By Preston Wilder
The ‘best’ movie moment of the past 12 months took place on February 26, 2017, the night of the Academy Awards. That was the night when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway reunited, 50 years after Bonnie and Clyde, to announce La La Land as the winner of the Best Picture Oscar – only for the stunned celebrity audience to be told, after Team LLL had come onstage and the winners had embarked on emotional speeches, that a terrible mistake had been made, Warren and Faye had been given the wrong envelope, and the real Best Picture winner was actually Moonlight! 32.9 million viewers gasped in shock, babbled excitedly, then furiously Tweeted the title of Warren’s recent (unsuccessful) Howard Hughes film: ‘Rules don’t apply’.
It’s tempting to use those three words as shorthand for the current State of Cinema, but in fact the rules stopped applying years ago. Indeed, part of the reason why that envelope mix-up resonated so strongly – in addition to providing a touch of Must-See TV to a ceremony known for being overlong and predictable – was perhaps the way it confirmed the old order, represented by a pair of septuagenarian movie stars, as a stumbling, error-prone wreck, its rules now irrelevant. If the same mistake had happened at the MTV Video Music Awards it’d probably have gone down as a crazy rock’n roll moment, like Kanye’s infamous “Imma let you finish” intervention in 2009. At the Oscars it just seemed embarrassing, like your dad momentarily blanking on the names of his grandkids.
Then again, the fact that Moonlight triumphed over La La Land – and that it happened so pointedly and dramatically – was a sign of hope, at least for some people. There are two ‘conversations’ about pop culture, the popular and the cultural. The popular has long since shifted from film to TV, the buzz over Stranger Things (last year) and Game of Thrones (this year) eclipsing the buzz for any Hollywood movie with the possible exception of Rogue One. The cultural, at least in America – and increasingly elsewhere – has become mired in political correctness, so that a drama about a black gay man is ipso facto worthier than a musical about privileged white people. Much of this is awfully simplistic, so for instance Wonder Woman is feted as proof that audiences want to see an action film with a female star and director while Underworld: Blood Wars – which ticks the same boxes, and offers a conspicuously non-sexist climax into the bargain – is conveniently ignored. It’s fair to say that, for a cinephile who cares about the art of movies, both conversations are deeply depressing at the moment.
Here in Cyprus, meanwhile, we have bigger problems: never mind conversing about movies, it’s becoming difficult even to see them. The annual tradition of our Sunday Mail rundown coming out in mid-summer dates from a time when local cinemas slowed down in July and August, offering respite from new releases. This year, however, we could easily have run this piece at any time since early May, when the number of new films at the multiplex dropped dramatically. By my calculations, in the 13 weekends since April 30, seven (including this one, barring an obscure local documentary literally added at the last moment) had only one new film opening – and some of those films were obvious no-hopers like The Assignment and Once Upon a Time in Venice. This is unprecedented, and suggests that commercial cinemas may have decided to screen only brand-names from now on – i.e. sequels and superhero flicks – interspersed with cheap filler. Our big-screen horizons may become even narrower in 2017-18.
Big-screen horizons were narrow in the past 12 months as well, even allowing for the lively contribution of film societies (the Nicosia one, in particular, is eclectic almost to a fault, collaborating with national embassies to offer tidbits like a week of Portuguese movies). Still, I didn’t have much trouble coming up with 10 worthwhile titles – and that’s not even counting the most important aspect of 2016-17, namely the presence of Cypriot films.
Two local features played the multiplex this year, The Story of the Green Line and Boy on the Bridge – and both did well (especially Green Line), giving the lie to the theory that no market exists for Cypriot cinema. Even more encouragingly, both were crisp, briskly-paced (especially Boy on the Bridge, which comes in at 85 minutes) and produced with an audience in mind, unlike Cypriot films of old which tended to be wildly self-indulgent. Best of all was Rosemarie, another Cypriot film which played (and won first prize) at Cyprus Film Days in April, and may be the most accomplished movie we’ve ever made in this country – unless that title goes to bicommunal comedy Smuggling Hendrix (which I haven’t yet seen), made from an award-winning script on a sizeable budget. Both of those should be out in the next few months, raising hopes that Cyprus can blossom in 2018 even as Hollywood shuts down.
Meanwhile, we had various bits and bobs to keep us going: memorable moments and images, even in not-so-good films. The unsettlingly avid presence of Eva Green, like a Goth Mary Poppins, in the otherwise tedious Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Mel Gibson’s fierce Old Testament beard in Blood Father. Batman and Robin meeting for the first time – “My name’s Richard Grayson, but the other kids call me Dick”; “Well, children can be cruel” – in The Lego Batman Movie. Steve Coogan as an intellectual sociopath in The Dinner, looking at the wine list in a fancy restaurant and declaring it “an act of war”. The 18-rated food orgy that climaxes Sausage Party. The fat naked ladies at the start of Nocturnal Animals. The psychedelic scenes in Doctor Strange. Renton explaining “Choose life” in the Trainspotting sequel. Tom Holland falling over himself in his eagerness to please as a teenage Spider-Man. The five scariest words in the bureaucratic lexicon (“All information is available online”) in I, Daniel Blake, shown at the Friends of the Cinema. The Minions’ rendition of ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’, in Minion-ese.
All that, and also these: my Top 10 films shown in Cyprus cinemas in the past year, in ascending order.
10. I feel like a parent with a screaming child in a supermarket: ‘OK, you can have one superhero film on the list – but only one!’. If I had to choose I’d go for Logan – a very untypical superhero film, sombre and tormented and ultra-violent, with Hugh Jackman as a self-loathing Wolverine dying from the inside. He’s like Shane in the 50s, a killer who no longer has a place in polite society – but Shane was never so convincingly apocalyptic, up to and including Johnny Cash singing ‘The Man Comes Around’ over the closing credits.
9. Attack of the Oldies, Part 1. Café Society, directed by 80-year-old Woody Allen, was shown almost a year ago – but I still recall its extraordinary, wide-open ending, capping a diffuse but very beautiful statement on Life’s essential randomness. Bleakly funny but surprisingly touching, a love story – played by Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, with his “deer-in-the-headlights quality” – in which love burns brightest only after it’s been lost forever. Oh, Woody…
8. Attack of the Oldies, Part 2. Sully, directed by 86-year-old Clint Eastwood, came out in September – but I still recall Tom Hanks’ wistful, self-doubting decency as Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who miraculously (or just misguidedly) landed a stricken plane in the Hudson River, and the film’s vivid recreation of the disaster, and Sully’s friendly but slightly edgy banter with co-pilot Aaron Eckhart, and above all the climax where Sully – a flawed human being in a world of algorithms – pleads with his superiors to “make it human”. Some called it stodgy, missing the beating heart beneath its disaster-movie surface. Will any new directors be allowed 40 years to hone their craft, as Clint and Woody have done?
7. No-one ever called The Fate of the Furious stodgy – though some Fast & Furious fans didn’t appreciate the Marvel-isation in this eighth instalment, with Charlize Theron as a supervillain bent on world domination. Still the pinnacle of this long-running franchise, blending James Bond, comic-book movie, comedy and heart with some bone-crunching fights and the spectacle of cars being abused in the usual exhilarating stunts. Remember when Dominic Toretto ‘goes rogue’, then goes back to being his usual happy-slaphead self in the final act? Lump in throat, seriously.
6. I’m cheating a little here – but the superb Lemesos Documentary Festival kicks off next week (it runs from August 1 to 8) and I’ll probably have forgotten that they’re showing One More Time With Feeling if I wait till next year. This is a documentary about Nick Cave making his new album, Skeleton Tree – but it’s actually about Nick Cave’s personal tragedy, the death of his teenage son Arthur in an accident in 2015. The death hangs over the recordings, going unmentioned for a long time then finally confronted with eloquence and dignity. Can the music exorcise the demon? Can anything? A haunting, quietly devastating movie.
5. More cheating: Dunkirk isn’t from last year, having actually opened this weekend – and a full review will be coming next Sunday, but let’s briefly say that Christopher Nolan’s grave, restrained look back to “their finest hour” avoids almost every pitfall of the modern war film, being neither jingoistic nor sensationalist nor even reflexively ‘anti-war’. Put down this newspaper (or turn off your screen), get in the car and go watch this movie.
4. “The days of robbin’ banks and tryin’ to live to spend the money – they’re long gone,” notes a restaurant patron, one of many philosophical Texans adding sidelong commentary to the splendid, endlessly quotable Hell or High Water. Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) do indeed rob banks, though their crimes pale beside those committed by the banks; whether they’ll live to spend the money is a moot point – but the film finds a mood of noble defeatism, set in a lean, snappy, self-conscious West where men treat their feelings like a hot potato. All this, and Jeff Bridges too.
3. Can we ever say enough good things about Get Out? It works as horror, actually a sly variation on The Stepford Wives. It works as darkly comic character-piece, powered by a fine lead performance. It obviously works as topical, Black Lives Matter-ish political comment. I guess one could quibble that the climax, though cathartic, is a bit too simplistically violent – but why quibble, when the film is so accomplished? Special kudos to Betty Gabriel, as the funniest sinister housekeeper since Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein.
2. Thank you to the Ministry of Culture, Rialto Theatre and whoever else is responsible for Cyprus Film Days, the annual highlight of our cinematic year – and this year’s line-up wasn’t perfect but Neruda was surprisingly ambitious and creative, Manchester By the Sea and The Salesman were just as great as everyone said they were, and the excellent Raw (a.k.a. the French female cannibal movie) was a bold addition, eagerly lapped up by a surprisingly adventurous audience. And of course we got Rosemarie and Boy on the Bridge, as already mentioned. Thanks, guys.
1. Cyprus Film Days should perhaps have been No. 1 – but I can’t resist coming full-circle, especially after the shallow criticisms hurled at La La Land in the weeks before its Oscar (non-)triumph. No, this is not escapism. No, it’s not nostalgia. No, it’s not about the problems of glossy middle-class people. It’s about the notion of romantic ideals – whether that ideal is being in love, or creating art, or the effortless artifice of old Hollywood musicals – and the crushing realisation that life gets in the way: love fades, art is compromised, and nothing ever comes effortlessly. (Did no-one else notice that the film’s ending riffs on the ending of The Last Temptation of Christ?) Should it have won Best Picture? Yes, because it’s better than Moonlight – but also no, because then we’d have been deprived of that priceless mix-up, something to look back on as we head into 2017-18. Poor Warren Beatty…