No fence

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Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.

But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)

Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners anot required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.

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The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)

I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)

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We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.

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You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)

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Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.

Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.

 

Being human

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There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

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Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

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There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

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Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

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I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

2015: the year in film

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Once again, I’ve tried to see as many films as humanly possible, in order to be able to take a fair-minded assessment of the year. But a glance at the Sight & Sound end-of-year lists – which blatantly reflect the year’s international festival programmes, with not a care for the straitjacket of UK theatrical release (their number one film, The Assassin, is not out here until the New Year) – instantly renders mine a little more parochial. That said, if foreign-language pictures do not dominate my Top 42 (it seemed silly to stop at 40), they enhance and enrich the list. One of my jobs is to keep up with new releases so that when the films arrive on television, I can have an opinion on them in Radio Times. But I don’t have the pressure of a national newspaper critic, or blogger, who seeks to keep up with the big new films in the week of release. I saw most of the less mainstream titles on steam-powered DVD, or via Curzon Home Cinema, which continues to be a lifeline.

Here is my Top 12 (I intended this to be a Top 10, but a couple of late entries have expanded it – at the end of the day, or the year, you can’t realistically measure a Star Wars film against a Roy Andersson, but you can celebrate the appreciation of both):

1. 45 Years | Andrew Haigh | UK
2. Carol | Todd Haynes | US
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens | JJ Abrams | US
4. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence| Roy Andersson | Sweden/Norway/France/Germany
5. The Tribe | Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy | Ukraine/Netherlands
6. Brooklyn | John Crowley | UK/Ireland/Canada
7. The Falling | Carol Morley | UK
8. Black Souls | Francesco Munzi | Italy/France
9. The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson | Julien Temple | UK
10. Force Majeure | Ruben Östlund | Sweden/France/Norway
11. Amy | Asif Kapadia | UK
12. Timbuktu | Abderrahmane Sissako | France/Mauritania

I like the way that five our of the Top 12 turn out to be UK productions or co-productions. This tells us something good about our national cinema, which can just as easily be scenes from a marriage or an impressionistically elemental work of art. As for the two UK documentaries, interestingly both are about musicians, one who dies, the other who cheats death. Of the three US films, one is the biggest film of the year, and possibly of all time come the final tot-up, financially speaking, so deal with that. (It’s the same as putting an Adele album in my Top 10 LPs, which I have done again this year. I’m used to it.) Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe are so different from the pack, and from each other, they may as well have their own chart. I watched the former – far from ideally – in two hotel rooms, one in Liverpool, the second in Durham. It transfixed me, even so (in fact, maybe because of the circumstances). I caught up with The Tribe on Boxing Day, via Curzon, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in Ukrainian sign language ever.

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I won’t order the remaining 30 films. It goes without saying that all did more than just divert me, or fill the time, or meet a professional quota.

Slow West | John Maclean | UK, New Zealand
Big Hero 6 | Don Hall, Chris Williams | US
A Most Violent Year | JC Chandor | US
Whiplash | Damien Chazelle | US
White God | Kornél Mundruczó | Hungary
Fidelio: Alice’s Journey | Lucie Borleteau | France
Selma | Ava DuVernay | US
Inherent Vice | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
The Lesson | Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov | Bulgaria, Greece
Birdman | Alejandro G. Iñárritu | US
Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller | US
Still Alice | Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland | US
Altman | Ron Mann | Canada
Eden | Mia Hansen-Love | France
San Andreas | Brad Peyton | US
Wild Tales | Damián Szifron | Argentina/Spain
When You’re Young | Noah Baumbach | US
Love and Mercy | Bill Pohlad | US
Clouds Of Sils Maria | Olivier Assayas | France/Germany/Switzerland
The Salt Of The Earth | Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | France/Brazil
Far From The Madding Crowd | Thomas Vinterberg | UK
Everest | Baltasar Kormákur | UK/US
The Martian | Ridley Scott | US
Ex Machina | Alex Garland | UK
Trainwreck | Judd Apatow | US
Steve Jobs | Danny Boyle | UK
Red Army | Gabe Polsky | US/Russia
Mia Madre | Nanni Moretti | Italy/France
The Wolfpack | Crystal Moselle | US
Straight Outta Compton | F Gary Gray | US

Please do share your own. Nobody’s opinion counts for more than anybody else’s. (Oh, and by the way, of course I included San Andreas, which is probably only a three-star film, but this is my list, it is the list that is mine, and what it is, too.)

What if … the mechanical shark had worked in Jaws?

Another little item I wrote for Word magazine, in 2009, that I’d forgotten about (and has never been published online). I was asked to imagine a “what if?” scenario from the world of entertainment.

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May, 1974, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts: first day of the Jaws shoot. The three life-size, $200,000 mechanical great white sharks designed by effects veteran Robert A Mattey work like a dream. The saltwater has no adverse effect on the steel rails running under the surface, the eyes and jaws look realistic and the polyurethane skin does not need constantly replacing. The rushes looks fantastic. The film comes in on time and on budget. Director Steven Spielberg and editor Verna Fields do not need to “hide” the shark: it appears, full face, in scene one, requiring no suspenseful two-note musical theme from John Williams. Jaws opens in 409 theatres in June; audiences get an initial shock on seeing the shark, but the film peaks too early. Word gets out. Box office tails off. The big studios see no quick way of making a mint in summer, and continue to indulge the left-field “movie brat” directors. Universal files for bankruptcy. A nervous Fox opens Star Wars in just 300 theatres. It becomes a minor cult. No sequel is ordered. The studios doggedly pursue the European visions of the new wave of auteurs throughout the 80s until moviemaking becomes a high-risk, low-return business and the new multiplexes are closed, leading to a minor boom in arthouses. Jaws enjoys a revival as an ironic midnight movie. In 1993, Spielberg finally gets an Emmy for Watch The Skies, a single-camera sitcom about a man in Phoenix convinced he’s seen a UFO. People who have been swimming in the sea without fear ever since have no way of describing rare shark sightings: “It was a like a scene out of … ?”

2014: My Top 50 Films

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I have a simple, private, binary grading system with films. Once I have logged a film as “seen”, I either give it a star or not. This is quite a relief after the minefield of having to award stars out of five for professional reviewing purposes. Either a film feels like it was worth seeing, or it wasn’t. I sometimes go back and add or remove the star, depending on how I feel at a later date about the film. This makes collating an end of year list much easier, as it sifts the wheat from the chaff before I start. (This is why a bit of airborne nonsense like the Liam Neeson thriller Non Stop gets into the Top 50; I liked it enough at the time to give it a tick.)

Of the 142 films I saw in 2014, 92 were new, in that they were released in the UK for the first time this year. (For quick but odious comparison, of the 153 films I saw in 2013, 122 were new. I don’t know why I saw less films, especially less new films, but it may have something to do with having worked harder for less money in 2014, and having to make some tough choices simply in terms of sparing the time. I regret this.) Here they are, in order – and I have been tinkering with this for about a fortnight. An important note: I did not get to see Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Winter Sleep in December, as it is three hours long and I had no-one to go and see it with. I know in my bones it would be in the list, possibly near the top. Its absence is glaring and unbalancing. So it goes.

Boyhood

1. Boyhood | Richard Linklater | US
2. Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev | Russia
3. Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France
4. Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland/Denmark
5. 20,000 Days On Earth | Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard | UK/US/Canada
6. Dallas Buyers Club | Jean-Marc Vallée | US
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson | Germany/UK
8. Two Days, One Night | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne | France/Belgium/Italy
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 | Lars Von Trier | Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh | Ireland/UK

11. American Interior | Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch | UK
12. Under The Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK
13. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras | US
14. Lilting | Hong Khaou | UK
15. The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US/Australia/Denmark
16. Starred Up | David Mackenzie | UK
17. Showrunners | Des Doyle | Ireland/US
18. Belle | Amma Asante | UK
19. Locke | Steven Knight | UK
20. A Story Of Children And Film | Mark Cousins | UK

21. Nightcrawler | Guy Gilroy | US
22. The Rover | David Michôd | Australia
23. 22 Jump Street | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US
24. Inside Llewyn Davis | Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | US
25. Noah | Darren Aronofsky | US
26. Jimmy’s Hall | Ken Loach | UK/Ireland
27. Cold In July | Jim Mickle | US/France
28. The Past | Asghar Farhadi | France/Italy
29. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes | Matt Reeves | US
30. Chef | Jon Favreau | US

31. ’71 | Yann Demange | UK
32. X-Men: Days Of Future Past | Bryan Singer | UK/US
33. The Wolf Of Wall Street | Martin Scorsese | US
34. August: Osage County | John Wells | US
35. Only Lovers Left Alive | Jim Jarmusch | UK/Germany
36. Northern Soul | Elaine Constantine | UK
37. Her | Spike Jonze | US
38. Edge Of Tomorrow | Doug Liman | US/UK
39. Non-Stop | Jaume Collet-Serra | US/France
40. A Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/Germany/US

41. The Riot Club | Lone Scherfig | UK
42. Maps To The Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada/US
43. The Guest | Adam Wingard | US
44. The Armstrong Lie | Alex Gibney | US
45. The Unknown Known | Errol Morris | US
46. American Hustle | David O. Russell | US
47. The Heat | Paul Feig | US
48. The Two Faces Of January | Hossein Amini | US/UK
49. Easy Money III | Jens Jonsson | Sweden
50. Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

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Really, I don’t think there has ever really been anything like Boyhood, but its technical and logistical achievements might just have been that had it not been for Richard Linklater’s guiding hand and a cracking cast, most remarkably Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, respectively seven and eight years old when shooting began in 2002. Rarely have 165 minutes passed in a cinema without anybody looking at their watch. This film singlehandedly made a case for the occasional preeminence of American filmmaking in the 21st century, where noise and surface are often all it’s got. (I say that, but the US dominates my list, if not the Top 10, as the bulk of the films I saw were American, or American co-productions. As ever, a bit of Danish or French often rises to the top.)

In a year without Boyhood, Leviathan would have sat comfortably at the top of a the pile. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere, symbolically rich tale of contemporary smalltown corruption plays out as a David and Goliath struggle between a car mechanic and a grotesque mayor on the coast of Northwestern Russia over a patch of land (the mechanic, Alexei Serebriakov, lives on it, in a house he built himself; the mayor, Roman Madyanov, wants it). A slow, downbeat, naturalistic and unshowy slice of life, Leviathan nonetheless rears up into moments of pure beauty and portent, not least when one character glimpses an actual whale breaking the surf in the bay, or when the teeth of a JCB tear into a house like a dinosaur searching for prey. It’s all about scale.

I’m pleased that a large number of UK and Irish releases made the final cut – Starred Up, Belle, Locke, Calvary, Under The Skin, American Interior, Jimmy’s Hall – as well as a clutch of documentaries, although I can think of half a dozen I’ve missed, too. I also missed Pride, which I feel might have been in there, had I seen it. Feel free to tell me yours, but don’t take it personally if a film you’ve loved this year isn’t in my Top 50; I might simply have missed it. And I really didn’t like Mr Turner.

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A postcript: I continue to hold a Curzon cinemas membership, and it is my lifeline. It should be noted that in 2014, the chain announced that it had finally recognised the union Bectu and agreed to pay its workers a living wage. So far, this agreement seems to have held, and no funny business has emerged. I am in touch with the previously aggrieved Curzon workers via Twitter and have heard nothing to the contrary. I sincerely hope this continues to remain true. Other cinema chains have not been as willing to compromise, and it blights the whole business of cinemagoing.

TV monitors

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It’s not every day I have an actual article printed in the actual, papery version of the Guardian, so forgive me if I provide a link to the piece I have written about a new, feature-length documentary with the self-explanatory title Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show, which is available to buy from its website from 31 October. I first crossed paths with its tenacious and very friendly director, Des Doyle, a year ago, when I was writing a shorter piece on the subject of showrunners for the Guardian. He’d contacted me as he was using Kickstarter to fund the final stage of post-production, and – being the target audience for his film ie. a US telly geek – I was more than happy to help promote the initiative. Mainly because I wanted to see the finished film.

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He and his producers reached the funding target and finished the film. This summer we crossed paths again, as Des was looking to make contact with the Edinburgh TV Festival with a view to perhaps showing his film to like-minded TV nuts. I was able to make introductions and the next thing I knew, I was down to host the film at the mighty Filmhouse in Edinburgh and chair a Q&A not just with Des himself, but also with Battlestar Galactica supremo Ronald D. Moore (who happened to be filming his latest series Outlander in Scotland in August and whom I felt honoured to “hang out” in the bar with). I wrote about the experience here (although you have to scroll down a bit).

Anyway, the film’s about to become available to buy and download, so it’s almost in the public domain. I highly recommend it if you’re even half-interested in the way TV is made, especially in the States. It’s particularly good on Showtime’s House Of Lies and its journey from pilot to air, and TNT comedy-drama Men Of A Certain Age, which I don’t think we’ve had in the UK, and which – before our very eyes in Showrunners – goes from pilot to air to cancellation. It’s a heartbreaking arc in the documentary, and shows just how cruel US TV can be, even on cable. As a UK-based TV scriptwriter and editor, I am that sucker who mythologises the American model, in transatlantic awe of all those guys – and occasionally women! – who sit around conference tables in Burbank “bullshitting” in the most creative fashion, filling up whiteboards and eating doughnuts on a salary. (I’ve been writing the same pilot script in my house all year.)

Needless to say, when I was able to pin down the great Terence Winter, showrunner of Boardwalk Empire (whose series finale airs on Sky Atlantic this Saturday after five incredible, slow-burning seasons), for a 20-minute phone interview about Des’s film and about showrunning in general, I had to jettison a large chunk of what I’d already written for the Guardian in order to insert Winter’s words of wisdom. So I thought I’d publish some of the material I couldn’t fit into my 1,200-word commission here. You’ll have to be super-interested in the subject to find it as fascinating as I do, but I’m going to guess that one or two of you are.

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First, here’s my interview with Des Doyle, the director. (He’s on the left of this illustrious lineup from one of the many convention screenings they’ve done in the States.)

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AC: Which was the first writers’ room you gained access to, and how were you received as outsiders?

DD: The first room we got into was Men Of A Certain Age. It was a little pressurised for us because we had just one hour with the guys and we knew Ray Romano had to leave early to fly to NY to do Letterman. The good thing was that it was a very lively room – comedy writers tend to like to crack jokes a lot and that helped ease them into the cameras being on. They were also intrigued why somebody from Ireland would be particularly interested in them or what they did and my “uniqueness” in that regard certainly helped with a number of people we filmed with. And Mike Royce the showrunner for that series was a very gracious host to us and helped make sure we got what we needed. But for me as a first-time director in a room with so many people to try and cover with two cameras it was a big learning experience and the other writers’ rooms we did a little differently.

AC: Can you just confirm the dates of production so I can get an accurate figure for how long Showrunners took to make?

DD: We started in September 2010: first people on camera Dec 2010, principal photography in blocks continued to November 2012. We ran Kickstarter in Dec 2012; editing/post production/clearances and licensing up till April 2014.

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AC: Did the experience of making the film and getting under the bonnet in any way spoil your perhaps romantic view of the process of turning out quality TV drama?

DD: I think making the film has increased my respect for what showrunners do tenfold! Even if they’re making a show I may not like I still have huge respect for the amount of work that goes into that. Considering all of the challenges they face in terms of time, money and politics it’s remarkable that a) any show gets made on time and budget and b) that so many great shows are made under this system.

AC: The rise and fall of Men Of A Certain Age is one of the film’s great arcs, if bittersweet. As a filmmaker, it’s gold, but did it break your heart to be with Mike Royce on the set of the show after it had been cancelled?

DD: One of the things that really surprised me in making the film was how candid people were with me – both in words and emotionally. I tried very hard never to “interview” someone but instead to have a conversation with them. When we spoke with Mike about the ratings for MOACA he had literally just gotten the news that morning so it was still very raw for him and certainly my heart went out to him as he told us about it because I could empathise with him greatly. These were really personal stories they were telling and Mike, Ray and the writers really loved making that show. It’s not always like that for a showrunner which is what made that experience even more painful for Mike. I think anyone who watches that story unfold will really feel for Mike because apart from being an extremely talented writer he’s also a really lovely guy and that comes across in the film very much.

AC: What’s next for you?

DD: I’m currently in very early development on another doc also set in a creative field which we have just attached first talent to and will be filming a little with them in LA later this month. There are also one or two other ideas I’m pursuing and some of the showrunners in the film have very kindly agreed to read my pilot script although that needs a major rewrite first!

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The big catch for me while writing this piece was Terence Winter. The PR for Showrunners foolishly promised him to me early on in the process and although it happened last-minute, the 20 minutes I spent on the phone to him at his New York office were gold. I am such a fan of Boardwalk Empire, which ended forever this week in the States, but you have to remember, “Terry” – as I discovered everybody calls him – had nothing to gain from helping to promote Des’s film by talking to me, so all credit to him, and to Des for having engendered such a happy, symbiotic relationship with these high-powered execs.

While I waited to be connected to “Terry” (I still think of him as Terence), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was playing. I applauded him for his “hold” music when we first spoke, and he said, “I like to have that as my theme music going into every interview.”

I confirmed that he’d seen the finished film. He had, and really enjoyed it: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and to see the different ways people run shows and get a look behind that curtain. Occasionally we’ll be panels for different things and say hello to each other but for the most part the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Did he have a well-earned holiday once Boardwalk had wrapped? Apparently not. “I’m going pretty much right into preparing for what I hope is my next series, a show set in the world of rock’n’roll in 1973 in New York City with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, and Mick Jagger is also one of the producers. We’ve shot the pilot and I’m already starting to look at writers. So no real break but this is the highest class problem I could possibly have.”

It’s for HBO, right? “Right. HBO has been my home for 15 years and I hope it’s my only home.”

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I asked if he had time to see his family – something he touches on in Showrunners. “I certainly get home to put my kids to bed, and weekends are really sacred to me. They know Daddy’s at work during the week but I’m always around to go to baseball games and soccer games, and I always make school functions. If you wanted to you could live at the office. The business of running a show is so massive.” They shoot 14-15 hours a day. “If you never wanted to leave there’s always something to do.”

Were you worried the documentary might “let light in upon magic”? “I’m one of those people that buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions … The same when I go to a museum, I like to know about the paintings, the story of who painted it and when, what was going on in the world around him. I talk to young film students about what a great movie Citizen Kane was, and they see it say and go, It was OK. You have to put it in context of when it was made.”

Especially that it was a flop at the time of release. “Right. The Wire wasn’t really a hit when it was on the air, that found its audience on DVD. It’s A Wonderful Life is another one.”

I asked how he personally ran the Boardwalk writers’ room. “Very similar to The Sopranos in terms of how it was run. I would come in at the beginning of the year with a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go. We averaged about five writers at any given time, I think at one point we had as many as eight, and as few as four.” He cites Howard Korder as his “main writer – he wrote more episodes than I did. I truly could not have done the show without him.” Meanwhile his other right-hand man, writer-director Tim Van Patten “ran the set.”

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So, the methodology. “We’d sit down and I’d say, What happens in Episode One? It’s a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression, telling stories about your own life – those are the things that get made into TV shows. To the untrained ear it may sound like a bunch of people sitting around bullshitting.”

A showrunner, for Winter, is “part psychologist, part motivational speaker, cheerleader, you’re almost like a host at a dinner party, you’re trying to get everybody to talk, open up a little bit. I’m glad to have a roomful of funny, smart, interesting people to bat around ideas with and bullshit with. That’s not a bad way to spend your day.”

I bring up the subject of UK drama’s attempts to emulate the American model. But he doesn’t think we should try. “I will say this, whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. Whether there’s a writers’ room or a showrunner or not, some of the best dramas ever have come out of that system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I push him to name names and he cites The Singing Detective (“I re-watch that once every two years”), Luther, The Hour … “I’ve always been a fan of the BBC, I’ve just started re-watching Fawlty Towers.” I tell him that, like Citizen Kane and The Wire, this was not an instant hit either. He did not know that.

On the more vexed subject of the lack of female showrunners in American TV, he admits that a writers’ room “can be” a male environment, “depending on the make up of a room. I always try to get a balance between men and women. Not to say that if there are female characters on the show so therefore you need female writers. A writer should be able to write men, women, children, all different races, religions, backgrounds. With writing, the blank page is the great equaliser. If I read a script and it’s good, I don’t care where it came from.”

For the record, Boardwalk had six female writers: Margaret Nagle, Meg Jackson, Bathsheba Doran, Diane Frolov, Jennifer Ames, Cristine Chambers. “You’re sitting in a room for eight to ten hours a day around a conference table, so there’s gotta be what I call ‘hangability’. These are people you gotta want to hang out with. You can be the greatest writers in the world, but if they drive you insane, it’s pointless, because you can’t stand being around them. You ultimately spend more time with these people than your own family. It’s like putting together a football team.”

Could a great writer who’s not sociable survive? “Yeah, anything’s workable. If there’s a writer you can give an outline to and have them go away and they come back with something you can shoot, I’d work with somebody like that any day of the week. Some people are good at writing and not good at verbally explaining or pitching. Some are great and dialogue, some have great ideas but can’t execute them. But if you can round out your team with those different people you’re in pretty good shape.”

How does he feel about having to get involved with a show’s publicity as a showrunner? “It’s always a little jarring when I get recognised on the street in New York. Once a month it happens, and my initial instinct is that I must have gone to school with this person or we have a mutual friend, but they’ve seen my face on an HBO behind-the-scenes. It’s part of your responsibility to get out there and be the face of the show, to be the ambassador, if you will, of that material.”

Winter watches his shows when they air. As he did with The Sopranos, although he hasn’t seen it since it went off the air. “David [Chase] used to always say: you’re here to entertain people. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s very simple advice but it’s the truth, it’s what we’re doing here. All the other stuff comes later.”

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Thanks to Des and “Terry” for sparing the time to answer my questions. Now watch the film.

25 years in showbiz

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As 2013 fades from view, and with it, one largely overlooked anniversary – that is, My First 25 Years In Showbiz – I ponder the fact that I had once considered actually marking my silver jubilee in the media with some kind of tour, or one-man show, but I seem to have settled with some determination into scriptwriting (under which umbrella I include script editing) as my chief creative outlet in recent years, and even radio seems to be fading now, so it seems more suitable to simply mark its passing with a blog entry. Writing prose for free: that sums up my current lot, too.

My quarter-century is well documented, not least in my third memoir That’s Me In The Corner, which you can now buy as an eBook for £5.42 from the evil, tax-avoiding Amazon. (I can’t. Or at least, I can, but I don’t have a Kindle to load it up onto.) So I thought I might cut the yakkin’ and sum up 25 years of indecision and happy accident in a single image. The grab above was captured from the studio webcam of what was the main 5 Live studio in Television Centre, a building now cruelly and unsentimentally condemned. I think an eagle-eyed listener grabbed it, and sent it to me. If it was you, raise your hand: it’s a superb shot. I’m dating it back to circa 2009? I am clearly waiting for the light to go green. My best guess is that I was filling in for Mark Kermode – a gig that I haven’t done since I was pushed off the subs’ bench by Simon Mayo’s producer and replaced by Nigel Floyd and Boyd Hilton because their names rhyme – and Simon was broadcasting from a sporting event, possibly the cricket, which is why the studio was otherwise empty. There I am, on my own, waiting, with my BBC canteen coffee, summing up my own career!

Actually, the very fact that it’s indistinct is perfect. Here are a few other images that either give me a Proustian rush or say something thematic about the past 25 years.

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I’m rather tempted to leave them uncaptioned. Let the images speak for themselves. If they say anything, it’s that I have spent a good chunk of the past 25 years being around famous and talented people and not complaining or being self-conscious about that fact. Not always by the side of a lake in Sweden, as above, usually in front of “branding”, but in the vicinity of talent, and that’s the key.

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This one needs captioning. It’s the mighty 6 Music team finally winning Digital Radio Station of the Year at the Sonys in 2012. I was not there, which is the significant part. I celebrated their win anyway.

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C&H166I hope you enjoyed that visual celebration of not knowing what to do with myself for 25 years. (My home life has been, it must be said, a whole lot less chaotic.) Let’s get on with the 26th and make it so boringly focussed, there’ll be nothing to illustrate it with bar a selfie of me at my laptop.

Happy New Year!