2019: What did it look like?

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For all sorts of reasons, I’ve been slow to update what I think of as the “original blog”. It’s partly because of politics, a grey area that was once totally off limits, when I was a broadcaster for the BBC during what may come to be nostalgically looked back upon as its “state-funded heyday”, and still presents challenges at the advertiser-funded commercial broadcaster Global, home of the microphone with my name on it, Classic FM. I have the same political thoughts and opinions as I have always done, and as everyone does, but these are ill-suited to my current radio show, whose very name Saturday Night at the Movies genuflects towards a very clear brief. I continue to oversee the Film section of Radio Times, another job I love, and one that has expanded to include commissioning as well as writing. The fast flowering of streaming services and other digital outlets for movies brings even greater depth and availability, which means, for instance, the joy of playing film scores, themes and cues that are not necessarily from the biggest blockbusters, nor the most seasoned classics.

Five years into my time at Classic FM, and a staggering 20 at Radio Times, I am right to feel duty-bound to list my favourite films of 2019 and the music I have enjoyed from an even wider net. Here, then, belatedly, are those subjective favourites of 2019, before we get swept up into 2020’s haste and awards-season flurry.

Scroll down for My Favourite Films first released or streamed in the UK during 2019 [my Top 20, in no order, are in bold]

PS: It pleases me that so many films I rated this year are about families. That must say something? The families exist on the margins, in many cases, and that’s profound too.

  • Colette | Wash Westmoreland | US
  • Stan & Ollie | Jon S. Baird | UK
  • If Beale Street Could Talk | Barry Jenkins | US
  • Vice | Adam McKay | US
  • Ray & Liz | Richard Billingham | UK
  • Missing Link | Chris Butler | US
  • Rosie | Paddy Breathnach | Ireland
  • The White Crow | Ralph Fiennes | UK/France
  • Pick of the Litter | Dana Nachman, Don Hardy | US
  • Thunder Road | Jim Cummings | US
  • Minding the Gap | Bing Liu | US
  • Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes | Sophie Huber | Switzerland
  • Vox Lux | Brady Corbet | US
  • Girl | Lukas Dhont | Belgium/Netherlands
  • Tolkien | Dome Karukoski | US
  • At Eternity’s Gate | Julian Schnabel | France/UK/US
  • The Quake | John Andreas Andersen | Norway (2018)
  • Being Frank | Steve Sullivan | UK
  • The Current War | Alfonso Gomez-Rejon | US
  • Blinded by the Light | Gurinder Chadha | UK
  • Gloria Bell | Sebastian Lelio | US/Chile
  • Fyre | Chris Smith | US
  • Rolling Thunder Revue | Martin Scorsese | US
  • The Black Godfather | Reginal Hudlin | US
  • The Flood | Anthony Woodley | UK
  • She’s Missing | Alexandra McGuinness | Ireland
  • Inna de Yard | Simon Webber | France
  • American Woman | Jake Scott | US
  • The Report | Scott Z. Burns | US
  • Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk | Jason Baffa | US
  • Only You | Harry Wootliff | UK
  • Fighting with my Family | Stephen Merchant | UK/US
  • Ibiza: The Silent Movie | Julien Temple | UK
  • Support the Girls | Andrew Bujalski | US
  • Memory: the Origins of Alien | Alexandre O. Philippe | US
  • Long Shot | Jonathan Levine | US
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon | Will Becher, Richard Phelan | UK
  • Hitsville: The Making of Motown | Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner | US
  • The Front Runner | Jason Reitman | US
  • Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love | Nick Broomfield | UK
  • Making Waves: the Art of Cinematic Sound | Midge Costin | US
  • The Souvenir | Joanna Hogg | UK/US
  • Ordinary Love | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | UK/Ireland
  • Toy Story 4 | Josh Cooley | US
  • El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie | Vince Gilligan | US
  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World | Dean DeBlois | US
  • Diego Maradona | Asif Kapadia | UK
  • Pavarotti | Ron Howard | US
  • The Public | Emilio Estevez | US
  • Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans | Dominic Brigstocke | UK
  • The King | David Michôd | Australia/US
  • Non-Fiction | Olivier Assayas | France
  • By the Grace of God | Francois Ozon | France/Belgium
  • Boy Erased | Joel Edgerton | US
  • The Edge | Barney Douglas | UK
  • Little Monsters | Abe Forsythe | Australia/UK/US
  • Aquarela | Viktor Kossakovsky | UK/Germany/Denmark/US
  • The Nightingale | Jennifer Kent | Australia
  • Marriage Story | Noah Baumbach | US
  • So Long, My Son | Wang Xiaoshuai | People’s Republic of China
  • Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood | Quentin Tarantino | US
  • The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part | Mike Mitchell | US/Denmark/Australia
  • The Irishman | Martin Scorsese | US
  • Avengers: Endgame | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

TV and Records

Putting together a weekly radio show that’s wall to wall movie soundtracks, old and new, for Classic FM, it’s impossible not to sense the throb of the cultural leylines under the desk, tendrils attracted from the world of film that intertwine with those from the world of smaller-screen entertainment, and musical equilibrium is the result. It was never a guarantee that, say, Hildur Guðnadóttir from Iceland would have made an early leap from ambient sounds under her own name, and in collaboration with other like-minded Nordic souls, to soundtracks as saleable and blockbusting as Joker and Sicario: Day of the Soldado, while quietly cooking up the Geiger-counting terror of HBO’s Chernobyl and not for one moment selling her soul. And in the same year that we enjoyed the uninhibited old-school Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, which makes the decades between them melt.

It is with such crossover in mind that I list my favourite film scores of 2019. It’s too random to put them in order, so I shall do so without. Hopefully you’ll recognise a few from having seen the films or TV shows – maybe you just heard them on my show? That would be a pleasing outcome.

Here goes. (And bear in mind one or two of these might have come out at the end of 2018.)

Nicholas Britell | If Beale Street Could Talk
Alan Silvestri | Avengers: Infinity War
Max Richter | Mary Queen of Scots
Nicholas Britell | Succession, HBO
Hildur Guðnadóttir | Chernobyl, HBO
Dickon Hynchcliffe | Ben is Back
West Dylan Thordson | Glass
Frank Ilfman | Rory’s Way
Michael Abels | Us
Scott Walker | Vox Lux
Ilan Eshkeri | The White Crow
Martin Phipps | The Aftermath

Lorne Balfe, Rupert Gregson-Williams, Martin Phipps | The Crown, seasons 2-3, Netflix
Trent Reznor, Atticus Finch | Bird Box
Pinar Toprak | Captain Marvel
Ramin Djawadi | Game of Thrones (Season 8), HBO
Segun Akinola | The Last Tree
Clint Mansell | Out of Blue
Rolfe Kent | Stan & Ollie
Nicholas Britell | Vice
Kris Bowers | When They See Us, Netflix
John Lunn | Downton Abbey, the Movie
Thomas Newman | Tolkien
Randy Newman | Toy Story 4
Max Richter | Ad Astra
Alan Silvestri | Avengers: Endgame
Thomas Ades | Colette
Lorne Balfe | Gemini Man
Hildur Guðnadóttir | Joker
Randy Newman | Marriage Story
Marc Shaiman | Mary Poppins Returns

Enjoyed the climax of the fifth and final series of Poldark, too, thanks to Anne Dudley. But enough looking back. Forward.

Film 2018

 

It’s been quite a year for films. Not least because of Netflix and Amazon, both of which I feel a pressing need to subscribe to. Not every film that lands on either is worth watching to the end (although I tend to see them through out of professional pride, unless they are Nappily Ever After, and I have been halfway through the doc Chasing Trane for what must be five months for no reason whatsoever but inertia). But Netflix in particular possesses a voracious appetite for funding or distributing feature-length documentaries and A-list Originals that seems at present unquenchable. Frankly, I’m in, at least while that means luminaries as luminous as the Coens, Ben Stiller, Nicole Holofcener, Alfonso Cuaron, David Mackenzie, Gareth Evans, Paul Greengrass, Tamara Jenkins, Jeremy Saulnier, Duncan Jones, Andrew Niccol, Susanne Bier and Alex Garland sign up to make hay with the streaming platform.

It’s a subscriber’s market, as well as an artist’s. I still relish the chance to see big films on big screens – ironically, one of the most jaw-dropping this year was They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s trenches documentary, which I saw in 3D in a screening theatre, while most saw it in 2D on telly – but no technology can substitute inspiration. Heavyweight documentary was ubiquitous in 2018 (which is why I’ve cordoned it off and given the doc its own rundown), while the series or serial is dominated now by true crime that unfolds in visual podcast form – and there’s plenty of this on Netflix, to an extent that each rolls into one another. At least fictional, dramatic films still occasionally seek new territory, while Making a Murderer and its less original ilk merely slice the cake more thinly. So, to feature-length films.

I keep a strict diary that indicates at a glance the films that stand out – which, believe me, is vital when cinema has almost literally run out of titles. I know I saw Only the Brave, The Bachelors, Let the Sunshine In, Kodachrome, Cargo, The Rachel Divide, Dark Crimes, Bad Samaritan, How it Ends, Madame, The Last Witness, Final Score, Operation Finale and Hearts Beat Loud but I have no idea what any of them were about from memory. Maybe that’s just as well.

So here are my Top 11 followed by the Next 25, in an order that makes sense as I sit here, but may change and who would notice? I note that two of my Top 10 films – in fact, Top 5 – are in a foreign language (Spanish and Mixtec; Polish) and shot in black-and-white. Four in the Top 10 are not in the English language, and eight nations are represented. Only one entry is British; another a British/American co-production. One is both a drama and a documentary. I don’t know what that says about 2018.

  1. Roma | Alfonso Cuarón | Mexico
  2. The Old Man and the Gun | David Lowery | US
  3. Leave No Trace | Debra Granik | US
  4. American Animals | Bart Layton | UK/US
  5. Cold War | Pawel Pawloski | Poland
  6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri | Martin McDonagh | US
  7. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead | Ben Wheatley | UK
  8. Lady Bird | Greta Gerwig | US
  9. Western | Valeska Grisebach | Germany/Austria/Bulgaria
  10. The Florida Project | Sean Baker | US
  11. Wajib | Annemarie Jacir | Palestine

The next 26 are in no qualitative order; they are all excellent.

Peterloo | Mike Leigh | UK
Journeyman | Paddy Considine | UK
Apostasy | Daniel Kokotajlo | UK
BlackKkKlansman | Spike Lee | US
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | US
Disobedience | Sebastián Lelio | UK
Incredibles 2 | Brad Bird | US
Lean on Pete | Andrew Haigh | US
Zama | Lucretia Martel | Argentina
Phantom Thread | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
Lucky | John Carroll Lynch | US
Ghost Stories | Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson | UK
Deadpool 2 | David Leitch | US
Call Me By Your Name | Luca Guadagnino | Italy/US/Brazil/France
Yardie | Idris Elba | UK
Dark River | Clio Barnard | UK
A Fantastic Woman | Sebastián Lelio | Chile
Shirley: Visions of Reality | Gustav Deutsch | Austria (pictured above)
The Senator | John Curran | US
A Prayer Before Dawn | Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire | UK/US/France/China
My Friend Dahmer | Marc Meyers | US
Beast | Michael Pearce | UK
Custody | Xavier Legrand | France
Dogman | Matteo Garrone | Italy
The Breadwinner | Nora Twomey | Canada/Ireland/Luxembourg

I’m taking documentaries out and giving them their own list, as it’s near-impossible to meaningfully compare the life story of a tragic superstar with a fiction about boy saving his horse from the knacker’s yard, and it’s been a strong year for non-fiction.

Springsteen on Broadway | Thom Zimny | US
The King | Eugene Jarecki | US
The Eyes of Orson Welles/They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead | Mark Cousins/Morgan Neville | US/UK (when two fantastic documentaries on the same subject but from different angles come out in the same year, it’s OK to group them together)
Whitney | Kevin Macdonald | UK
McQueen | Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui | UK
They Shall Not Grow Old | Peter Jackson | UK/New Zealand
The Man From Mo’Wax | Matthew Jones | UK
Score | Matt Schrader | US
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story | Alexandra Dean | US
Filmworker | Tony Zierra | US

There are a few days to go, and with more leisure time in than usual, but I suspect I’ll be watching old black-and-white movies on Talking Pictures and TCM and DVD from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, as that’s what leisure time is for.

 

You go, girlfriends

Women A Success Story8

This is not a regular film review, as Women: A Success Story is not a regular film. “A liberating tale for a new generation,” inspired by Joanna Williams’s book Women Vs Feminism, it was made by volunteers and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Youth Social Action and the Jack Petchey Foundation; a community project that demands to be seen and shared and discussed, by women and men (there’s more about it here). Directed by Ceri Dingle, it has been put together by 100 volunteers, with 40 talking heads, all women, simply discussing and recalling their lives and experiences over nine decades of feminist progress. Its optimistic conclusion is somewhat foregone. This is not a time to niggle.

Each witness – ranging in age from 16 to 90 – is named in a caption, along with their date of birth, to help place them in their era. The documentary’s oldest participant is Elsie Holdsworth, born in 1928, and one of seven kids. She paints a vivid picture of life at the sharp end of the century, listing “one gaslight, two bedrooms, six children, no radio, no TV, no car, no hot water.” Her memory is pin-sharp and she provides valuable testimony from a pre-enlightenment age when, as a young woman, a job she took at Woolworth’s caused others to say she’s “climbing the social ladder, joining the elite.” (The loaded E-word is being bandied about again by today’s political class in this self-negating age of Brexit, but Elsie’s treatment at the hands of her peers seems almost comical to our modern ears – there’s a touch of “know your place” about such snarky opprobrium.)

Women A Success Story7

Among the more millennial talking heads is Caroline Cafasso, 21, an American who reflects the #MeToo generation when she observes that in her experience young women “consider many men to be dangerous towards women” and is rueful about being “stuck in hook-up culture.” Further insight from the young comes from Millie Small, 16, who offers another blithely alarming insight: “I don’t think pregnancy is a very big fear for people.”

Women A Success Story3

The film is split into clearly titled chapters – The Sexual Revolution and Freedom; Contraception: Free at Last; Mind the Gap – and makes sparing use of public-domain archive from patrician public information films to grout the witness footage (some of the more alarmist ones are from the binary certainty of America’s postwar period). This is not a film that dazzles with bells and whistles; it’s all about the content. That it was borne of a collective effort dovetails into the very subject matter. If there is a sisterhood, it might well be found herein.

Among the reassuringly ordinary witnesses, we meet the extraordinary Nadine Strossen, the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (she objects to women who report rape being classed as “victims” in what she regards as a “persecutorial culture”); also Ivana Habazin, a nun who watched Rocky and took up boxing, thereafter becoming IBO middleweight champion; we may not be too surprised to see Joanna Williams herself, at a Suffragette Picnic in East London – where else? Activists abound. Take Mally Best, thrown out of school at 15, she took an engineering course at college, specialising in aviation and navigation (she was the only woman among 79 men). When she took her exam onboard a warship, male seamen were put on a three-hour curfew so they wouldn’t come into contact with a woman.

For ideological balance, there’s a former beauty queen, Miss Severn Diamond, now in her 50s, who discusses the rights and wrongs of calling female friends “honey.” A proud pageant finalist at 22, she embodies a different strain of female empowerment, saying she “never found men intimidating”. (She discusses motor racing’s hot-button “grid girl” issue too, failing to see the harm.) Meanwhile, Hilary Salt, a member of Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, declares herself against boardroom tokenism that she thinks is “degrading”. “To me,” she boldly states, “it doesn’t seem be of any advantage for me when I’m sitting on the Council, to be there with my vagina.”

Women A Success Story title

Other, more opaque issues are addressed, from FGM to man-hating and whether or not glamour modelling is simply just “a personal choice” (one participant says she thinks of herself as a woman “from the neck down”).

There’s also a fascinating tour of the now-closed Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, where we learn that in 1918 the first woman MP Constance Markievicz, never took her seat in Parliament as she was a member of Sinn Fein and as such “would never take an oath of allegiance to a power I meant to overthrow.” (The first sitting MP was Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.) Wallflowers are not in evidence.

Shocking facts arise; domestic abuse was not even investigated by the police in the 1950s, and wasn’t until the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act – although rape in marriage continued to be legal until 1990s. Within that context it brings you up short to hear a 1967-born West Midlands bank manager stating, “If you see someone brushing your knee as sexual assault you have seriously lost the plot.” Another woman of similar age is strident on the subject: “We didn’t feel cowed, or worried, we just said no.”

All this and the memory of using a mangle to clean nappies in the 1960s. You might optimistically conclude that men have gone a long way towards being house-trained in the interim. You might prefer to come away from the film with the lingering and powerful image of the daughter of an Eritrean freedom fighter who emigrated to the UK in the late 60s and “grew up with the idea that there was no difference between women and men.”

Either way, man or woman, whatever your view, or gender, or vintage, this film gives plenty of food for thought, and deserves to be shared.

What We Started (2017)

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WHAT WE STARTED (2017)
RATING: ★★★
DIRECTORS: Bert Marcus, Cyrus Saidi
STARRING: Carl Cox, Martin Garrix, Pete Tong
CERTIFICATE: 12A
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: US

A documentary about dance music feels like a contradiction in terms; to document what is an intuitive, primal, physical activity risks robbing its essence. That said, the form’s history is as colourful and politically charged as the well-worn, hoary old saga of rock, and co-directors Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi give a decent, star-witness-studded account of the evolution of sexually-liberating New York disco to the more consumer-led EDM (electronic dance music) of today. Fresh footage of fiftysomething Carl Cox working a crowd over a ten-hour all-nighter in Ibiza is contrasted with 18-year-old, laptop-enabled Dutch bedroom wizard Martin Garrix inarticulately awed by a dance festival’s tens of thousands whom he will coax into ecstasy with EDM’s signature move, the pause and climactic “drop”. What We Started pays respect to pioneers Paul Oakenfold, Louis Vega and Pete Tong, and teases old-school opprobrium from them as they accuse today’s “superstar DJs” of lacking their hard-won turntable skills in a USB-stick age. Does the technology matter? The jury’s out in what is two-sided account. But the granddads certainly have better war stories to tell.

 

 

NB: We are experiencing technical problems at Radio Times and are unable to post this review. So I’m putting it up here for the time being.

They shoot, they score

SCOREJohnDebneyorch

My review for Radio Times of the new, feature-length documentary Score (released on DVD 2 April in the UK)

ScoreBOX

 

SCORE (2016)
RATING:
DIRECTOR: Matt Schrader
STARRING: Hans Zimmer, John Debney, Tyler Bates et al
CERTIFICATE: PG
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: US
AVAILABLE: DVD

 

Matt Schrader’s first feature Score leads the slender field of documentaries about the work of film composers. Anyone whose interest runs deeper than humming the Darth Vader march will delight at the sheer who’s-who lined up for this tantalising insight into an artform that leading light Hans Zimmer reminds us keeps the world’s studio orchestras in work, while director James Cameron refers to the score as a movie’s “heart and soul”. Talking heads seated on swivel chairs on laminate-floored control rooms offer downhome wisdom like, “Bernard Herrmann had balls!” (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Tyler Bates) and “The reverse echo is really cool” (Scream king Marco Beltrami, who’s placed an old piano on the roof of his Malibu studio and wired it to a water tower for The Homesman). With its Kong-to-Jaws potted history out of the way, Score luxuriates in footage of crack musicians at Abbey Road giving life to Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace and Patrick Doyle cheerfully bashing out the Harry Potter Waltz on his piano. The notes of a motif from Lord of the Rings appear graphically onscreen, but apart from that, it’s sheer indulgence for audio-cinephiles yearning to see Tom Holkenborg call up the drums from Mad Max: Fury Road and play them on his keyboard. Zimmer speaks for every insecure composer when he imagines panicking, “You’d better phone John Williams, I have no idea how to do this!”

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The abridged version, on the page:

ScoreRadioTimesreview

LPs 2017

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Oops. Forgot to arrange my LPs of the Year into a neat shape. So here it is, for what it’s worth.

With great inevitability, soundtracks and scores have dominated my listening horizon. Curating a two-hour radio show of film music every week for Classic FM means I now habitually listen to a disproportionate amount of orchestral and instrumental music, with the bulk of it written in the 20th century ie. the past. I’m comfortable with this immersion, as I have lost touch with the modern sounds of the charts, and have trouble remembering the names of acts I hear for the first time on 6 Music. I heard a track I really liked yesterday in the car, for instance, by Mr Jukes, but I have no idea who that is.

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I know who Sleaford Mods are, and keep up with their prolific output (the documentary Bunch of Kunst was essential viewing), but it stands so far apart and above anything else I have heard in the last few years, it makes life almost impossible for the other bands! It may seem rather conservative to hold the new material of such established acts as Arcade Fire, Royal Blood, Billy Bragg and – eek! – Sparks, but I have long since stopped trying to impress anyone, and spend my CD money with caution. I probably played the Horrors album V more than any other non-orchestral, non-instrumental this year. It is, like English Tapas, fabulous, if not, like English Tapas, groundbreaking.