Just The A’s


As part of my life laundry, I’m attempting to be more selective in my viewing/ reading and therefore getting rid of anything that has dated badly. Or in the case of Spike Milligan’s ‘Q’ shows (a very long-running anarchic comedy sketch series), very badly indeed, with its comedy blackface and sexism not really making up for its rampant peculiarity.

In many cases I’m opening boxes filled with DVDs for the first time in years, and a quick glance confirms my personal preferences. I’m shocked that, apart from MCUs, there are hardly any American films here, probably because I wasn’t really raised on them. There’s an awful lot of SF/fantasy/horror. The only romcoms are, tellingly, French and Spanish, the action films are Nordic, Latino and Korean, the SF films Russian.

Many of the films I’ve kept are because I had direct experience of their making. For example, when Jude Law was rehearsing for Steven Spielberg’s ‘AI: Artificial Intelligence’ he told me he had spent a month learning to tap-dance before Spielberg cut the sequence – you can see where it’s missing.

A film buddy agrees with my often dubious taste in movies and admits that he doesn’t have many Hollywood films either. ‘It’s all the guns,’ he says. ‘Nearly every American film has guns in.’ Of course that doesn’t make them bad, but there’s a reason why I never use guns in novels; it’s an easy, lazy way of kickstarting plots. Having said that, the use of guns in films has lately spread from America to Europe and SE Asia.

The US films I’ve kept include Winter’s Bone, Harold & Maude, Harry & Tonto, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Producers. Does this terrifying huge collection of DVDs give me a glimmer of an insight into my subconscience? I’m not so sure. Under the A’s we have;

Aniara (Nordic SF)

Ali Baba – (French musical)

After The Dark – (Thailand SF)

Anatomie 1 & 2 (German thrillers)

Adam & Paul (Irish comic-drama)

Along With The Gods 1 & 2 (Korean fantasy)

Agora (Spanish – historical)

Angel-A (French fantasy)

Adam’s Apple (Nordic drama)

Avalon (Polish SF)

To put this in perspective there are at least another two hundred and fifty films in the A category, including just four Hollywood titles. The origins of the films never came to my attention when I was choosing them; they made the collection because I liked their stories. Not all of them are any good, of course. Perhaps I was swayed by the marketing.

I saw ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ dubbed in my local cinema as a teen, and one Hollywood critic described it (filed under ‘A’ because of the director) as ‘the creative visionary’s lost masterpiece’, but that was definitely pushing it a bit. It’s a passable B-movie based on a very silly premise, but I still have it, along with all of Argento’s other films, even the real stinkers, ie. everything after ‘Phenomena’.

The reason why Hollywood and international films had a level playing ground is that I had equal access to both, and watching a film from the US or Argentina made no difference to me because they were both alien cultures. My collection of British films showed familiar locations, but more importantly familiar characters and attitudes. There were an inordinate number of scenes featuring people in offices, and I quite liked that.

Of course the real difference began at the dawn of cinema. In the US stories were based on sensation and experience and forward action. They hardly needed dialogue at all. Hollywood has always been good at cherry-picking European talent, so for example, the Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock films feel more like European movies.

Many international films have had a profound effect on me because they’re actually about something I can understand. After watching the French-Mexican thriller ‘New Order’ (2020) I still feel distinctly wary whenever I see a can of green paint. ‘Avalon’ was a very different take on virtual reality, and the ‘Anatomie’ films (starring Franka Potente from ‘Run, Lola, Run’) no longer seems fantastical with present-day medical breakthroughs.

Tomorrow I start culling the Bs.



24 comments on “Just The A’s”

  1. Gary Locke says:

    When I lived in Britain in the 70s, I was bowled over by the access cinéastes had to films from all over the world. And I took advantage of the opportunity. In the US at the same time, one could see some mostly older, classic foreign-language films. New content was harder to find. Boston and Cambridge had some art houses where you could see the latest from Carlos Saura or Antonioni playing next to a Howard Hawks retrospective. They’re almost all gone now, replaced by parking lots and pharmacies. I wonder if I would love films more today if those art houses had remained. Or if I had stayed in London.

  2. Paul C says:

    Presumably category A for best foreign films would include Aguirre – Wrath of God, Amarcord and Alphaville (does L’Atalante begin with an L ?). I think I’d keep Harold and Maude above all the others and know every line :

    Psychiatrist: Uh, tell me, Harold, what do you do for fun? What activity gives you a different sense of enjoyment from the others? What do you find fulfilling? What gives you that… special satisfaction ?

    Harold: I go to funerals.

    Talking of clutter, I still have boxfuls of old VHS tapes and an eccentric friend continues to collect laser discs……..

  3. admin says:

    Paul C –

    I once played a great trick on my business partner. As ‘Harold & Maude’ was his favourite film, I got him a copy and had it presented to him by Bud Cort. He never quite got over that. I think the story is in ‘Film Freak’.

  4. Paul C says:

    That’s a wonderful story !

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    As the ‘Film Freak’ and tracer of the British cultural ‘disappeared,’ I’m surprised your ‘A list’ doesn’t includes the likes of:

    * The Appointment (1981) An odd, unsettling Lindsey Vickers horror film.

    * All the Right Noises (1971) A ‘kitchen-sink realism,’ off-centre love story with Olivia Hussey as a 15-year old aspiring actress (about to become ‘legal’ at 16) and Tom Bell as the married man who has an affair with her. Very well acted and affecting despite the subject matter.

    * Assassin (1973) A ‘less-is-more’ grim and quite seedy spy film about the staged assassination of an official in the Air Ministry who is suspected of leaking secrets. Well-paced and acted for what it is.

    * Alive and Kicking (1959) Great fun Ealing-style comedy. Sybil Thorndike (who steals the picture), Kathleen Harrison and Estelle Winwood ‘escape’ from their care home in England only to end up on an island off the Irish coast where, with the help of the locals, including a young Richard Harris, making his film debut, they set up a business knitting sweaters for the fashion market.

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    I feel as if I’d been robbed. There was a theatre in the west end of Vancouver that showed “Art” films, by which I think they meant European, non-English language films. No one I knew went to see them. “Regular” cinemas showed American films from the big studios. If you poked around in the Entertainment section of the paper you might find a tiny ad for, say, La Cage aux Folles, but you weren’t likely to go. I’ve never even heard of 99% of the films mentioned above.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    I think even more than the plague of too often gratuitous gun violence in American films, what I find even more off-putting is that Hollywood has historically extolled the revenge behind it. There is nothing that a ‘good guy’ with a gun can’t resolve. And quite frankly, while a share of the blame is rightfully put on films and TV for the increase in actual gun violence in the US, the unsettling fact is they are ultimately a reflection of American values and the central role guns play in its national mythology.

    Westerns—a genre that dominated early American filmmaking and continues to influence today’s films, thrived because they validated the gun as a solution for conflicts that the legal system couldn’t handle.  When a hero in a film shoots and kills a villain, it’s very reassuring to the popular imagination. It helps reassure American audiences that the individual has the power to solve things. All it takes is a gun and a quick draw.

    Ironically, the real ‘Wild West’ in fact, had some of the toughest firearm restrictions in the country. And as CF points out, whilst gun violence has indeed spread to the cinema of other countries, a key difference is that — whatever you think of it per se — this violence is rarely gratuitous or considered amusing; there is usually a social or cultural context for its justification. Korean audiences, for example, are said not to perceive film violence as ‘fun.’

  8. Joan says:

    I’ve never heard of these films either. I think a lot of movie goers in North America never liked sub titles in a film, that may be why they never seemed to go into wide distribution, that and the big Studios lock on the cinema chains. You would certainly not see them outside of urban areas!

  9. Helen+Martin says:

    Joan, I’m glad (perhaps) to know that it was not just on the West Coast that our cultural exposure was so limited. By the time I was in my teens I was living in a small community accessible only by ferry and with two cinemas twenty miles apart. We got the likes of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Bridge on the River Kwai. I saw Dr. Zhivago in another very small town (as “responsible” adults my husband and I were allowed to sit in the tiny balcony where his students could keep an eye on us all through). Oh, and The World of Henry Orient in an even tinier town where the theatre was a drive in where the vehicle could just as easily be a horse drawn wagon and the screen had a tendency to wave in a strong wind. (You may have heard of that village, actually, Lytton. Named after the colonial secretary of the day, I believe, and now awaiting a rebuild that will come too late for many of the non-First Nations people of the area.

  10. Karl says:

    Thank you for this post – for a few years now I’ve been following your posts and lapping up every film recommendation, all of my recent favourites have come from you: Victoria, Bacurau, Wild Tales, and so on. I’ve yet to find anyone so reliable in their suggestions, anyone suggesting the same things as you, or anyone as eloquent and insightful on the subject. Forgive the gushing, but I can’t overstate my appreciation!

  11. Brooke says:

    @Gary. Cambridge/Boston/Brookline old cinemas are struggling along. The Brattle (since 1953) closed and then moved on-line; West Newton and Coolidge Corner Brookline now have a mixed bag, Elvis and a Korean film. Off the Wall is long gone. The Charles (Baltimore) remains my favorite for non-Hollywood, non industrial films.

  12. Joan says:

    One of the best films that I said saw was Burn Your Maps with a young Joseph Trembley. It’was an a small Art House Film that was never widely released. It was a wonderful story, about a grief stricken family in crisis, filmed in Alberta, which stood in for Mongolia. It is a real shame that most audiences don’t get a chance to see these films unless you go to a Film Festival, like the one we have in Toronto. Most families don’t live in Toronto or Vancouver!

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    With art house cinemas still down but definitely not out, and slowly recovering internationally, it well may be that streaming services, usually portrayed as their archenemy can actually help in that recovery by sparking interest in, and easy access to, independent and foreign films, which might otherwise not see the light of day.(again).

    Part of that, you cynically might think (‘You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly say that,’ to quote ‘Francis Urquhart’ [Ian Richardson] in ‘House of Cards’ now streaming on a service near you), is because of the need for relatively inexpensive ‘product’ to feed the insatiable streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon, in particular. Most of CF’s ‘A-list’ (and I suspect a good many of the entries from lists to come) can be found on streaming platforms or otherwise available online. Joan’s ‘ Burn Your Maps’ can be watched free (with adverts) on a couple of them currently (one available in Canada) or rented from ‘YouTube.’

    But while the need for ‘product’ means more and more ‘indie’ and foreign films of merit are showing up on these leading streamers, there are also a growing number specialising in them, like ‘Shudder,’ ‘Kanopy’ (available free with a library ID of some kind), ‘Fandor’ ‘Festival Scope’ and even one, ‘Mubi,’ which not only streams films, but gives its customers a chance to see a film in ‘bricks and mortar’ theaters every week for no additional charge. ‘Mubi Go’ is presently in the UK, India and the US (NYC and LA). Of course, the downside to accessing this growing treasure trove is that in almost every case, you must either subscribe to a service or pay a rental or purchase fee for individual films. Then there is also the country availability issue, although this can usually be easily circumvented with one or another of the readily available Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

  14. Joan says:

    Our Library subscribes to Hoopla (North American Digital Library Platform) from which you stream films, books and music. I always check that source when looking for a specific film. All you need is Chromecast and a library card.

  15. Helen+Martin says:

    I cannot stress too much the value of an active public library system. Ours bought a large number of CD Roms which means there is a pretty good collection of both films and music. Books are bought in both electronic and physical editions, computer/internet access is freely available and there are events aimed at young people, children, seniors and new Canadians. The main branch is closed while remediation and an upgrade are done after a shopping cart caught fire outside and broke a large window, allowing smoke to circulate through the building. That fire is disturbing because a number of homeless people gather in the area and the fact of it having been a shopping cart suggests an assault on a homeless person’s belongings. Still, the library is a resource even for those with nothing.

  16. Paul C says:

    Scores of old films are available free of charge on the Talking Pictures online viewing service TPTV Encore. All you need to do is register. Well worth a rummage.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Happy 21st ! I’d add ‘Many happy returns,’ but that doesn’t quite sound right on the publication of a book.

  18. BarbaraBoucke says:

    It’s nice to see a voice I haven’t seen in awhile. The book is on it’s way and should arrive Monday.

  19. Alan R says:

    Of the four movies at the top of the “A” list, three are available in on Hulu, Netflix or Youtube. Be brave and go 100% digital. When I made the choice, the local hospice shop was the beneficiary of over 1500 “as new” DVDs and over 2500 “as new” CDs. It broke my heart the day after I delivered them but it has proven to be the best ever decision. The beneficiary in our house has been my wife who immediately claimed the massive space left after the cleanout, by filling it with crockery we will never use or never have used. But you know “A happy wife…………”

  20. Jee Jay says:

    “The US films I’ve kept include […] Harry & Tonto […]”

    This reminds me of another wonderful film also starring Art Carney: “The Late Show”. Carney plays a private detective and his client is played by Lily Tomlin. It’s a comedy / mystery that plays with all the ‘hard boiled’ tropes of an earlier era. It also couldn’t be more 70s if it tried.

  21. Paul C says:

    The Late Show is a great film, Jee Jay. You’ve certainly got good taste !

  22. Peter T says:

    Alan, If the ceramics could be swapped to digital, there’d be more space for books!

  23. Wayne Mook says:

    Hollywood film starts with an A, And Then There Were None. The Rene Clair 1945 version.

    I just watched an anime from Perfect Blue from 1997, a Japanese giallo which I enjoyed but does bring in some of the worst excess of both genres as well as their strengths. A fairly straight forward murder mystery splinters and becomes more about visual set pieces as the main protagonist fears for her sanity.

    I finally listened to The Signalman starring Simon Callow, an audio version from bafflegab, it brings together the filming of a PIF, Public Information Film, and Dicken’s old tale, it really is quite splendid although the ending is weak with a poor narration instead of dramatising it like the earlier parts.


  24. SteveB says:

    Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a really good film – achieves a lot with 99% just suggestion and all those striking sun / eyeball images. Best thing Tobe Hooper did by far.

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