In spite of the unending calamity of the 2020s, films, books and television have still kept me going throughout 2022. Here are my highlights.
Throughout the period of December 2021 to December 2022, I’ve watched just over 270 films. In general, I’ve focussed on my usual deep dive into the handful of national cinemas that I’m really invested in, though this year has seen the revaluation one in particular. For the past few years, I’ve been digging deep into French cinema, with a desire to get beyond the usual titles and to the obscurer end of its productions, as well as filling in big gaps along the way. This year has seen the same process begin with Italian cinema and, even if only just started, it has already been a fruitful endeavour.
This is certainly reflected in my top ten with two Italian classics in particular: Mauro Bolognini’s La viaccia (1961) and Elio Petri’s La classe operaia va in paradise (1971). Both came about as viewings through looking into the back catalogue of performers. As with a number of films, I watched them because of their leading roles for Claudia Cardinale and Gian Maria Volontè respectively, though other titles I’m about to mention will bear this out further. Bolognini’s film was arguably the most beautifully shot I’ve watched this year, each scene looking like a faded old postcard. In Petri’s film, I found a perfect combination of political drama, working-class outrage and cinematic experimentation, and it was certainly refreshing in its stance that the middle-class left often leave behind the working-class when no longer required for their political theatrics.
Other Italian classics enjoyed this year have included Ettore Scola’s Una gionata particolare (1977), Valerio Zurlini’s La ragazza con la valigia (1961), Nanni Loy’s Audace colpo dei soliti ignoti (1959) and Luchino Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960). Perhaps most interesting of all, I began a deeper dive into the directorial work of Vittorio De Sica. Having watched only his canonical films, I found myself warming to his more comedic and domestic films. I greatly enjoyed Il tetto (1956), Il boom (1963), Leri oggi domain (1963) and Matrimonio all’italiana (1964). I look forward to watching more De Sica gems in the coming year.
The Italian cinema didn’t stop at its more respected end. Having started the long journey into the wonderful world of Poliziottesco cinema last year, it wasn’t a hard one to continue; grabbed with the same relish I had for Spaghetti Westerns a year or so earlier (the best of this year, by the way, was Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa (1969)). The best of these was easily Duccio Tessari’s Tony Arzenta (1973) which features a fantastically Melville-esque lead performance from Alain Delon as well as a superb soundtrack by Gianni Ferrio and some great set-pieces. Alongside this, I also enjoyed the pulpy pleasures of Enzo G. Castellari’s Il giorno del Cobra (1980), Steno’s La polizia ringrazia (1972), Stelvio Massi’s Un poliziotto scomodo (1978), Sergio Martino’s La polizia accusa: il servizio segreto uccide (1975), Umberto Lenzi’s Il cinico, l’infame, il violent (1977) and Massimo Dallamano’s La polizia chiede aiuto (1974). Suffice to say, no one does eye-grabbing film titles better than the Italians.
In spite of the focus on Italian cinema, there were still plenty of French titles explored and a surprising number of high quality films. There just seems no end of classic French films, no matter how many I watch. As with last year, Bertrand Tavernier proved himself to be one of the last greats of French cinema with the wonderful L.627 (1992); a brutal but honest drug-crime film and stark portrait of 1990s Paris. Costa-Gavras’ brilliant L’aveu (1970) also took my breath away with its relentless interrogation of Yves Montand’s central character. It felt like a strange cousin to the series The Prisoner in one sense, with a race as to what will break first between a man’s soul or the party line.
The other French film in my top ten is Nadine Trintignant’s unusual Défense se savoir (1973). It was a joy to find another wintry French crime film from the 1970s of such quality, as well as seeing Jean-Louis Trintignant act opposite his daughter Marie. I also enjoyed L’été prochain (1985) by Trintignant, a poignant film from a much underrated director. I’m sure her name will become more appreciated when her films see an eventual re-release in Britain and America.
Finally for French film, I also enjoyed Claude Chabrol’s Masques (1987), Philippe de Broca’s L’homme de Rio (1964), Jacques Renard’s Blanche et Marie (1985), Jean Becker’s L’été meutrier (1983), José Giovanni’s Le rapace (1968) and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981).
Three American classics made it into my final ten. Billy Wilder’s wonderful One, Two, Three (1961) – and perhaps simply for Cagney’s perfect screwball performance – was my favourite. I arguably watched more American films than in any of the previous years’ viewing. Wilder’s film vied for space in my top ten with Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963), Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time (1978). As has become tradition, the best documentary watched was by Penelope Spheeris: The Decline of Western Civilisation III (1998). With the end of her trilogy, I’ll have to find a new documentary filmmaker next year to fill the gap.
Most great American films this year have been noir and it’s been the strongest year in a while for the genre. In my top ten, this is represented by Mark Robson’s Champion (1949) and Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956). It could, however, have been any number of the following brilliant films: Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window (1949), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975), Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Larry Peerce’s The Incident (1967), Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961), Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948), Anatole Litvak’s The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), Michael Gordon’s The Web (1947), Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico (1957), Gordon Douglas’ Tony Rome (1967), Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), David Miller’s Sudden Fear (1952) and Jack Smith’s Harper (1966). And that’s a conservative estimate of the good ones but I’ll leave it at that.
The other big genre I’ve dived into this year, and one which cuts across a number of national cinemas, has been war films. Keen to fill in some of the gaps I had in the classics, I found myself gravitating towards the genre and its talent for effective but justified large-scale visuals. The most obvious of these came in the form of Sergey Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970) which left me speechless with its beauty and scale. The same could be said for Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton (1970) which again melded amazing large-scale visuals with fantastic character drama revolving around a troubled general.
Other war films enjoyed included Lewis Gilbert’s Reach for the Sky (1956), Costa-Gravras’ 1 de homme trop (1967), John Guillerman’s I Was Monty’s Double (1958), John Sturges’ Ice Station Zebra (1966), Richard Maruand’s Eye of the Needle (1981), Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston (1972), Henri Verneuil’s La vache et le prisonnier (1959), J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), André De Toth’s The Two Headed Spy (1958) and Philip Leacock’s Appointment in London (1953).
The best war film, and the best film in general I watched this year, was Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). With perhaps Edward Woodward’s strongest performance, such a nuanced and complex film about history felt like a breath of fresh air, while its courtroom drama is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not all of the British films enjoyed were war films, however.
Of British cinema, I very much liked Seth Holt’s Nowhere to Go (1958), John Lemont’s The Frightened City (1961), Guy Green’s The Angry Silence (1960), Vernon Sewell’s The Man in the Back Seat (1961), Basil Dearden’s Cage of Gold (1950), Charles Frend’s Lease of Life (1954), Jack Lee’s Turn the Key Softly (1953), Basil Dearden’s Life for Ruth (1962), Sidney Hayers’ All Coppers are… (1972), Peter Crane’s Hunted (1972) and Karel Reisz’ Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966).
One thing to come from watching a lot of British films this year was the inevitable dive into the television comedy feature film. They have a somewhat notorious reputation, some of them rightly so (though I did admittedly enjoy some of the riper ones as well). However, some were genuinely decent and deserve more of a reappraisal, in particular Michael Tuchner’s The Likely Lads (1976), Joseph McGrath’s Rising Damp (1980), Dick Clement’s Porridge (1979) and Cliff Owen’s Steptoe & Son (1972).
And finally, on Saturday nights I have a weekly ritual with my flatmate of watching the campest, silliest nonsense that we can find, whether it’s good or not (usually, but not uniquely, the latter). I, therefore, can’t pretend that I had anything other than a great time with the following: Lee Harry’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987), John Paragon’s The Babysitters (1994), Russell Mulcahy’s Derek and Clive Get the Horn (1979), Gerry O’Hara’s The Bitch (1979), Freddie Francis’ Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970) and Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker (1990). The best worst film I watched, however, was definitely Kevin Connor’s Diana: Her True Story (1993). If you can’t enjoy a film with Frank Gallagher of Shameless doing a terrible impression of Prince Charles while going on and on about slippers, what sort of film fan are you?
This year has been an incredibly rewarding one in regards to television. Working my way through a range of older series, my television viewing has arguably been more pleasurable than my film viewing. Part of this was to do with the many older ITV series currently distributed by Network Films, and I can’t begin to imagine a year’s viewing without having some of their releases to sprinkle throughout the year.
The strongest of these was easily Trevor Preston’s 1980 series, Fox. A brilliant South London crime series, with Peter Vaughan as the gangster patriarch, its scope of character and cast was utterly spellbinding. I’ve often seen it compared to the equally brilliant series Out (1978). It’s difficult to imagine a series of such detail and craft made about working-class families today without the ever prevalent, condescending clichés, so I’m grateful there was a time in television where series like Fox and Out could be produced.
Talking of Tom Bell, I finally finished all of the wonderful Prime Suspect (1991-2006). Helen Mirren holds the show together, even when its stories aren’t quite as solid, though the series is mostly incredible as well as shockingly grim. The earlier stories were certainly stronger; having Bell as a foil to Mirren’s up-and-coming detective made for extraordinary screen drama.
I’ve watched a great deal of crime series in general this year. Mentioning Out reminded that I watched and enjoyed a similar series: Edmund Ward’s The Hanged Man (1975). In a similar vein to the later Out, the series follows Colin Blakely as his character is put upon by a conspiracy of 1970s villainy. It was certainly very satisfying.
No series outdid 70s misery like Rex Firkin and Vincent Tilsley’s The Guardians (1971). The decade seemed to enjoy the odd dystopian yarn, especially ones which made it all very bureaucratic and bland (in a good way). It made a nice follow on to last year’s 1990 (1977) though wasn’t quite as strong as that series.
Perhaps the darkest crime series to stick with me was Robin Chapman’s Big Breadwinner Hog (1969). Though it looks more like Coronation Street of the period, the sheer sadism on show is still shocking today, arguably more so as I associate that black & white multi-camera television aesthetic so much with comfort. Chapman’s drama really broke the boundaries in its breathless action and detailed drama. I also enjoyed Chapman’s Spindoe (1968) from the previous year though its lead character didn’t quite match the nastiness of Peter Egan’s Hog.
Having binged Public Eye last year, I had a private eye-shaped hole in my viewing schedule. This was filled with Cockney aplomb by the excellent Hazell (1978-1979). Based on books by Gordon Williams and Terry Venables (yes, really), Nicholas Ball’s hard-edged private eye roaming late 70s Soho managed to make-up for my sad farewells to Frank Marker last year. In lighter relief, I also enjoyed Robert Barr’s Gazette (1968), which confirmed a general trend in my viewing that I’ll watch anything with Gerald Harper in. I look forward to exploring the follow-up series Hadleigh in the New Year.
Of course, as with everything, not all older television is uniquely great. The anthology shows of this year have been somewhat mixed. Scorpion Tales (1978) and Shadows of Fear (1970), while both satisfying my taste of weird 70s kitsch, were very uneven, as was the Herbert Hirschman series Espionage (1963). Equally, I finally finished the screen adaptations of P.D. James’ Dalgliesh novels; all of which seemed somewhat tepid, even when moving onto film in the later episodes. Roy Marsden was wasted on them. I also watched the surviving episodes of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Not Only… But Also (1965) and found it lacking in spite of a few famous sketches (“and I thought, ‘faaaaany’” etc.).
One comedy I did enjoy diving into this year was Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-1964). Having loved Michael Tuchner’s feature film, I devoured it (and the surviving episodes of its previous series, The Likely Lads); enjoying it for its laughs and its documenting of the dramatic changes to British life unfolding, even in just the opening credits.
As to the series I most enjoyed this year, the first to mention is the incredibly fun panel show Whodunnit? (1972-1978). In more difficult weeks and months, I turned to this series for light relief and enjoyed its silliness immensely, especially when it had returning regular panellists Patrick Mower and Anouska Hempel. It’s strange how fun television used to be.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was the brilliant Gerard Glaister’s Secret Army (1977). Though at times difficult to watch without thinking of its more famous parody ‘Allo ‘Allo! (1982-1992), its drama following the escape lines for pilots organised by the Belgian Resistance was second to none. Bernard Hepton was further confirmed for me as one of our great actors, while the stunning two-parter in the first series starring Peter Barkworth stayed with me for weeks.
Finally, looking back on the year, I don’t think I could have survived without the regular viewing of Inspector Morse (1987-2000). I don’t think I’ve become quite so attached to a fictional character in years, and its mapping of some things going on in my own life made its final few episodes all the more affecting. I still think of the scene in the final film The Remorseful Day when Morse (John Thaw) and Lewis (Kevin Whatley) sit peacefully watching the sun set from a pub garden while Morse recites A.E. Housman’s poem. I think it may be one of the most beautiful moments the medium ever produced.
Having become addicted to espionage fiction last year, mostly thanks to John le Carré, it’s unsurprising that this year sees it as the genre I read the most. I finished the run of Smiley novels with Smiley’s People (1982) and The Secret Pilgrim (1990), both of which were fantastic, so I started on the writer’s non-Smiley books in order with A Small Town in Germany (1968). Having concluded the run of Smiley novels from the beginning, I think I’d choose The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) as my favourites in what must be one of best series of novels ever conceived.
However, the writer didn’t represent the genre in my final ten of this year. Instead, that role went to Graham Greene and his late novel The Human Factor (1978). With its array of distinctive imagery (I sometimes find myself lapsing into daydreams about big bowls of Maltesers), it stuck with me long after reading, and in spite of not enjoying the 1979 film adaptation by Otto Preminger that I watched after finishing it. I look forward to reading more Greene in the New Year (and with Brighton Rock claiming a place in my final ten last year, the writer is looking a mainstay of my reading for the foreseeable).
Finally for the genre, I started to read some of Le Carré’s peers. I liked Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File (1962) but loved Funeral in Berlin (1964). The former suffers from that rare instance of the film version simply being tauter and superior on every level. I also loved James Mitchell’s A Red File for Callan (1969), the novelisation of the writer’s script for the original Callan TV pilot, A Magnum for Schneider. Unlike The Ipcress File, the novel sat comfortably on par with its on-screen cousin, even if its journey to existence was effectively in reverse.
Reading so much espionage fiction eventually gave way to another interest in World War Two and war in general as a genre. This is partly because I’m a third of the way into a novel of my own set during The Blitz, but the interest has bled over into my wider reading. In my top 10, Kurt Vonnegut’s genre-bending classic Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) cleared away the cobwebs early on in my reading year while I also enjoyed Len Deighton’s Bomber (1970), Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1952) and Alistair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra (1963). I also greatly enjoyed Romain Gary’s Promise at Dawn (1960), which had fragments of his war experiences alongside the rest of his life in an astonishing and poetic memoir.
This October, I promised myself I’d read some more horror fiction, with it being a surprising rarity in my reading for someone who writes so much about the genre. The best of what I read was easily Ira Levin’s paranoid classic Rosemary’s Baby (1967) though I also enjoyed Dennis Wheatley’s rich and ripe The Devil Rides Out (1934) and the first volume of Arthur Machen’s stories Tales of the Supernatural published by Pan in the 1970s.
The horror somewhat crossed into science fiction as my reading went on, beginning with John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Wyndham has a knack for writing extraordinary stories in an unusually ordinary way, focussing on everyday reactions to the unknowable in a manner that’s impossible to state the full influence of, especially on things that I’ve loved over the years. I’m glad I’ve savoured his novels until later in life and resisted diving into them earlier. I also enjoyed several M. John Harrison novels, in particular the wonderful The Pastel City (1971) and The Committed Men (1971). Both confirmed the underlying feeling (growing for a while now) that I much prefer his out-and-out genre work because it seems more earnest as to his creative intentions in regards to language than his more recent, academically lauded work.
Of the other sci-fi fiction I’ve read and enjoyed, I very much liked William Gibson’s Burning Chrome (1982), Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) and, most of all, Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) which is as adventurous and experimental as any more respected literary endeavour. The best short story read this year was also an SF tale in the form of the H.G. Wells prize-winning short The Saliva Tree by Brian Aldiss.
As with what feels to be an unending trend for my reading, the best reads this year came from crime fiction. In my top ten, a wealth of crime made the cut, in particular Ruth Rendell’s innovative Wexford tale, No More Dying Then (1971), Fred Vargas’ deliciously gothic Have Mercy On Us All (2001) and Thierry Jonquet’s deeply disturbing Mygale (1984). Most interesting of all was finally reading John Hopkins’ seminal play This Story of Yours (1969). Long out of print, even after being adapted by Sidney Lumet as The Offence in 1973, the play is a powerful exploration of the degrading effects of police work and the eventual collapse it brings about on those left to suffer in silence after daily witnessing the sheer horror of crime up front.
Other crime novels enjoyed included Derek Raymond’s final Factory novel Dead Man Upright (1993), Léo Malet’s Dynamite vs. QED (1938), Frédéric Dard’s Bird in a Cage (1961), Agatha Christie’s The Murder in the Vicarage (1930) and Arthur le Bern’s Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square (1966).
Finally, to end on the ever-increasingly odd note of literary fiction, I’ve found my tastes drifting away from it somewhat, largely because of the antiseptic culture currently surrounding it. I’ve managed to get around this to some degree by looking at classics and older works – I’ve loved Alberto Moravia’s The Woman of Rome (1947) and Colette’s Chéri (1920), for example – but have found little to commend in the other dozen or so other novels I’ve read of this kind over the year.
I lately accepted the fact that I’m happier when giving the hyperbole of modern literary fiction a wide berth. Earlier in the year, a particular hit piece about why men don’t read literary fiction was published by GQ, though the hit itself was strangely against its author’s partner more than anything else. It bemoaned how such a taste represented an unwillingness to encounter empathy with experiences beyond the reader’s own. Yet, for all its finger-wagging, the only real lack of empathy shown was one on the writer’s part; a snobbery and closed-minded approach to genre that has a far stronger continuity historically and industrially than the one supposedly identified in the article. And, to top it all off, who was the writer name-checked as evidence of a closed and insular readership of fiction beyond those “urgent” and “necessary” writers meant to better our morality and empathy?
Ursula K. Le Guin.
It’s the idiocy of the culture industry of the present in a single, absurd microcosm. So I’m happy to have read the many amazing books and genres discussed above throughout the year and score low on whatever arbitrary scale of empathy is being administered by this seemingly endless publishing circus and its prescriptive notion of what creative writing, and culture as a whole, is meant to be about.
It’s been a very strange year for my own work, feeling very much one of those “one step forward, two steps back” years. I had a novel released called Nettles, which I’m proud of, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s out in the world. Having been demoralised by the wasted efforts promoting the previous novel in 2020 (wasted thanks to Covid hitting the month after it was released), I asked for a quieter promotion run with this one. In spite of a subsequent lack of national coverage and its slight disappearance, the book is stronger than my previous two efforts and has sold better as well thanks to word-of-mouth. I may try and do some promotional stuff on my own next year but my gut feeling is to leave that trilogy of novels to gather dust, perhaps to be discovered by a future audience, and move on.
My wider writing work, on the other hand, has undoubtedly moved forward and I’m incredibly grateful to write about cinema and literature for a living and be published widely. Here are a few things I was particularly happy with this year.
Arte – The London of Antonioni’s Blowup
BFI – Five Locations from Cleo from 5 to 7
The Telegraph – The Dark Heart of Ealing Studios
Literary Hub – Malcolm Lowry’s Wirral
BBC – The Influence of Quatermass
BFI – Five Locations from Amicus Films
Another interesting project that came to fruition was my work on The Horror Show exhibition at Somerset House. I’d been researching and sourcing things for the Ghost part of the exhibition since 2019, though it had been put on hold due to Covid. It was an incredibly rewarding project to be part of, and it was especially fulfilling to see some of my Polaroids framed and on display alongside work by some of my favourite artists, filmmakers and the like.
With juggling three different book projects, screen adaptation talks surrounding Nettles, and regular writing work in journalism, I do, however, feel utterly exhausted. Perhaps this is normal, especially for someone who still doesn’t have an agent and has to actually get their hands dirty in the grubbier side of industries in order to get anything done. But I do wonder (or perhaps hope is a more accurate word) if things will get easier one day. Maybe next year.