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Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Ten Best First Films (8) - Cinephile, Filmnews Editor and Life Member of the Sydney Film Festival Tina Kaufman meticulously searches the memory and the record

This has not only been a challenge, it's been a bit of a blow to my film knowledge, as I found when checking the filmography of directors I wanted to put on my list, that many had made one or two (or even more) films before the first one I saw, the film I had thought was their first.  So that ruled out Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kelly Reichardt, Edward Yang, Hong Sang Soo, Wes Anderson, Abbas Kiarostami, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Guy Maddin, Stanley Kwan, Jon Jost and Apitchatpong Weerasthekul.  And I would love to have  included Andzrej Wajda, but I remember seeing Kanal, A Generation, and Ashes and Diamonds all round about the same time, I'm not sure in what order.  I really wanted to put A Walk Through H, the shortish and amazing Peter Greenaway film we had at the Co-op (God knows how), but it's not his first anything.

Of the ones already listed by others, I'd especially like to add my agreement for Rebels of the Neon God, Badlands, Fists in the Pocket, Lola, Yellow Earth, Yesterday Girl, A Question of Silence, The Clockmaker of St Paul, and the wonderful Maborosi.  And Paul Harris has reminded me of how much I loved The Strange One.

Bill Hunter, Gary Foley, Backroads
I would have included the first features of Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton, except that I wasn't surprised by how good they were; having seen and loved their short films, I was expecting great things.   Having friends who were making short films back in the sixties and seventies, and then editing Filmnews for nearly twenty years, I saw the development of so many people, from their early short films on, so I  terrific first features like Phil Noyce's Backroads, Ken Cameron's Out of It, or Margot Nash's Vacant Possession, among others, came as no surprise.  At that time, too, I saw many of the early films by women filmmakers including Chantal Akerman, Agnes Varda, Margarethe von Trotta - but it was the accumulation of all that work that stunned me, and I can't remember in what order I saw their films.

BeDevil
BeDevil (1993) - Tracey Moffat's first feature, a stunningly beautiful, exhilarating and compelling trio of ghost stories, that shouldn't have surprised me so much, because I'd seen and loved her first short Nice Coloured Girls (and as editor of Filmnews was delighted by the most professional and beautiful production stills she supplied) and her next and longer short, Night Cries, but it still packed a powerful punch.   While her work is more in photography and video installations, she has a great cinematic eye.

As Tears Go By
As Tears Go By (1988)   I'd discovered Hong Kong cinema (well, been introduced to it by Adrienne McKibbins), and had started haunting the Chinatown cinemas, seeing lots of John Woo and Tsui Hark, and Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau flying through the air.  Then suddenly there they were together in Wong Kar Wai's quiet, subtle little gangster movie, dark but touching and personal, and quite different from most of the HK films I was seeing.

Chocolat (1988) Claire Denis' seemingly romantic and nostalgic remembering of a childhood in Africa  in which those memories are gradually undercut by a sense of loss and even betrayal was only a gentle hint of what was to come in her uncompromising and really diverse films.

Gates of Heaven (1978) In his first feature documentary Errol Morris looked at pet cemeteries in Southern California, and at first it's funny and quirky and even bizarre, but then it becomes sad and complicated and really moving.

Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) Was this the first film where a group of friends just sit around and talk for most of the movie? In John Sayles' first feature (after writing scripts for Roger Corman) he reunites former student radicals for a summer get-together, reminiscing about their action-filled past while dealing with the pleasures and problems of adult life.  And it was funny, and touching, mad the first in a string of really interesting and diverse films from Sayles (who I met several times and interviewed).  

Near Dark
Near Dark (1987) Kathryn Bigelow's first solo film, a cowboy vampire road movie, and especially one that was so scary, seductive, and surprisingly romantic, was an absolute treat, especially with all its beautiful night-time shooting.  

Sherman's March (1986) Ross McElwee set off to trace General Sherman's triumphant campaign through the southern states of the USA after the Civil War, but got sidetracked, often by women, but also by a bewildering array of idiosyncratic characters; it's an enchanting, idiosyncratic filmic journey which the filmmaker subtitled "a meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South during an era of nuclear weapons proliferation" - a perfect description.  This was the first of series of McElwhee's  lovely rambling documentaries to screen at SFF, and I loved them all.
Blood Simple (1984) This dark, nightmarish modern noirish tale of betrayal and double cross was a wonderful introduction to the work of the brothers Coen.  Made on a tiny budget, but somehow all the better for it, it was a subtle redefinition of a classic genre.

Cronos
Cronos (1983). Having just seen The Shape of Water, I came out wondering whether the first Guillermo del Toro film that I'd seen was his first feature - and it was. This dark twisted, creepy fairytale about alchemy and immortality and a mysterious golden scarab beetle, absolutely intrigued me, and his films have continued to do so. 

Eagle vs Shark (2007) Taika Waititi's eccentric, charming, and very odd sort of romantic comedy about two self-absorbed characters was above all really funny - and it introduced the group that would go on to give us Flight of the Choncords and What We Do in the Shadows, and of course much more from this director. 

Jean-Pierre Mocky, Anouk Aimee, La Tete Contre les Murs
(I'm squeezing one more in as a not quite proper addition because of how I saw it.)

Heads Against the Wall (1959) Georges Franju's dark and claustrophobic tale of the horrors of post-war psychiatric institutional care was made even more murky and dark by turning up at the SFF without subtitles.  David Stratton gave everyone who stayed for the screening as careful an introduction to the film as he could, and I found it mesmerizing, if very mysterious.  He screened a subtitled version several years later and I was pleased to find the film as good as I had thought on that first strange and memorable viewing, although rather different to how I had first perceived it.  I had, of course, seen Eyes Without a Face in between.

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