Lin) generates a snowball effect as members of the criminal underworld clash with Yam’s rag-tag gang. Even with no song-and-dance numbers, To runs a movie-musical playbook with heist operations executed, formally and dramatically, with balletic grace and a slow-motion climax (inspired by Jacques Demy) that stands as a model of pure cinema. If you know someone allergic to subtitles, show them this; it might convert them.
Suffer, Little Children (dir. Alan Briggs, 1983)
An unnervingly weird shot-on-video horror outing from the UK, seemingly produced to showcase the budding talent enrolled at the Meg Shanks’ Drama School, which starts with a mute child being dropped on an orphanage’s doorstep and ends with prolonged slaughter and, well, I dare not spoil it. Like the best SOV horror, the clumsy filmmaking and inept acting function to create a state of tremendous unease within the viewer, as if one’s in the presence of something forbidden and potentially dangerous. Easily my favorite discovery of this sort since Science Crazed blew my mind two years ago!
Author: Dan Santelli
Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.