Wednesday, 30 December 2015

An 11th thing I learned about Peter Lorre

This proved popular on Twitter, so I thought I'd put it up here too. It's Lorre (who fled the Nazis in 1933) winding up Basil Rathbone, for no reason:

You can read my original post about Lorre here. Y'know, if you want.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Ten things I learned about Peter Lorre

The latest in a semi-regular series...

Peter Lorre, that strange, strangely beautiful, intensely and minutely expressive actor is one of the most recognisable and most imitated figures in movie history, and the master of the dual-layered characterisation comprising conflicting but complementary parts. But I could never quite get a handle on his life. How was he a star in Germany, then just a bit-part player in America? What was the story behind Der Verlorene, his sole film as director, which took him back to the ruins of his adopted country for barely a year? And why and how did his star fall so low that by the end of his career he was reduced to gag cameos in instantly outdated trash? I wanted to know the answers, so I bought The Lost One – A Life of Peter Lorre, by all accounts the definitive work on his life.

And it is impressive. It’s staggeringly well-researched, featuring more than 300 interviews with the great and good of German and American cinema, delving into the lives of his contemporaries, fleshing out the historical context of the societies in which he lives, and digging out all manner of details from registries, letters and archive newspapers. And yet somehow it never quite gets to the heart of Lorre, leaping about from one aspect of his life to another, never quite joining the dots or reconciling the contradictions in this happy, interested, disinterested, sad, tragic, playful, ruined, unhealthy, trim, stout, deceitful, selfish, generous, lazy, obsessive man, and getting sidetracked by its subplots at the expense of the main attraction.

Its central argument, committedly if rather blinkeredly put, is that the mercurial, pint-sized Austrian acting dynamo was a sleeping giant who never came close to achieving his mammoth potential, through a mixture of human weakness and morphine addiction. It is not a non-stop chucklefest (nor indeed a breezy, page-turner). Biographer Stephen D. Youngkin is almost universally dismissive of Lorre’s screen work, seeing only M, The Maltese Falcon and The Lost One as worthwhile movies*, the rest merely variable Hollywood fodder occasionally enlightened by his slumming presence, but barely meriting a mention. Indeed, the author spends far longer on a minute discussion of his comrade-in-arms Bertolt Brecht’s unhappy time in America than he does on discussing, say, Lorre’s supporting pyrotechnics in mass market successes like My Favourite Brunette – where the actor was like, you know, acting.

It’s a heavy book, in both senses of the word: 453 pages (excluding the copious notes) of big pages with small type, packed to the gills with extraneous information, but also some gems. I thought I’d share those with you here:

1. You know how to whistle, don’t you?
His eerie, tuneless whistling of the Hall of the Mountain King, in his still-stunning second movie, M (Fritz Lang, 1931), was done in post-production, as he’d never learned to whistle, so couldn’t do it on cue. Lang’s sadistic treatment of his star included forcing Lorre to be kicked in the shin with a nailed boot, then re-taking the close-up at least 12 times. But he got what he wanted – Youngkin says that the French version of the film, starring Lorre but apparently not overseen by the director – is a pale imitation of the original, with the actor notably overdoing his part.

Not Crime and Punishment.
2. You’ve got a Freund
Lorre only agreed to feature in the horror film Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935) if his new studio, Columbia, would also produce an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, starring him as Raskolnikov. Unsurprisingly, Mad Love was a sensation – earning him a reputation as an unparalleled screen menace – while the literary epic was dead on arrival.

3. Elisha Cock, Jr
Censor Joseph Breen objected to Lorre’s depiction of the “pansy” Joel Cairo in the seminal Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and demanded cuts to scenes in which he cuddled the gunsel, Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr), and stroked his face. Cairo’s gardenia-scented calling card and habit of brushing the phallic handle of his umbrella across his lips eluded Breen to form part of an indelible characterisation.

4. The way it crumbles, cookie-wise
Lorre was a key influence on Bertolt Brecht, who studied the performer’s style while formulating his theories about acting. Their last public collaboration was in 1931’s Mann Ist Mann, on the Berlin stage, but they also worked together on several unrealised film projects, including a 1945 story called Lady Macbeth of the Yards. This project, updating Shakespeare to the Chicago stockyards, would have seen steer cutter John Machacek – advised to “be bold” by a fortune cookie – murdering his way to... not a kingdom, but a little market specialising in choice meats. Replete with surrealistic touches, such as a singing witch, a mirror maze and nightmare sequences featuring “a distant rumble growing into thunder, and a cloud of dust… kicked up by the hooves of an oncoming herd of steers”, it had the potential to be a classic film noir. Warner’s story editor kiboshed it at the last.

5. Morley repugnant
Robert Morley, in conversation with the author, said of his Beat the Devil co-star: “I have always thought him an intensely tiresome little chap, with quite the foulest vocabulary I have ever had the misfortune to listen to.”

6. A Royale with cheese
Though Lorre is a standard pub quiz answer, as the first person to play a Bond villain (he was Le Chiffre in a 1956 TV version of Casino Royale), his death scene didn’t go entirely to plan. According to screenwriter Charles Bennett: “Peter expired as the camera sent the show across the nation live. But then, the director failed to push the right button, and instead of this scene jumping to the next, the cameras remained on ‘dead’ Peter. Rightfully concluding that his job was done, he rose and quietly departed to his dressing room, smiling whimsically, to the utter bewilderment of possible thirty million viewers.” He was shot dead, again, in the next scene.

7. A barrel of laughs
The strain of applying his genius to substandard roles did occasionally rile Lorre outwardly. Ellis St. Joseph updated The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (a great title, I’m sure you’ll agree) for a 1957 episode of the Climax! show (I’m not lying). Fishing for a compliment, he told Lorre: “I’m grateful you accepted it. What did you think?” Lorre admitted he hadn’t read it. “When you are asked to jump into a barrel of shit,” he added, “you don’t ask if it’s feet first or head first.”

8. Hallelujah, it’s a bum
Lorre returned to his adopted country of Germany in 1951 – 20 years after M, and 18 years after fleeing Hitler’s stormtroopers – to direct his first film, Der Verlorene (The Lost One). His unorthodox audition technique included asking Gisela Trowe to wiggle her bum and spending three days creeping out Lotte Rausch, in character. The film created the peerlessly eerie word “Totmacher!” (“death maker!”). In fact, Lorre was no stranger to inventing words, his singular vocabulary comprised of heptalk and neologisms, including the multi-purpose “kreep”, a favourite of the many impressionists to whom he inadvertently gave a living. The film divided critics, who bristled at the morphine-addled director’s confrontational approach to the issue complicity in Nazism, and never found an audience. When Lorre went back to America the following February, he made the coolest packing list of all time: a toothbrush, a razor, a washcloth and a 35mm print of Der Verlorene.

Lorre dancing. One of the best things ever in a movie.
9. Stocking filler
Fans of benign Hollywood anecdotes might like to know that Lorre, Joseph Buloff and Jules Munshin spent two weeks of the Silk Stockings shoot arranging an elaborate practical joke on Rouben Mamoulian – a huge Lorre fan who had rehabilitated many typecast performers from Guy Kibbee to Myrna Loy and Fredric March, and cast the 53-year-old actor in a delightful comic role for this remake of Ninotchka. At a cost of $10,000, approved by studio chief Louis B. Mayer, the trio’s first filmed take of the 'Too Bad (We Can't Go Back to Moscow)' number was a re-written version that began: “When you’re working for Mamoulian, it’s like working for Napoleon.” At the end of the shoot, they presented him with the film, as well as a transcript of the lyrics. Speaking of Napoleon, Lorre's first theatrical ambition was to embody the Little General. The closest he ever got was shooting publicity stills for a 1937 play that fell apart before rehearsal.

10. Ranting and Raven
He improvised most of his dialogue in the 1963 Roger Corman comedy-horror, The Raven, including this memorable opening exchange:
Vincent Price: “Shall I ever hold again that radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?”
Lorre: “How the hell should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?”

*though he’s also notably fond of a TV episode called Man of the South, co-starring Steve McQueen


Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Review of 2015: Part 3 - Books (and a tiny bit of TV)

I've been trying to read a book a week. Here's how I got on. (My other reviews of the year, concerning movies and live shows are up already.)


For me, this was a year dominated by four writers, but really it was the year of Vonnegut. The year that I found a writer who moved me, made me think, and made me howl with laughter. Who seemed to be writing just for me. And who taught me that the only person you should write like is yourself (I finished my first book this year) and who was responsible for, erm, nine of the 47 books I've read. (I could still make it to 52.)

Of Vonnegut's works, Slaughterhouse Five is the obvious stand-out - the book that drew most memorably on his own experiences, and made his name - but the polemically dazzling God Bless You, Mr Rosewater is a withering critique of capitalism (with a distinctly sentimental side), and in Mother Night he mines race hate for all the black comedy he can find, with dangerously funny results.

My favourite book of the year, though, was Philip Roth's American Pastoral, a masterwork, spun with bravura style, that deals with immigrant identity, the unknowability of everyone, the disappointments of adulthood and the utter chaos of existence, as a legendary high school sports star turned upstanding citizen has his life exploded by an unexpected act of violence. It is his daughter “who transports him out of the longed for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counter-pastoral — into the indigenous American berserk", as Roth unforgettably characterises it. The Human Stain, by the same author, isn't far behind.

The third author who took up quite a bit of my time this year was John Steinbeck, whose trilogy of books about the Californian labour struggle in the 1930s are absolutely astounding. Everyone knows about the trim, simple Of Mice and Men, and the sprawling, experimental Grapes of Wrath, but prior to those he wrote a book every bit as good: In Dubious Battle: a muddy, hungry, violent chronicle of a strike, a neglected classic apparently too abrasive, gloomy and superficially cynical to have ever found much of an audience.

And then there was Jane Austen, whose escapist but often weighty works allowed me to pass many a contented hour. I've read Pride and Prejudice and have Northanger Abbey left to read - of the others, it was Persuasion that left the greatest impact on me. Written as Austen was ailing (and so facing a severe race against time), it seems like the articulation of her entire worldview, albeit within the boundaries of a conventional romance.

The yawn also rises.

Other highlights of the year were Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, Truman Capote's legendary In Cold Blood (which falls somewhere between fiction and non-fiction) and Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. The worst novel I read was Hemingway's tedious, self-indulgent early work, The Sun Also Rises: a great title and a singular style in search of anything like a story.


I tend to read quite a lot of books about movies (my 48th book, in which I'm currently engrossed, is about Peter Lorre), and this year was no different. Of the biographies, David Stenn's excellent, meticulously-researched Jean Harlow book, Bombshell, was by far the best, though Charles Affron's work on Lillian Gish, and the actress's own memoir - The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - are well worth seeking out if you're a fan, as I am (bit of a long shot). The same can't be said of the Warren William and William Haines books I read, since William enjoyed an almost uniquely dull existence, while Haines's move away from Hollywood and into interior decorating really doesn't make for the most thrilling reading.

Far better were Victor S. Navasky's cool, forensic audit of the Hollywood witchhunt, Naming Names, and the non-fiction novel, Tinseltown, which paints an unforgettable portrait of the movie community in the 1920s and may just have solved the murder of top director, William Desmond Taylor.

Besides Gish, the deceased lady I'm most interested in (not romantically) is the tragic British songstress Sandy Denny, and I read two books about her as well. Neither of them were all that great, unlike this blog I wrote about her, which is the most-read thing on here this year. Peter Hitchens bought the Mick Houghton book from me on Amazon, which was odd.

Away from the arts, I enjoyed four books by Jon Ronson, of which his latest - So You've Been Publicly Shamed - was in many ways the most serious and frightening, as well as the most coherent and complete. There were two Ben Macintyre books (Operation Mincemeat was great fun), two about the Mitford sisters, a horrible, compulsively-readable true crime tale (True Story by Michael Finkel), and Bridget Christie's utterly charming concoction, A Book for Her, which discusses feminism, comedy and campaigning. She is wonderful.



Sexy brilliant actor man.

I accidentally moved into a flat without a TV aerial, so everything I saw was on iPlayer or DVD. A Moon for the Misbegotten, a 1975 TV movie based on Eugene O'Neill's play and starring Jason Robards, was head and shoulders above the rest. The BBC's adaptation of Wolf Hall had its flaws, but also the greatest performance of this and perhaps any other year, in Mark Rylance's Thomas Cromwell. By contrast, even the acting powers of Ben Whishaw couldn't save London Spy, which relinquished its curious hold on the audience after three interesting episodes, and fell down the toilet. The Apprentice was great, especially the interview round, but Jack Dee's baffling descent into unfunniness proceeded to sink You're Fired without trace. Meanwhile, Adam Curtis's iPlayer exclusive, Bitter Lake, did something utterly new. And the best sitcom of the modern era, Parks and Recreation, came to a close, with something between a bang and a whimper.


Thanks for reading, and for all the comments and support this year. :-)

Review of 2015: Part 2 - Live

I've been to quite a lot of stuff in That London this year: 16 plays, 21 gigs, 19 other bits and bobs, so I thought I'd tell you about some of my favourites. The first part of my review of the year, dealing with movies, is here.

That man I like.


I saw some big names in some big plays in 2015: Ralph Fiennes in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, Benedict Cumberbatch in the rather disappointing Hamlet, and Kevin Spacey in Clarence Darrow, but my favourite six productions were these:

6. Antigone (Barbican Theatre) - A frequently dazzling introduction to Greek tragedy, with Juliette Binoche a beautifully compromised heroine, and seamlessly modern staging. A few lulls, though also - surprisingly - a few lols.

5. The Elephant Man (Theatre Royal Haymarket) - The production feels too short by a good 20 minutes and has no real dramatic climax, though it's illuminated by a superlative, all-American cast, particularly screen star Bradley Cooper, who made it big in that abhorrent, detestable slice of Fratwank, The Hangover, before revealing he could actually act the pants of most people in Hollywood, and makes for a simply sublime John Merrick.

4. The Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre) - An unexpectedly hilarious, specific presentation of the Wilde play, with Suchet taking top billing, but a modern Algy (Philip Cumbus) and a vivacious Cecily (the superb Imogen Doel) taking top honours. Just a delight.

3. Gypsy (Savoy Theatre) - This is a fun, funny, intensely sad translation of Sondheim’s 1959 musical about the creation of striptease sensation Gypsy Rose Lee (Lara Pulver), focusing on her manager, Rose (Imelda Staunton), the ultimate stage mother. A work of real emotional heft, it starts off light and sweet and frothy, then takes us deep into the souls and psyches of its characters, peddling a little of Sondheim’s broad sordidness (which isn’t really my sort of thing but works alright), before flooring us with a succession of gut punches. Completely compelling even at two-and-a-half-hours, it’s a show shot through with wit, ugliness, angst, desperation, panache and pizzazz, from the stylised, skewed-perspective sets to a slew of stellar songs and Staunton’s sensational central performance, the best I've ever seen her give.

2. Hangmen (Royal Court Theatre) - In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh returned to the London stage with a killer new play about the country's second-best hangman (David Morrissey) - on the day that hanging is abolished. It's both perilously dark and astonishingly funny, McDonagh weaving together his comic and thriller-ish strands with utter majesty, as a mysterious blonde stranger appears in Morrissey's Oldham pub, setting in motion a truly grisly chain of events. After the partial misfire that was his Hollywood debut, Seven Psychopaths, this is a stunning, seamless return to form from one of the sharpest, wittiest and most interesting writers working today, a work so incredibly entertaining that it's only when the dust settles that you realise there was real meat on these bones.

1. A View from the Bridge (Wyndham's Theatre) - Arthur Miller followed up The Crucible with another play dealing allegorically with the communist witchhunts: A View from the Bridge, a story of Freud and informing in which longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) is tempted to turn in an illegal immigrant for daring to romance the niece he idolises (Phoebe Fox). Ivo von Hove's production opts for minimal staging but maximum power, with a small, square, boxed-off set, scenes bleeding one into the next through intelligently-paced entrances, and a finale in which no-one is left untainted. The shaven-headed Strong, facial muscles twitching, disappears into his character entirely, inhabiting this tortured, conflicted Sicilian, polemicising endlessly, though whether to convince himself or others isn't clear. As the nymph whose sexual blossoming has set tragedy in motion, Phoebe Fox is also exceptional, with impeccable delivery and a sensuality that's careless, studied and insecure. This gobsmacking production, powered by two performances of exquisite clarity, nails both its specifics and its wider resonances, leaving you feeling exhausted, destroyed and yet curiously euphoric.



(c) Paul Sanders/Royal Albert Hall

The best show I saw at work this year was Titanic Live, an experience that I wrote about here. Other highlights included Back to the Future - also a 'film and orchestra' presentation - gigs from Bob Dylan (twice), Van Morrison, The Who, Noel Gallagher, Art Garfunkel and particularly Dave Gilmour, and the Sherlock and Leonard Bernstein Proms. Because trying to put together a list of the best shows I've seen anywhere is either going to see me accused of bias or fired, I thought I'd tell you instead about my top SEVEN shows at other venues: a list so good that even a reformed Fleetwood Mac aren't in it.

7. Patti Smith (The Roundhouse) - She did Horses. In its glorious entirety. I sat on the floor of the balcony, as I had sciatica, but even up there she blew me away, her voice a time machine, the songs as groundbreaking, fresh and immediate as ever they were. I've rarely seen any on stage with such quicksilver charisma.

6. Ennio Morricone: A Life in Music (Rival Venue) - The good, the only slightly less good and the rather obscure, Morricone's greatest hits set was a joy to behold. And I met Elizabeth McGovern in the interval, shortly after hearing her theme from Once Upon a Time in America.

5. David Ford (Borderline) - This show converted me from a foolish sceptic to a die-hard fan (I was accompanied by wife, who thinks Ford is fantastic - which it turns out he is). His 'one man band' show, built on loops - with him playing every instrument - was powerful, poignant and eye-opening, revealing a songwriter and a performer of unusual potency.

4. Paul McCartney (Rival Venue) - It didn't really occur to me that seeing McCartney live was still a thing you could do, though I listened to Trippin' the Live Fantastic pretty much on repeat when I was a kid. I got around to it this year and had a ball, courtesy of a two-and-a-half hour show packed with just about everything you could have asked for, but lit especially by Blackbird, I'm Looking Through You and the immortal Golden Slumbers. I'll always prefer Dylan, but his apparent contempt for his audience is particularly noticeable when contrasted with the waves of affection apparently emanating from McCartney. Odd, when you consider that the audience's biggest cheer of the night was for the fireworks in Live and Let Die - if you like fireworks that much, they actually do fireworks shows.

3. Yasmine Hamdan (Scala) - Last year's gig at the Hall's Elgar Room was an absolute revelation, so a year on I had to see her again. Hamdan's seductive, uncompromising manner, superb songs and ethereal but full-barrelled vocals make her live shows a unique experience, and she even remembered me.

2. John Grant (Hammersmith Apollo) - This was a simply sensational show from one of this year's overriding obsessions, the incomparable John Grant. I've never known a run of songs at a show quite like Glacier/Queen of Denmark/GMF, while It Doesn't Matter to Him took the roof off the place: only now it's somehow triumphant, rather than blisteringly raw and acutely painful. His voice, his charm, his dancing - it was an extraordinary evening. He's at the Hall in June, actually, so hopefully I'll be seeing him again soon.

1. Basia Bulat (The Slaughtered Lamb) - An evening of perfectly vocalised folk from a distinctive and remarkable singer-songwriter: blissful and heartbreaking in turn, and exultant in its quiet majesty. I still don't know what the opening song was (it possesses the pressing, tempting refrain, "Won't you let me in?" and may be on her upcoming record). The audience wouldn't let her quit playing, so when she finally left, it was because she'd run out of songs. You have to see her live.



I saw four comedy shows, of which Bridget Christie and Stewart Lee's were the undoubted pick, both fusing silliness, satire and social comment to astounding, uproarious effect. I saw Q&As with Al Pacino, Ryan Gosling, Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, the cast and crew of Vera Drake, and several key players in Sense and Sensibility - the latter was one of the best things I went to this year, and I learned a lot. The Spectre premiere, I've discussed already, but that was very special indeed. And my wife organised a knock-out event at Westminster's Central Hall to 'Bring Back the NHS', starring Ian McKellen and Charlotte Church.

At the Hall, I saw Sondheim's rarely-staged Follies in Concert, Cirque du Soleil's often jaw-dropping Kooza and a pre-show talk at Interstellar Live that featured Christopher Nolan, Hans Zimmer and Prof Brian Cox, and my nearest cinema - the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north-west London - brought hit plays to the screen, including Maxine Peake as Hamlet (very good) and Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Frankenstein (not at all good). Compared to last year, when I went positively exhibition-crazy, I saw only the National Portrait Gallery's Audrey Hepburn one, and a Venetian drawing special at Oxford's Ashmolean.

The best of the grabbag of oddities enjoyed this year, though, was the superb Letters Live, which brought to life the seminal Letters of Note book. "Have you ever had a dream about a show and wished it could really have happened?" I asked. You can find out the answer here.


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Review of 2015: Part 1 - Movies

I may have curbed the obsessive movie-watching a little this year and last, but I still managed to catch 167 movies, 134 of them for the first time, and 31 of them at the cinema. In this, part one of my review of the year (live performances and books are coming up later in separate instalments), I'll talk you through the best of them, imagining myself to be some sort of gold/flax filter, rather than just a 31-year-old man who sits in the dark watching telly. First up are my top 10 movies of the year, then the 15 best new discoveries, followed by a brief round-up and a few old favourites.

Top 10 of 2015:

10. Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

Director: Jeanie Finlay
What we said: "A fantastic story, told almost as well as it could be, about a masked Elvis soundalike who was marketed to a public that didn’t want to believe the King was dead. Working with a limited amount of archive film, director Jeanie Finlay weaves this stranger-than-fiction tale with the use of talking heads, intelligent reconstructions, melancholic bucolic footage and audio interviews, and while a few interesting eyewitnesses are absent – including Ellis’s various wives – and it doesn't always delve as deeply as it might, the result is a compelling, fascinating film with a couple of devastating late twists."

9. Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott and Ralph Fiennes
I, erm, went to the premiere of this movie, as it was at my office. What we said: "Since when did Bond movies get good? Spectre isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn great: riotously enjoyable, genuinely affecting and with a handling of Bond mythology that’s fresh yet respectful, the film pervaded by a swaggering self-confidence (and featuring additional dialogue by West End superstar Jez Butterworth!). If it is Mendes and Craig’s final Bond, it’s a good one to bow out with, but I really hope it’s not, since its balance of artistry, intelligence and blockbuster smarts lifts it way, way out of the ordinary. Not only did Bond films get good, but they’ve stayed good."

8. Mistress America

Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Seth Barrish and Juliet Brett
What we said: "Noah Baumbach is reunited with Greta Gerwig, the stunningly gifted comedian who is to screen humour what Michelle Williams and Jennifer Lawrence are to drama – i.e. better at playing it than anyone else on the planet. And for Mistress America, the director has reinvented himself as Howard Hawks for a fast-talking, ultimately old-fashioned screwball comedy of absurdism and interruption in which Gerwig is essentially his Ros Russell. It’s a film of moral and narrative daring. That, a vivid NY atmosphere and a pair of exceptional performances: Kirke’s pretty, pretty lost freshman holding her own against Brooke, another superb entry in Gerwig’s gallery of appealing, aimless young women, drifting attractively towards oblivion."

7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

J. J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Harrison Ford
What we said: "Well, J. J. Abrams certainly seems to understand what Star Wars fans want more than George Lucas does, because The Force Awakens is fun - and there's not a discussion of international trade tariffs in sight. For great portions of the movie, I just had a big grin plastered across my face. It gets Star Wars, it really does. It knows how much we love the original trilogy, and it loves it too. That affection, evidenced by a million tiny touches, doesn't always blend seamlessly with the new narrative, but it does underpin and underscore everything that happens."

6. Birdman

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts
What we said: Like last year's best film, Boyhood, this gave me the feeling of euphoria that comes from seeing something utterly new and startlingly ambitious. Whereas Linklater's movie was wise, universal and steeped in contemporary Americana, this one is pin-sharp, blackly comic and streaked with greasepaint, with at least two scenes of fantastical wonder, one of underpants-based humiliation, and a dozen comprising stylised human drama between vivid, unforgettable characters.

5. Inside Out

Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Kaitlyn Dias
What we said: This is a major return to form for Pixar: an extremely creative, wilfully different movie that draws on inspirations as diverse as The Beano’s Numskulls, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, but has an existential imagination and emotional sensibility more akin to an arthouse movie.

4. Whiplash

Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons and Melissa Benoit
What we said: For once, the hype barely goes far enough. Whiplash knows what its strong suit is: the dynamic between the combustible conductor and his potential protégé, whose development from a taciturn up-and-comer to a bleeding-handed, budding Buddy Rich not afraid to stand his ground, is invigorating to watch. As an antidote to innumerable 'inspirational teacher' of insurmountable treacliness, it's undeniably welcome. But more than that: it's not just great... it's one of the greats.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult
What we said: "An exhilarating feminist actioner that unleashes torrents of water on the risible '80s Mad Max films from an improbably great height." Its hold on me has only grown throughout the year, while the initial impact of Birdman and Whiplash has lessened a little.

2. Carol

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler
What we said: A small miracle of a film, about a quiet, emotionally straightforward shopgirl (Rooney Mara) - on the cusp of self-revelation - who falls in love with a middle-aged housewife (Cate Blanchett), herself careening towards divorce; a blissfully textured, stunningly authentic and seductively realistic portrait of love busting up through the floorboards of stifling conformity.

1. Amy

Director: Asif Kapadia
What we said: "A haunting, heartbreaking and stunningly brilliant film from Senna director Asif Kapadia, which takes us into the confidence of Amy Winehouse, as the bolshy, big-voiced, jazzy Jewish girl from North London becomes a megastar, while her personal demons, her relationship with a drug addict, and a ravenous, amoral press proceed to rip her to shreds. It's a tough watch, but it feels essential, not just for its vivid picture of a fascinating, deeply troubled young woman, but also for its wider significance: as a plea for people to stop being so horribly selfish, to stop seeing excess and illness as ‘rock and roll’ and drug abuse as a joke, and for the media to realise that if it wants to paint itself as a crusading Fifth Estate, then some basic humanity wouldn’t go amiss."


Top 15 discoveries of 2015:

... being the older movies that I happened upon for the first time this year.

15. Stranger on Horseback (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) - A sensational little Western about the coming of law and order, with gun-toting circuit judge Joel McCrea trying to bring the son of a powerful pioneer to justice. Made by McCrea and director Jacques Tourneur the same year as Wichita, it's a vastly superior outing in every way: a tight, slim oater that does wonders with a tiny budget, boasting a riveting story, a crackling script that includes a superb monologue for villain John McIntire and a stunning climax making full use of whip-cracking desert dominatrix Miroslava.

14. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) - Gloriously, this blasts the shit out of those laboriously tagged 'Marvel Cinematic Universe' films, and feels like everything Avengers should have been but wasn't. It's irreverent where Avengers was smug, deft where that film was portentous, and unpredictable where its rival was ponderous and pompous.

13. Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973) - Examining and celebrating the artifice, the potential for perfection and yet the compromise of cinema (a collaborative medium in which logistical improvisation is king), the film starts with a scene that needs to be retaken and goes on from there, tipping us a wink as it wheels out a gentle set-piece about a misbehaving cat or a hairy stuntman doubling for Bisset, tightening the knot in your stomach as a cast or crew member begins to go to pieces, and then slowly but surely revealing its subtle depths: an ability to move, enchant and beguile, as all truly great movies do.

12. Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013) - A simply wonderful movie about journo Steve Coogan trying to trace the adopted son of Irish pensioner Judi Dench, a victim of the notorious Magdalene laundries. It’s often desperately bleak, but also unstintingly warm-hearted, full of the most brilliant jokes, and as emotionally and intellectually rewarding as anything I’ve seen this year.

11. True Heart Susie (D. W. Griffith, 1919) (Cinema) - Maybe my favourite ever Lillian Gish performance, with everyone's favourite tiny-mouthed acting titan playing the "simple, plain" Susie, an angelic, motherless farmer who sells her cow to fund sweetheart Robert Harron's college career, then watches, powerless as he falls for a tight-skirted, powder-faced party animal (Clarine Seymour). Yes, that is the best premise for a movie ever, thank you for asking.

10. Toys in the Attic (George Roy Hill, 1963) - Toys in the attic and skeletons in the closet: a very entertaining slice of Southern Gothic from commie playwright Lillian Hellman: a little ripe, a little familiar, but extremely well done. It's largely shot on one set, but future New Hollywood hero George Roy Hill directs it all extremely nicely, and much of the acting is an absolute treat, with Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller dominating in two mesmerising characterisations. Both play women who are blind and deluded, though in quite different ways, Page hitting a peak of quivering self-loathing, Hiller shuffling the moods as she did so superbly in these mid-career characterisations that she loved to (infrequently) take on: not the shimmering archetypes she had embodied in Bernard Shaw plays, but starkly real characters made beautiful by their flaws and contradictions.

9. Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934) - A short, sharp shock that still reverberates down the decades.

8. East Side, West Side (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949) - A glossy, unbelievably entertaining Hollywood meller set in New York, with Stanwyck as a wronged wife, Charisse the girl-next-door, Heflin's effortlessly modern performance, Gardner's feline sensuality, Mason's voice, colourful bits for William Conrad, Beverly Michaels and Gale Sondergaard - her last film before being blacklisted. For what it is, close to perfect.

7. Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, 2002) - Err, yes, a second documentary about Hitler on this year's list, meaning that over 13% of favourite discoveries this year are about him. This film is just 87 minutes of a single talking head. Thankfully that talking head is Traudl Junge, an 82-year-old German woman who worked as Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 until he shot himself. Her reminiscences of the “kindly old gentleman” she worked for – contrasted with the “monster” she regards him as in retrospect – make for utterly gripping viewing, as she talks in circles about her guilt, sorrow and confusion. Her memories are moving, maddening, sometimes baffling, and the film is quite brilliantly structured, with a stunning final sequence.

6. A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929) - A late, great British silent: a dizzying tale of romantic and sexual obsession, its slight story dazzlingly directed by Anthony Asquith. It's a little masterpiece, and it'll keep you guessing right up to the finish, while exalting you through its refusal to recognise the limits of late silent cinema.

5. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Müller, 1993) - If you find yourself saying things like: “The reason I sent that telegram to Hitler was...” or “... Hitler hated it, ask anyone who was there”, it may be time to take a long, hard look at your life. The greatest female film director of all time – and the only one to have filmed a Nuremberg Rally – had been shopping this project around for a while, and finding that more than 200 respected documentarians wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole. Enter Ray Müller, who somehow manages to walk the trickiest, most perilous of tightropes: making a credible, even-handed and deeply insightful film about Leni Riefenstahl in which she is the only interviewee.

4. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) - The wife and the mistress of the world’s most unpleasant man plot his death in this stunning genre-hopper from Wages of Fear director Clouzot. It’s cynical and gripping, with flashes of humour and humanity, and Simone Signoret exuding malignant cool as a peroxide, jump-suited murderess with killer shades. There's twist after twist after twist - and the final two are just dynamite.

3. American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) - Magical, lightning-in-a-bottle stuff: a flavourful, nostalgic and sentimental movie - somehow made by George Lucas - with a cast of future stars as high school kids whose stories interweave on the last night before college in 1962. And it has Harrison Ford as a grumpy drag racer in a cowboy hat.

2. The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) - A caustic, troubling, profound examination of a Southern family brought low – or high and to prominence, depending on how you view it – by a sea of moral dissolution. You could argue that the film’s delineation between good and evil is rather simplistic for a work aspiring to high art, but it’s that heightened sensibility that gives it much of its haunting power, particularly as the vultures gather and you realise that Hellman’s vision of America – imagined by Toland, enlivened by a killer ensemble, given order by the gifted Wyler – is far darker than anyone could have expected, the blanched Davis poisoned by greed, leaving goodness, humanity and virtue all gasping for breath.

1. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996) - A middle-class black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) goes in search of her birth mother and finds a coarse, tearful, loving, unhappy, chain-smoking working-class white woman (Blenda Blethyn), whose family is a powder keg just waiting for a match. There aren’t many films that change the way you see the world. Or many pieces of art, for that matter. Secrets & Lies does just that. It's brilliantly conceived, bracingly authentic and emotionally overpowering, opting at its climax not for soap or sentiment, but something truly remarkable: the truth. It's simply a masterpiece.


Miss Gish. Now and always.

Crazes: Bette Davis
Continuing preoccupations: Lillian Gish, Star Wars, Joel McCrea Westerns
Stuff I caught up on: Books, to be honest.
Revelations: Oft-derided silent star John Gilbert. He was weak in La Boheme, but superb in The Big Parade and his early talkie triumph, Downstairs. One to watch.
Happiest surprises: The barely-known, never-before-released Stranger on Horseback being a killer little movie, rather than a generic B Western. The 1949 version of Little Women still casting its strange and enduring spell, after a slightly rocky beginning.
Biggest disappointment: Quite a few. Cobain: Montage of Heck fucked it up badly: it was incoherent, embarrassing and portentous. The original Mad Max films were nothing. The Yearling wasn't awful, but I was expecting more poetry and also more realism from a movie often classed among the greats.
Oddest film: Batman Returns seems to misjudge its audience at every turn. Séance on a Wet Afternoon amorality might give you nightmares.
Worst films: Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River, was absolutely woeful. That I managed to see several worse films - a couple of B Westerns, the Stanwyck rom-com The Bride Wore Boots, the execrable Adventure in Sahara and particularly the WWII propaganda film, The Power of the Press - was in some ways an accomplishment. In some ways.
Some favourite moments: The dance at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy, the meeting in the cafe in Secrets & Lies, All That Jazz's living room number, which boots Meet Me in St Louis's cakewalk into the modern era and fuses sex, sentiment and sheer, unadulterated genius.
2015 was... A good year at work, a fair one at the cinema.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Winter's Bone at the Barbican
I was bored by: Too many films. Sometimes I fear I'm running out of good ones, especially in my beloved '20s-'40s Hollywood bracket.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute: My series on the original Star Wars movies wasn't bad.


15 I revisited in 2015:

The top 10 are actually the best 10 films I've seen all year.

15. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) (Cinema)
14. A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, 1945) (and Spare Time, for that matter, on the same link)
13. Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
12. A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe, 1965)
11. Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920)
10. Kiss Me Kate 3D (George Sidney, 1953) (Cinema)
9. Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) (Cinema, film with live orchestra)
8. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
7. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
6. The Wind (Victor Sjӧstrӧm, 1928) (Cinema)
5. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
4. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
3. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) (Cinema)
2. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
1. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)


Thanks for reading. Why not come back for the other instalments, if you can be bothered?