TG10 Stephen’s List: The Different Cinema Manifesto

Welcome to TG10s. This year, echoing another publication, we are posting our top 10s, and taking votes from you. Keep reading The Twin Geeks for lists from our regular writers, as well as some extra special selection of lists from some amazing guests.

I take solace in the thought that I still haven’t seen my ten favourite films yet. They either haven’t been made or I just haven’t got round to watching them yet. At some point I will be watching something and get that feeling, that electric feeling, that the film is beyond special. Usually it cements over time, the film you can’t stop thinking about. Sometimes it is more instantaneous. I guess what I mean by this is that this list is a snapshot of me at the moment; I hope that I will look back at this list in a few years time and feel differently. I hope that, by then, I will have come across new things and further explored cinema. For now, though, these films are really rather good.

My current top 10, sorted by year:

Godzilla (1954)

Hardly a surprising inclusion. For me, the films that have become my favourites are the ones that I’ve had to really think about and study. A lot of this is because my interest in film comes from communication: a want to share my experiences with others and to communicate with a work. Film is a two sided conversation, between viewer and the movie itself.

This is a touch unfair to Godzilla, though. Only some films have motivated me to really think about them, to explore them and truly unpick them. Works like this one are the ones that do that: films with clear meaning, with overt intention but also with room for nuance and ambiguity. This film is a polemical one, with a very clear thesis about our post-nuclear world. However, that is such a layered topic and Honda’s Godzilla finds subtlety here. Some of it is structural (how the monster arc intertwines with the human) and much of it is from performance or just evocative visuals. Really, it is because of genre play, or because of genre construction. This being a monster film, and somewhat a horror film, lets it play with tropes that have pre-existing meaning. It is a puzzle of potent pieces and genre filmmaking always appeals to me because of these devices.

But you know what? This is also just a spectacular film about a monster just trashing stuff. Sontag has written powerfully about the aesthetics of destruction, this film being the case study. It is the meticulous nature of the sets that add more intentionality, that give it an extra layer of creativity. The reason this film sticks out is because it hits on the gut level (it is energetic filmmaking); it hits on the emotional level (the human storyline is well crafted and full of soul), and it scratches that academic itch. I just love it, and you should listen (or re-listen) to this podcast where I talk about it with Calvin.

Le Bonheur (1965)

One of my biggest cinematic regrets — yes, I am sad enough to have cinematic regrets — is only properly discovering Varda due to her death. I was familiar with her in a roundabout way beforehand, but her death also coincided with the time I was starting to delve into eras of cinema that were new to me. A big one was the French New Wave. I was somewhat familiar with Godard and Truffaut, somewhat. When Varda died, and when I read what people wrote about her impact (and her films in general), I knew I needed to explore this filmmaker. It also helped that MUBI hosted a retrospective on their streaming service, which coincided with me being on holiday, a holiday to Japan that had a lot of long train journeys.

I have now seen all of Varda’s films, and comfortably class her as my favourite filmmaker. I could have also put The Gleaners and I (2000) on this list, a film that encapsulates why I love Varda as a creative force, and as an artist. It is such a perfect distillation of her joy, her curiosity, her social and political drive, and her playful approach to cinema. But, I chose Le Bonheur. I chose this film for similar reason to Godzilla, actually: a film that gives the audience room.

Le Bonheur expresses itself through cinema. It is a film where the constituent parts of the form combine to make something beautiful. I would not work in another medium, it is a pointed work where the mis-en-scene, specifically the use of colour, makes points that the exposition never does. It is a film that is frequently misunderstood and is as exploratory as it is pointed. It is another film that makes me think, one that forces me to engage with it to get everything out of it. It is also incredibly beautiful. But, for me, beauty in film always needs to be pointed somewhere, it needs to be part of the statement or else it can often feel empty. Here, it is pure intentionality, just one part of an immaculate production.

The Devils (1971)

I am always looking for ‘Different Cinema’. To a fault, I seek novelty: new ideas or things done in different ways. It is a symptom of watching too may films, really. You get used to how things are done and you get diminishing returns from familiarity. The films that shine for me are the films that offer me something differeny, often those that break out of the traditionally cinematic.

The Devils feels like it dropped out of an alternate timeline, vis-à-vis cinema. It is this large, bold and audacious work: a grand canvas for giant ideas. It has money and scale behind it, to the extent that the production company behind it have tried to disown and banish this film (outside of Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021), I guess, but that was hardly the follow-up that The Devils fandom was expecting). This kind of film just does not come out of that kind of system: studio pictures. This is audacious, this is transgressive, this is deeply weird. The hallmarks of counter-cultural film, of independent and arthouse film, exist here but it is also far removed from this in expression.

Beyond this, it also feels like a cinematic what-if. The Hollywood model became the way, it became the default expression of ‘movie’. There is a pleasure in the large movie, in the CINEMATIC experience: films the size of the screen, ones that deliver awe. The language of large cinema, though, is often so homogenous. They exist in expected ways and the large Hollywood film is the predominate ‘large film’. This film is that, but it feels like what if German Expressionism took over as a cinematic default, as opposed to ‘the Hollywood picture’. The affectedness of everything, those Derek Jarman sets: it is a different kind of film. But it is awe inspiring and huge, where the visual scope is in a duet with the ideas on display. It still feels shocking, it still has so many brilliant ideas to get your head around. Of course the studio don’t want the film to exist, that system does not make movies like this. So, this is a unicorn movie; this is special.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxells (1975)

The uncinematic is often the best thing cinema can show. I deeply adore Jeanne Dielman, it is such a fascinating use of cinema, of the tools available to the filmmaker, to make something completely new. Another thing I adore about film is engaging with the idea of spectatorship, the act of viewing. So far, all of the films on this list have that in common. The Devils is about bearing witness to things, it is about transgressive and audacious sights; Le Bonheur is about the gaze, the subjective gaze, and making that part of the film’s world; Godzilla is, of course, obsessed with the aesthetics of destruction (a reflection of our nuclear fascinations). Jeanne Dielman just makes you watch, and it makes you watch what is usually unseen.

This film makes you complicit in certain social dynamics and, once again, gives space for the viewer. The quietude of it all, the slow cinema language, it is all room for reflection and wider thought. In Akerman’s masterpiece, we have a woman defined by feeling like an absence, a tool in the background of the lives of others. Cinematically, she is not of ‘interest’, she has no filmic narrative in her life, she would be a detail or a piece of pure verisimilitude in almost any other film. Here, she is the pure focus. It is a deeply political film but it does not just do politics for the viewer, it involves them in a conversation. It is genuinely confronting.

It is also traditionally excellent. If we are to apply objective measurements it has what we want from film. The narrative does actually build to something truly impactful (the structure aiding this), the acting is stunning (deeply naturalistic), the framing of the static shots is stunning. Though the lingering effect of the film is of incidental watching, there is no randomness. The camera is always in the right place, for poetic as well as political intent. It is a majestic work, one more than deserving of the increased attention it is now receiving.

Eraserhead (1977)

This was such a formative film for me, another example of ‘Different Cinema’. Film can do this? What even is this? A lot has been said about how cinema is in conversation with dreams. The ways images connect make sense to us because of our dreams, allegedly. Whether that is the case or not, nobody has put dreams (or nightmares) onto film like David Lynch has. Watching this film for me, the first time, was just such an experience. I was gripped, terrified, amused and thrilled. It combines so much emotion, so much ambiguous meaning, and works on an instinctive and instantaneous level, while also prickling with potential for deeper exploration.

David Lynch, famously, does not expand on Eraserhead. And, you know what, I’m not going to either. The film only works as a film; it is not only ‘different cinema’ but ‘pure cinema’. To explain it any other way, to put it into another form, is to take something away from it. It is this kaleidoscopic blend of sound and vision, an unparalleled experience that only works because it is a film. There’s nothing to add, no explanation can work, because the film says everything already. It is all there, presented in the exact way it should be presented. If you are asking for an explanation, you are already asking the wrong question. Eraserhead doesn’t exist to be explained, it exists to be Eraserhead. It is entirely itself, and is perfectly so.

Sátántangó (1994)

Clearly, I like slow and pretentious cinema. One thing I will say with this list is that I’m being very true to me; while other lists have wonderful surprises on them, I’m sure you could have predicted this selection. But I like being predictable, in this way at least. Critics work as metrics for you to judge against; I gravitate towards a kind of film, I articulate why certain films work for me and your knowledge of my taste makes that make sense to you.

A needless scene of animal cruelty aside (what a string of words to have to write), Sátántangó is just perfect to me. Another running theme on this list are works that use all aspects of cinema with great intention, or use the parts often not used. Sátántangó makes a feature of its runtime, using several hours to tell a story about time and how it is perceived, and how it affects us all. I’m reticent ot write more because… Well, I recorded an hour long video essay on the film, that you can watch here, that Jack expertly put together. My thoughts are there, I’m sure my love shines through.

Taste of Cherry (1997)

Ah, my first Kiarostami movie. Another slow and meditative work, one that lives in ambiguity and that deals with symbolism alongside naturalism. I certainly have a type.

I just adore this film: it is so poetic and philosophical; it rewards dissection in wonderful ways and, once again, it is a real beauty. It is a film about a place, literally about place. It is about the physicality of the land, and the people that inhabit it. A cultural portrait through these aspects: symbolic yet very human people surrounded by dirt and landscape. A scene stands out, it is the one used on the Criterion cover, is of our lead surrounded by dirt. Those who have seen the film will note this is foreshadowing but it is also part of a film long motif about the physicality of a place. We watch the country, its literal landscape, as much as we watch the people in it and the narrative unfurling (more so, really). When the perfect, and wonderfully controversial, ending comes, it is cemented that the landscape retains its truth. We can put fiction within a place and use it to tell stories but the place remains separate to us, an external truth that we exist in.

This is a film that starts conversations, one that needs to be discussed. It is conversation with the viewer throughout, the ending only cements it. Why it is so brilliant, though (and the same is true of the rest of the films here, though to differing amounts), is that the conversation pushes beyond the runtime. This film doesn’t end with the credits, it lives with you and grows in the mind. Again, the ending signposts this wider role, this metatextual function. We carry the best films with us and Taste of Cherry is all about the journey.

Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

I feel a lot of people think this is a joke. When so much of film discourse is dominated by memes and irony, it is so hard to tell where the joke ends and when sincerity begins.

I sincerely love this film.

You can watch my introduction here, of which I am still proud. In that I set the scene for this being brilliant. But I will put it down quickly here: it’s Different Cinema.

But it’s a film for kids, you say, a generic franchise sequel, why is it on a list with these fancy arthouse films? Well, because, like The Devils it uses that framework to become different. This film did not do well on release, despite the original film being a perennial favourite. It has now been somewhat re-evaluated, but mostly due to people like myself. The selling point is that it should be a generic, by-the-numbers sequel but it is actually completely mad and virtuosic. It has a similar German Expressionist influence to The Devils (okay, not as much, but it is there). You know what, it basically is The Devils. A totally wild, totally unconstrained work of genius, of unchecked ambition made in a system, and facilitated by a system, that doesn’t make films like this. Babe: Pig in the City is expressionistic, is action packed, is full of energetic filmmaking, and has as much in common with Cocteau, Lang and Paul Thomas Anderson as it does with, well, Babe (1995). It is also warm hearted and empathetic, but in a radical way.

It is a film of rebellious spirit, and one that also cares; exactly the kind of film I love. It sits on shelves next to safe and palatable works ready to be too weird for anyone. That’ll do. That’ll really do.

Beau Travail (1999)

Like most people, when I first watched Beau Travail, I re-watched the ending straight away. What the ending does, how it hangs over the rest of the film (retrospectively), and the sheer experience of it, it is unparalleled. I feel I have been chasing that rush ever sincem and the only thing that has come close to doing what Beau Travail does is this year’s utterly fabulous Aftersun (which Calvin wrote so beautifully about).

I’ve said flippantly before, as I say so many things, that only people who aren’t men should make films about masculinity. Obviously, this isn’t true. Many men have made excellent films about masculinity; however, one of the defining traits of masculinity is its empowerment by patriarchy. What this means, in my opinion (at least), is that men can deal and reflect on masculinity but everybody else has to. Masculinity is lived by men but it is acted out into space and onto everybody else. There is a physical presence to masculinity that the rest of the world has to just deal with. I think this film really made me realise that, or made concrete my presumptions.

Nobody is better at capturing bodies in space than Claire Denis. Her films isolate body parts and present human bodies as like machines, sculptures or marionettes. Their existence as an object comes to the fore, a thing that we inhabit and that disrupts the space around it. Bodies truly collide with space and Beau Travail is as much a film about rhythm and dance, of bodies in motion, as it is about anything else. The sheer physicality of these bodies is inescapable. They are performed to others in this pitch perfect expression of gender performativity. Beau Travail is realist but also completely impressionistic at the same time. It is a fable, an allegory, that also is strict, human drama. It has that alchemy that the best films do, the ability to turn the real into the profound. And, like with the other films, it is achieved through harnessing the possibility of film, it is through an understanding of how to frame bodies and how to block scenes so as to speak in a uniquely cinematic way. Yes, a dance or a theatrical performance would get some of this, but it is the intersection of the camera with these physical forms that creates the resonance, that makes the message. Watching, being watched, capturing something. Cinema is special, and it is special because of films like Beau Travail (if such films even exist).

Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012)

Other films have been in this place. At one point, it was Michael Haneke’s modern classic Caché (2005). That was then replaced with Georges Méliès’ The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) (with Harakiri (1962) being up for consideration the whole time). And now I’ve managed to include them all by just listing them, hah! I win.

However, the film that always comes to mind when discussing the works of Kobayashi, Méliès and Haneke is Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012) (a film I have already written about at length, and have recorded a podcast about… It’s really good and I’m not joking).

Different Cinema can be so many things, at its heart it is just the wider possibilities of cinema: cinema as a diverging artform that can give you something else. This is a different kind of something else, a film made from pure passion and joy, outside of any discernible system but inside a community. The Farley and Charlie films (Motern Media) are almost their own medium. They truly are a community, a social group where you just understand each other and where art, really great art, feels within your reach. I am more guilty than most of presenting art as some elitist thing, an immortal and saintly thing beyond the realm of us mere people. These films, the Motern movies, show that everyday people make extraordinary art. That is inspiring. It is backyard brilliance, films that work because you can see the stitching, because it has that enthusiast sheen.

If you love film, the idea of film and it as a medium, you will appreciate this. It is as much about the love of movies than any modern directors two to five hour recreation of their cinematic past and their love of cinema. Hopefully, what has come through in this list is a love for the fundamentals of cinema, the physical elements of it that make it what it is. All you need, really, is a camera and an idea. That is what cinema is, at the end of the day. That’s inspiring, and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is perpetual proof of this important maxim.

A camera and an idea. Go make your movie!

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