Next in these reviews of the year is things seen on screen. Now that the boundaries between film, television and Netflix have blurred so utterly, it seems foolish to think of the various forms of screen entertainment or instruction as being separate from one another. We separate them only out of habit. Anyway, here are some whimsical choices from a year’s viewing on TV, tablet, mobile, DVD, theatres, aeroplanes and even the occasional cinema.
Best film of the year
Of all the films old and new I saw this year, the late Ermanno Olmi’s L’Albero degli zoccoli / The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) was the best by some considerable distance. It took the news of Olmi’s death in May of this year finally to get me to find three hours free and watch the film. It probably has no equal as a recreation of lives conscribed by particular circumstances, in this case the lives of peasant families in the Bergamo area of northern Italy at the end of the 19th century. It takes a director of uncommon ability to demonstrate such realism and yet let a story unfold, with a tragic ending, that strikes not a single false note. And all this with a cast of non-actors. It is about the inexorability of time. It is a miracle of filmmaking.
Best new film of the year
I did not see enough new films this year to make an informed judgement, but Manbiki Kazoku / Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, feels like a safe choice. It tells of a family (or so they seem) living in poverty in Tokyo, subsisting on theft and other petty crimes. The film excels in making the ordinary extraordinary, not least through devising such exquisite compositions from the hovel in which the family live. It has a lot to say about what is good in us, and how families function. I worried that, after such expert control, the exposition towards the end when truth behind what we have seen is made clear would break the spell, but the film survived it. An entirely good film, for once.
Most disappointing series
Having praised earlier seasons of Better Call Saul, I was particularly disappointed by the failure of season 4. The series as a whole has veered between the episodic and the grand narrative, being at its best when it simply sailed along on style alone. But with the death of Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) at the end of season 3, the series lost its dynamic, and with that lost its way. The two stories of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) stubbornly refused to have anything to do with one another, plot ideas went nowhere, highpoints disappeared, and too much time was given over to pointers that showed how this prequel would eventually lead us to its progenitor series Breaking Bad. Sadly Better Call Saul‘s lack of underlying ideas has finally caught up with it.
Among a succession of Netflix series that I dipped into only quickly to give up when ideas good enough for a pilot failed to sustain a series (The Good Place, Good News etc), the only new series that I thoroughly enjoyed – and then watched all over again -was Disenchantment. This is Matt Groening’s latest effort, and differs noticeably from The Simpsons or Futurama. It is set in a fairytale-like kingdom, with the lead characters being an elf, a rebel princess, and her ‘personal demon’ (he’s a demon). Its strength lies in visual wit rather than gags, and there is more of a narrative thread than in its episodic predecessors. It is a delight to look at, with rich pictorial detail and some running jokes that take you a couple of viewings before you spot them (look out for the squids, for example). The latter episodes of the ten made so far build up the invention and the suspense, which makes the news that a second season has been commissioned very welcome. A new saga is underway.
Guilty viewing secret
I watched all of Friends, then watched it again until the point where they go to London and the whole thing loses its way. It’s the speed of it when at its height. It’s like free jazz. Other sitcoms have had similar gags or characters, but Friends flattens the competition by the permutations it draws out of six lead characters and how their personal stories interweave.
Best robot-made film of the year
When people have asked me what my favourite film of the year is I tell them Zone Out, just to be perverse. I wrote about this surreal work, created by the computer programme Benjamin, back in June. Using found footage from two 60s feature films and self-generated dialogue, it is like nothing else you will have seen. Maybe robots will one day make our video stories for us, and we won’t be able to tell the difference between their work and human productions, but it is will be early examples like this, when they weren’t entirely in control, that the connoisseurs will cherish. As I said in the review, “Benjamin can make films that other filmmakers can only dream of.”
Worst robot-made film of the year
Our robot overlords have a way to go before they can command the television schedules. The BBC Four experiment, Made by Machine: When AI Met the Archive, looked like it was going to be so exciting. We were promised that it was “present a new way of making television, as the BBC uses artificial intelligence to delve into the treasures of the BBC Archive”. So they made a limited amount of archive TV (mostly BBC Four broadcasts that were presumably easy to clear) available to an AI engine, which selected clips based on image recognition, subtitles and emotion. The results were a mess. Such ingenuity was involved, yet the end was no better than if you had chosen it all by some completely random method. An elementary mistake was to use clips with their audio, which militated against the creation of surprise correlations between the images. Of course it is early days, but it was not really wise to expose the limitations of the technology as things stand. Or maybe they should have given the project to Benjamin.
Best drama series
Easy, A Very English Scandal. For those of us who can remember Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberals in the 1970s, Hugh Grant wasn’t just like him, he was Jeremy Thorpe. It was there in the eyes. Uncanny.
Worst film of the year
I have two candidates, but have put the second under ‘Most disappointing film’, since it had some redeeming features. The Shape of Water had none. The Academy always does badly when it tries to award Art (see The English Patient, for example). It was a silly, misbegotten fable leaning far too heavily on borrowed ideas that just didn’t gel. It was Splash without the humour. Or even the basic filmmaking competence.
Most disappointing film
I first made comments on Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old back in January, when film had no title and all that there was to see was a single still. I was alarmed by the idea of colourising WWI archive film, particularly the implication that black-and-white archive films were somehow a denial of historical understanding, but obviously it was essential to see the film. As I said at the time, “It could be brilliantly done, and brilliance becomes its own justification.” Well, it was anything but brilliant. The acclaim the film has received (it has made many film-of-the-year lists) baffles me. I recognise that people were moved by it, that they found revelatory, even more truthful than that to which they were accustomed. But to me it was so false. The colour was laid onto its subjects rather than growing out of the source material (which is of course the case). Moreover, it was so clumsily made, with the repeated cross-cutting from the men in trenches (with blown-up images suffering from loss of resolution) to the tanks being particularly gauche. The use of oral history material was, however, well done, and its pacey inventiveness may have been the real reason why the film excited so much passion. Maybe finer colour films will be made out of our black-and-white inheritance, and then it will be interesting to think if this is a gimmick or whether something profound is happening to our understanding of the purpose of archive film. Meanwhile, Peter Jackson would be better off making radio.
DVD of the year
It’s the award-winning Kinemacolor and Other Magic of course, because there was genuine colour film 100 years ago, and this fine production shows off the best of it. You will have included in your letter to Santa, of course. I just hope you have been good.
Best screen experience of the year
I don’t know what to call a live theatre production that you see relayed into a cinema. It’s not theatre, it’s not cinema, it’s not television, it’s not online video, yet at the same time it is all of those. ‘Streamed theatre’ is a terrible phrase, at any rate. We need something better. Anyway, the tickets were way too expensive to see the London production live, so I went to the Woodville in Gravesend to see the Duke of York Theatre production of King Lear beamed into the venue. Ian McKellen as Lear was outstanding. He controlled the whole piece, so wisely. Some Shakespearean heads say that King Lear cannot be staged in all its depth and contradictions. The many complex elements defy the efforts of mere humans to make them work together on stage. But it depends on your Lear. Although it was not a perfect production in itself, with some uneven casting (a rather one-note Cordelia), everything fell into place because of McKellen’s understanding of Lear as the changing fulcrum point. He showed how the play so adroitly frames Lear’s fall, as he turns from a man in control of the elements to one completely at their mercy. As he changes, so do all those around him, because he is still the king, and all they can do is take their cue from him. That is what makes the tragedy. McKellen is a wise actor.