Cyprus Mail

The best of the last year of cinema

By Preston Wilder

I’ve been doing this for years, ‘this’ being a recap of the films released in Cyprus over the past 12 months – cleverly timed for mid-summer, when the local scene ebbs into near-hibernation – but this year is different, because of the context. I’ve just returned from two months devoted to a personal project (making a film of my own, as it happens), granting me a certain perspective I haven’t had in previous years. In the past eight weeks I’ve only watched two new releases at the cinema (Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and caught up with another (Dom Hemingway) on video. My reluctant verdict? I didn’t miss much.

In effect, I’ve been living the past two months as an ordinary punter – neither paid nor expected to watch films regularly, viewing the multiplex as a very occasional luxury. It’s clear to me now why people always talk about TV shows, seldom about new movies – though I still don’t get how the folks who have ‘no time’ to go to the cinema find the requisite hours to watch entire seasons of Hannibal or True Detective. TV is there, like the family dog, eager to wag its tail for you, engendering feelings of love even if you can’t really talk to it. Film is what happens in faraway places like multiplexes and DVD shops (such as they are), accessible only on telly – but why not watch a show instead? – and through the dodgy conduit of illegal downloads. Films used to be an intimate part of the average person’s life. That link is broken.

The multiplex is now something more (or less) than a place to watch movies. It’s a place to hang out with friends, part of the whole mall experience. It’s a babysitter, hence the endless parade of kids’ cartoons that stay at the cinema, taking up valuable space, for weeks and weeks. Above all it’s a circus, a country fair, a sound-and-light show. On my most recent trip, to watch the Apes sequel (better than the first one!), I arrived early, even before the adverts – bracing myself for that mind-boggling ad which suggests that wars could be ended, and world peace achieved, if we all wore the same deodorant – and sat there listening to tinny techno music in the empty auditorium. “Don’t want to think too much / Just turn the music up / I like it loud,” sang Carmen Electra. A perfect précis of the typical big-screen experience.

Superheroes, Greek myths, by-the-numbers threequels: loud and mindless fairground attractions, week after week – and in fact it’s getting worse rather than better. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that “Hollywood is giving up on comedy”, cutting back sharply on that genre because comedies don’t do well in markets (like China) where most people don’t speak English. Not that Hollywood comedies are anything to shout (or laugh) about, but still: an ever-narrower diet of monsters and action movies beckons. No wonder many viewers save their love – the passion that once fed cinephilia – for Game of Thrones.

Still, as I take stock of my own passion after 12 months (and two months away), I refuse to despair. The first glimmer of hope is that this situation can’t last much longer; it just isn’t viable. The studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars making films that only appeal to a small niche, the gangs of texting teens who ‘like it loud’. China’s now rescuing the bottom line, going through its own belated multiplex revolution – no accident that the new Transformers is full of product placement for Chinese products – but how long before the novelty wears off, as it has in Cyprus? Already I suspect our cinemas might close down if it weren’t for the babysitter syndrome, the reliable custom of harried parents with offspring in tow. You can’t keep an art-form going on the squeals of distracted toddlers.

There’s another glimmer of hope. This year, for the first time, Cypriot films were a visible presence on the local landscape. This new wave (which, full disclosure, I suppose I’m now a part of) may be just coincidence, may derive from the economic crisis – which, paradoxically, has encouraged production by forcing technicians to work for less – or may be just a trend whose time has come. Whatever the case, the films have ranged from To Pouli tis Kyprou, made by TV comic Loris Loizides and now (I believe) the most successful Cypriot film of all time, to Committed, made in English for a relative pittance by Limassol-based filmmaker Stelana Kliris. They’ve included films by veterans like Michael Papas, whose kiddie adventure Little Odysseus and the Cyclops came out last Easter, and films like Ta Kalytera Mas Chronia, a teen comedy from Paphos which appears to have been made for a laugh – but still nabbed a week at the local Rio.

Whether any of these films will travel outside Cyprus remains to be seen – but the point is their cumulative effect inside Cyprus, letting filmgoers see themselves as part of a movement, not just passive consumers of products designed and built by foreigners in a foreign country. On TV, significantly, despite pockets of passion for the likes of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, all the most popular shows are Greek or Cypriot. It’s unlikely that anything similar will happen with films (and god knows 99 per cent of local TV is pretty awful) – but the point is to offer an alternative, so grown-ups don’t feel totally alienated from the world of cinema.

Will a local industry spring up? We can but hope – and meanwhile, of course, there are lots of excellent films being made outside Hollywood (you just have to seek them out), and even the small selection that played on a big screen in Cyprus over the past 12 months included a number of gems. Here’s a Top 10 of sorts, with Honourable Mention going to 12 Years a Slave, The Act of Killing (shown at last year’s Limassol Documentary Festival) and the scene in Rush where Niki Lauda demonstrates to the girl that he is indeed a Formula One driver.

10. Provocation is a fine thing in our cotton-wool world of political correctness; Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac isn’t really a great film, but it’s a great provocation. I prefer Volume 2, when Joe (our heroine) starts dabbling in deviant sexual behaviour like a shocking S&M relationship – but the whole film is thought-provoking, and hopefully offered something more to the raincoat brigade who predictably descended on the Friends of the Cinema Society. “Fill all my holes!”

9. I keep feeling I’ve underrated Before Midnight, the third instalment in the ongoing saga of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke). There’s one bad scene, a stilted lunchtime discussion with various Greek actors (and non-actors) trading banalities, which kept me from embracing it fully – but I thank the movie gods for the myriad perfect details, the final 40-minute argument (one of the great married-couple back-and-forths in film history, ranking with similar quarrels in Contempt and Scenes From a Marriage), and of course for the fact that something so subtle, wordy and incisive appeared at the multiplex in the first place.

8. We’re on the Snowpiercer, a train – a “rattling ark” – snaking around a dead world, carrying the survivors of an icy apocalypse. Two armies meet, ready to fight. They stand there, nose to nose and muscle to muscle; then someone produces … a fish! This sci-fi parable from Korean director Bong Joon-ho is grandly ambitious and often ridiculous, veering from action to social comment to broad comedy – but its willingness to be absurd is part of what makes it stunning. Line to quote: “It’s easier to survive on this train with some level of insanity”.

7. The Friends of the Cinema Society went for national cinemas this year, resulting in a lot of filler (albeit French and Italian filler, as opposed to American filler). Yes – but Young & Beautiful is among the best French films of 2013, a diffuse but elegant and deceptively serious look at that most mysterious of creatures, a 17-year-old girl. Her unruly sex life and secret moralism (all those showers!), her cool appraisal of adult hypocrisy, her conspicuous nonchalance, her green eyes and freckles in extreme close-up: it’s all here.

6. “Is my cock exquisite?” thunders Jude Law as Dom Hemingway, and the heart sinks slightly. Oh no, not another violent British crime flick with gangsters spouting florid lines in between killing people. That’s the genre, admittedly – but this wildly entertaining comedy locates the pathetic dinosaur in Dom’s posturing, makes him both charismatic and self-destructive, and illustrates (surprisingly) that no-one beats Jude Law when it comes to a foul-mouthed diatribe. Note to self: remember to say “Cossacks sodomising my cranium” next time I’m nursing a hangover.

5. The premise (‘man falls in love with his computer’) is hilarious. The reality is that Her is a slow, melancholy film – a velvety, pastel-coloured, often profound, altogether wonderful film that surprised everyone by staying in local cinemas for weeks on end. As the lonely man, Joaquin Phoenix does one of his best-ever lonely men; as Samantha, the voice of his computer’s operating system – a disembodied object of desire – Scarlett Johansson is miraculous.

4. “Did you enjoy the performance?” asks a scarily bad performance artist with a Soviet flag painted on her vagina. “Parts of it,” replies Toni Servillo, summoning all his powers of pained politesse. That may be how I feel about The Great Beauty – yet most of the parts in this epic Italian take on La Dolce Vita are either dazzling or funny, and the concept is majestic, style self-consciously applied to conceal a gaping hollowness. Servillo is Jep Gambardella, a writer and seducer looking back on the past – a lifetime of empty pleasure, and failing to find “the great beauty”. Magnificent.

3. A painting called ‘Boy With Apple’. A letter marked ‘CONFIDENTIAL’. A purple cap reading ‘Lobby Boy’ (I believe it comes in cobalt blue as well). Talk of “scribe’s fever” and another mysterious ailment, an “absurd little disease” called the Prussian grippe. Mention of the obviously fictional – yet weirdly plausible – Maltese Riviera and Dutch Tanganyika. All these things (and many more) appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the year’s most enjoyable film. I can say no more.

2. Woody Allen had a bad year, for reasons unconnected to filmmaking – but Blue Jasmine is that rare thing (even rarer for Woody nowadays), a character-driven film that simply works, totally and triumphantly. Cate Blanchett won an Oscar as Jasmine, fallen on hard times and teetering close to the edge, but in fact the whole cast is excellent; Allen may not be a great dramatist, but his brisk, unsentimental quality is exactly what this material needs. A triumph.

1. Pedants and sticklers should pretend that I named Only Lovers Left Alive as my Film of the Year – but in fact I’m naming Cyprus Film Days, the mid-April festival that featured Jim Jarmusch’s sly, atmospheric vampire movie on its slate. In truth, the slate wasn’t very rich this year – though the Mexican semi-comedy Club Sandwich was another big highlight – but what really mattered was the experience, a week of intense movie-watching comprising everything from US indies (This is Martin Bonner by Chad Hartigan, who surprised us by admitting he’d been born in Nicosia), Venezuelan dramas (Bad Hair) and local fare like the aforementioned Committed.

We sat, we gaped, we drank it all in: the communal filmgoing experience – still alive, just about, as we stagger punch-drunk into 2014-15…

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