By Preston Wilder
Readers know the drill, we’ve been doing it long enough. Once a year, in late July or early August (the timing linked to the fact that the local scene slows down in mid-summer), we count down the top 10 films shown in local cinemas over the past ‘season’. This year, however, my No. 1 experience watching films on the big screen in Cyprus – the most devastating, most shattering thing I saw at the cinema – won’t be No. 1 on our list, in fact it’s not even eligible. That was Distant Sky, the Nick Cave concert movie, shown at the Pantheon in Nicosia a couple of months ago.
I like Cave a lot, but not obsessively. Going in, I wouldn’t have thought a visual record of a performance he (and the Bad Seeds) gave in Copenhagen in October 2017 would affect me so deeply. But we’re so used to the cinema as a place for telling stories, we forget how good it is at everything else too. Watching Cave sing his heart out (especially in the wake of his recent family tragedy) and watching him loom on the screen, larger than life, as if from the front row of the Copenhagen Royal Arena, surrounded by the hushed, attentive presence of – I hoped – equally awed strangers… it was just overwhelming. I felt goosebumps during ‘Higgs Bosun Blues’, a lump in the throat during ‘The Mercy Seat’; I was a limp, sobbing wreck throughout the glorious, eight-plus minutes of ‘Jubilee Street’. By the time Nick got to ‘The Weeping Song’, I was too far gone even to appreciate the irony.
Distant Sky isn’t really a movie, though; it’s an event. Even leaving aside its lack of cinematic ambition – it’s a faithful recreation, not an imaginative metaphor like, say, Stop Making Sense – it was never properly released, and still hasn’t been; instead it played in cinemas around the world for one night only, April 12. Indeed, you might say there were two men responsible for my indelible experience on that April night. One was Nick Cave; the other (also iconic, in his own way) was George Papageorgiou, the veteran theatre-owner who decided to re-open the Pantheon in January, showing one-offs like Distant Sky – and similar concerts by Muse and Eric Clapton, neither of which I saw – as well as movies.
The return of the Pantheon was the biggest film-related news of 2017-18 in Cyprus – though I’m not sure anyone noticed. Even Distant Sky, so I hear, only drew about 80 people, a meagre audience for a one-night-only event being shown simultaneously around the world. Only five feature films have been screened at the Pantheon since January, a couple of which (Loving Vincent and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) did very well – but it remains to be seen if the only cinema in the centre of Nicosia, and the only one venturing beyond Hollywood product, can be a going concern in the current climate.
On the one hand, the Pantheon confirms, yet again, the insight first expressed by Godfrey Cheshire in an oft-quoted essay called ‘The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema’ 20 years ago: viz., that cinemas in the future will be more likely to show communal events – World Cup finals, Game of Thrones season finales – while actual standalone movies are likely to be relegated to the living-room and the small screen, the better to be savoured without annoying patrons texting and talking. Papageorgiou’s business model is forward-thinking, showing not just concerts but also operas, ballets, filmed plays; in the age of YouTube, one moving image is much the same as another. On the other hand, the Pantheon also confirms (yet again) that the audience in Cyprus has shrunk to an extent that may be unmanageable. Even the multiplex is struggling, beyond the narrow confines of Star Wars and Marvel.
The appetite for movies hasn’t changed, only the delivery system; so we keep telling ourselves, pointing to the fact that young people are watching more moving images (albeit mostly on their phones and computers) than ever before. Hope springs eternal – and this past year, for instance, was a banner year for the Cypriot film industry, with Marios Piperides’ Smuggling Hendrix winning Best International Narrative Feature at Tribeca and Tonia Mishiali’s Pause opening at Karlovy Vary. (Also notable: 20-something Myrsini Aristidou, whose shorts have been winning plaudits at major festivals; her latest, Aria, was a nominee for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.) Then again, back in Cyprus, this was also the year when Adonis Florides’ Rosemarie – a flawed but ambitious drama, with a strain of black comedy and a good deal to say about Cyprus society – opened at the K-Cineplex and played for a paltry two weeks, one performance only. As with the Pantheon, it’s a case of quixotic attempts in the face of an impossible situation. How’s a film culture going to take root here, when most people seem uninterested in connecting?
Maybe it won’t. Maybe we’re doomed to remain uncultured – but it’s hard to be too pessimistic when the next great film (moving image, whatever) can come from literally anywhere. Making movies has never been easier, people just need to stop checking Instagram on their phones and start using them as cameras. And of course we don’t require films to be great; mildly entertaining will do, such is the power of the medium.
“Four stars?!?!?! REALLY?!?! I mean, come on!” went an indignant reader comment when I gave that rating to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – but in fact I still giggle at The Rock prodding his muscles to check if they’re real in that movie, or Karen Gillan doing a ‘sexy’ dance as a shy teen in the body of a videogame hottie. (Speaking of reader comments, I’d also like to apologise to the screenwriter of the Antonio Banderas action flick Security, who found my bad review a few months ago and left a deeply-hurt riposte; nothing personal, sir.) Even not-so-great movies had their moments last year, keeping us pleasantly diverted as the world – by all accounts – went to hell.
Rachel McAdams coquettishly fielding a compliment from a thug who’s about to kill her in Game Night. Charlize Theron packing a lifetime of weariness in the single word “Same” in Tully. (Also a film, lest we forget, with a dog named Prosecco.) Four older ladies giving their all in Book Club, despite Candice Bergen’s mordant comment that “If women our age were supposed to have sex, God wouldn’t do what He does to our bodies”. The evil clown seducing little Georgie in the opening (and best) scene of It. A pile of fresh corpses dumped in the woods in The Promise, a.k.a. the Armenian-genocide movie. Adam Driver preparing a vodka cocktail with only one arm in Logan Lucky. Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while loudly singing ‘The Hokey Pokey’ in the pleasantly twisted surprise that was Mom and Dad. Mel Gibson’s scowl in Daddy’s Home 2. Javier Bardem’s little pot belly in Loving Pablo. Jeff Goldblum’s cat-that-swallowed-the-canary grin in Thor: Ragnarok. The opening credits of The Commuter. That Moment when all goes silent in The Last Jedi.
Honourable Mentions for the year might include Paddington 2, Happy Death Day, Wonder, plus the aforementioned Jumanji sequel. Here, however, in ascending order, are my Top 10 films shown in Cyprus cinemas over the past 12 months:
10. If you’d told me a Young Adult novel with a social-justice streak would feature on my list, I’d have laughed in your face – yet Every Day is surprisingly lovely, investing its potentially didactic ‘We’re all the same’ premise with a very touching hope and idealism. Groundhog Day plotting, a charming lead performance by Angourie Rice as the girl who falls in love with the shape-shifting ‘A’, and wildly romantic use of The The’s classic ‘This Is the Day’. Best teen movie of the year, no question.
9. “An instant classic in the ‘Movies Your Dad Will Love’ genre,” writes a snarky youngster on film-review site Letterboxd – and Beirut is indeed a bit old-fashioned, as befits a script written 25 years ago, set in a city that resonates most strongly with children of the 80s. A wallow in war-zone chic, to be sure – but also very slick, with a swagger in the writing and performances, a more nuanced Bourne film without any bone-crunching action, just some jaded old pros trying to do the right thing. Your dad will love it too, probably.
8. Did Khruschev and Beria really engage in an unseemly tussle to be the first to console Stalin’s daughter? Did the weak, equivocating Malenkov really say “No problem”, then change it (when he saw his position was unpopular) to “No! Problem!”? All hail The Death of Stalin – and all hail Armando Ianucci, whose political sense is perhaps a tad unsophisticated (he tends to view politicians like kids in a playground, swearing and yelling at each other) but still makes for gut-punch, pitch-black political comedy. A hilarious farce that’s also very bleak, getting at something truly horrifying: an entire country in the grip of Stockholm syndrome.
7. Eco-minded scientists find a way to save the world – namely, Downsizing, i.e. shrinking down to micro-size. Ordinary people, however, couldn’t care less about the planet: they just know that, in an economy geared to normal-sized people, being small allows you to live like a king! The least recommendable film on this list (it’s uneven, overlong, sometimes dull), but perhaps the most grown-up: an incisive, deeply-felt satire, both cynical and compassionate.
6. “A Welsh rarebit, with a poached egg on top, please. Not too runny…” Daniel Day-Lewis already has three Oscars but could plausibly have won another one in Phantom Thread, if only for the way he turns ordering breakfast into an act of seduction. DDL is Reynolds Woodcock (!), a fashion designer and high-end dressmaker in 1950s London; he sets his cap at a new conquest – Vicky Krieps as Alma – but feels his authority draining away, the controlling patriarch finally exposed as a hollow shell. A strange film, too slow for some tastes, but extraordinary.
5. Pixar, part 1: Hollywood’s top animation studio had a great 12 months (if you exclude losing head honcho John Lasseter to a MeToo-related scandal) – and Incredibles 2 is almost as good as the original, an inventive ride that’s smarter and funnier than 90 per cent of big-studio ’toons. A bike vs. train chase is thrilling, a raccoon vs. baby brawl is even better – and there’s even a little something for chaperones too: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act”.
4. Pixar, part 2: Incredibles 2 is great fun – but Coco is something else again. What demented genius thought that eight-year-olds would welcome a morbid (and Mexican-themed) drama about art and mortality, with the kind of overwhelmingly moving ending you’d have to be at least middle-aged to fully appreciate? Whoever they are, we salute them.
3. No disrespect to Sam Rockwell, who won Best Supporting Actor this year – but the Oscar really should’ve gone to Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, as the year’s most unnerving and perversely hilarious villain. ‘Unnerving and perversely hilarious’ also applies to this mind-blowing movie, a viscerally gripping psychological thriller that gets under your skin, the camera prowling through cavernous corridors in a nod to The Shining while Colin Farrell presides over a rapidly-disintegrating bourgeois family. Keoghan wasn’t even nominated, of course.
2. Maybe it’s me, but none of the big annual festivals seemed to really connect this year. Even Cyprus Film Days, our jewel in the crown, was a bit underwhelming, maybe because the Nicosia half was so front-loaded – but at least we had Lucky, which was lucky, since the film is quite beautiful. Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky, a 90-year-old atheist living in the shadow of death; he does his morning exercises, hangs out at the local bar – and insists on a stubborn, dignified individualism, refusing to measure others’ lives by his own, or vice versa. Stanton died two weeks before the film came out, aged 91; he couldn’t have wished for a better swansong.
1. From a noble old age to the pleasures of youth. It’s easy to see the case against Call Me By Your Name, a love story set in a ‘privileged’ milieu – the houses are too big, the people are too pretty – yet no other film this year had such grace, such life force, such joie de vivre. Elio’s 17, Oliver a good few years older – but their burgeoning romance isn’t creepy (as some joyless people claimed), it’s part of the prodigious hunger for life that comes with youth, the scurrying energy that wants to try everything. “Our hearts, and our bodies, are given to us only once,” says a wise dad – and the film (shown, appropriately, at the Pantheon) is yearning, nostalgic, open-minded, and fuelled by a star-making lead performance. Is there anything I can say against this exuberant masterpiece? Well, it’s no Distant Sky.