Cinema 2016: An octopus, puppet-sex and naked Germans in Bucharest

2016 has been largely disappointing in Hollywood terms. Two Oscar frontrunners – Arrival and Manchester by the Sea – go down as two of the poorest films I’ve seen in a while. Thank fuck then for those independently-funded films, free from the leprous touch of studio execs with corporate agendas to push and money-making A-listers to cast. Here’s my top five of the year.

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is a glorious erotic tale of conniving duplicity set during the Japanese colonial era in Korea. Every fucker (and fucking there is) in the film is dressed to the nines in their waviest early 20th century garms, as cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung bathes sensual washroom escapades in stunningly milky steam, or permits uncle’s brutal beastly basement the dankness it deserves. After 2013’s mildly disappointing Stoker, Park-chan Wook jumps right back in with his old bedmate ‘revenge’ to deliver the most peverted bit of high-brow stylishness you’ll see all year. This film is twisted – in more ways than one – and is well-worth a watch on general release in the UK this spring.

Anomalisa

Let’s travel back to the heady pre-Brexit/Trump days of early spring 2016 for this stop-motion creation from Charlie Kaufman that desconstructs human bonds and relationships with unflinchingly depressing honesty. Heady days indeed! Anomalisa utilises its puppets to brilliant effect by creating a rain-ridden Cincinnati in which British customer-service expert Michael perceives everyone – including his wife and son – as an identically looking and sounding white American man. All except for one anomalous individual. This perception-error can be viewed as a metaphor for depression, or, if you’re feeling really positive, a metaphor for the overwhelming sameness of our mundane existences. Regardless of how you feel about this upbeat symbolism, Anomalisa has the most realistic sex scene you’ll see, ever. Check it out on Netflix now for that alone.

Paterson

There’s two ways to view Jim Jarmusch’s latest slice of quirk, Paterson. One of them entails reflecting on the ease with which marginal satisfaction can stumble slowly into the abyss. But you’ve just read about Anomalisa and are about to read about United States of Love, so we’ll stick with the other interpretation. At its core, Paterson is about Adam Driver’s superbly-nuanced poet Paterson, who drives a bus in the New Jersey town Paterson. It’s a gentle slow-burner of a film in which we observe seven continuous days of Paterson’s life. He drives the same bus route every day, listens to the same kookily unrealistic dreams of his girlfriend when he returns and takes her dog for the same walk with a handy bar-stop every evening. As patterns repeat, the audience settles in and joins Paterson in a neat meditation on the beauty of the routine and the everyday.

United States of Love

Do you like greyness? If so, you’ve come to the right place with Tomasz Wasilewski’s latest and most accomplished offering, United States of Love. His earlier works, In A Bedroom (2012) and Floating Skyscrapers (2013) are both laden with listlessly empty relationships. In this achingly soul-destroying masterpiece, Wasilewski develops his driving theme further to deliver a bleak dissection of four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society. The film is set in 1990, shortly after Poland’s independence from communism, and can be understood as a critique of an emergent predatory capitalism that disconnects state from society and individuals from each other. However, the mute howls of piercing despondency that intersperse each character’s story have a universal existential truth to them. To top it all off, Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu expertly brushes every scene with a sparse palette of washed-out bluish monochrome. It’s 50 shades of grey, but not as you know it.

Toni Erdmann

If you thought you knew how to organise a teambuilding brunch reception, think again. Toni Erdmann is a rare Bulgarian evil-spirit cleansing costume of a film, a tragi-comedy that dons a full suit of absurdity and then slowly strips it off to reveal a remarkably naked pathos. The film revolves around father Winfried’s unexpected visit to his daughter Ines at her workplace and residence in Bucharest. Winfried leaves after a few awkward days, but his titular ‘friend’ remains. A sequence of unfathomable cringe unfolds across the rest of the trip, in which Toni pushes Ines beyond all appropriate boundaries with the hope that she might swap her unwavering seriousness for a more life-affirming happiness. In a spectacularly unique move, director Maren Ade also manages that precious feat of writing a German comedy that is genuinely hilarious. The joke’s on us now – catch this one on the big screen and take your dad with you too.

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Łódź: The empty, ugly arsehole of Poland

Fuck me, these blog posts are jumping all over the place aren’t there? Like an unhinged kid’s toy, I’m out of the box and on a haphazard journey, writing about Berlin after I’ve been in Japan and then venting sanctimonius pretentiousness about an Oscar frontrunner before I even begin to detail what happened in between Deutschland and Nippon. And I’ve not written about sex or drugs or obscure rap for months. Well, the trip continues today as we shift back to early December and a brief return to Poland…

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As cabin crew prepare for landing, the metallic blades cut through those dreamlike bundles of ephemeral condensation. Then the dream gives way to reality and a vast grey aesthetic unfolds across the landscape, momentarily interspersed by the subtle distraction of light drizzle. This sort of palette is usually reserved for use by a cinematographer making the most of their craft. Yet, in spite of the tannoy announcements and the habituated waiting, this is no film set. I’m back in Poland, the land where I feel welcomed by the dour death scent of cigarettes, the place where I can get real with the mundane magnificence of Soviet realism, the setting for a whole manner of bleakly comic dialogues that are alive and sharp and surprisingly energising in their depressive duality.

Why Łódź-ou want to come here?

Fittingly enough, I arrive in Łódź, the home of Polish cinema, where Kieślowski, Polanski and Wajda all perfected their trade. And one of the first things that strikes you about Łódź is the manner in which nobody can quite believe that you, a tourist, are actually there. A brief exchange of messages with an old housemate now living in Warsaw reveals that “Łódź is the ugliest city in Poland, even though some say it has a vibe.” Likewise, a Couchsurfing meet begins with an extended discussion about how it would have been much better for me to visit Poznań, as “there is nothing to do in Łódź.” Even the cafe toilets are adorned with inspirational messages, such as: “What did you expect from Łódź? Like…nothing?!” In this situation, I only have myself to blame. After all, it was just a couple of months back that a friend from Gdańsk provided me with the wonderful quote: “Poland is just like an ass. And in the middle of it – there is a hole. And this hole – it’s Łódź exactly.”

Mushrooms, Moomins and tracksuits

Admittedly, when you’ve been primed with such overbearing negativity, it’s difficult to approach a town with anything other than the grey wolf of disappointment howling sweet ‘there’s-nothing-heres’ in your ear. In my quest to find something – anything – I unearthed a few truffles.

First up, there’s a cracking short Polish silent film from 1902 in which some elaborately dressed men land on a planet, enter a mushroom cave and then find out that the mushrooms are actually fantastical other-wordly lifeforms that are bent on attacking them. I couldn’t tell you what this film is called, but it’s located in the basement of the Łódź Museum of Cinematography, just past some museum attendants, who again, look at you very strangely when it emerges that you’re a non-Polish tourist. Also in the museum is a brilliant section devoted to the history of Polish animation. Notably, there’s plenty about the Łódź animation studio Se-ma-for, which created the original stop-motion Moomins series in the late 70s.

Next, a humongous shout to Pan tu nie stał, a Łódź designer inspired by retro Polish visual icons and words. I could spend all afternoon browsing their t-shirts, full of vintage animal stamp prints and Stanisław Lem’s slowly receding hairline. Instead, I satisfy myself with a cosy patchwork jumper and a disco polo patch, complete with authentic uninspiring late-90s typeface. If you happen to be in Łódź, Warsaw or Kraków, definitely check out this shop. And while we’re on the subject of fashion, I can’t neglect to mention Elektryczny Węgorz, a homegrown Łódź musician with superb tracksuit aesthetic.

In true Łódź style, I’ll leave you with an animation from local director Balbina Bruszewska (starring the aforementioned and suitably tracksuited Elektryczny Węgorz). Contrary to popular Polish belief, there is something in Łódź