Nomination: The Red Turtle
This category is a difficult one for me. While I launched (and have, in November, kinda neglected) my film-watching thread, I did manage to make it out to the cinema a fair number of times.
This film comes down to two relatively niche films for me. Niche by genre and by the fact that I don’t think either are U.S. releases this year. The two are The Death of Stalin and The Red Turtle. By the rules, I’ve led with my final decision, but let me walk through it.
I was, and am, deeply mixed on The Death of Stalin. I am a fan of Armando Ianucci’s style of work and this film brings it to a new level. If The Thick of It shows the casual shittiness of people working together in a workplace, The Death of Stalin transplants that onto the ruling caste of a world superpower. There is slapstick, there is bumbling, there are middle-aged men shouting at each other. The comedy works and works well.
However, what truly brings The Death of Stalin at a cut above Iannuci’s other work is that it is a film with a pitch-black interior. It is aware of the gravity of its subject matter, particularly the film’s antagonist, Lavrentii Beria. It doesn’t shy away from depicting abhorrent people honestly. It cuts no quibbles and minces no words with depicting true evil as just that.
It also made me ask difficult questions about the world outside. When Jason Isaacs’ character, Georgy Zhukov, strides in with a late introductory card and immediately seizes the show, the allure of military power and authoritarianism is never more real. Zhukov cuts through the bullshit of Soviet civilian politics and changes the balance of power in a heartbeat. It is almost unnerving, particularly as it, too, juggles comedy with the darkness the film deals with.
My issues are minor (the Great Terror was a specific two-year period and not a twenty-year status quo, despite what the subtitles say), but it just isn’t my favourite film this year.
That has to go to The Red Turtle, which won my heart directly and honestly. It is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film. There is about as much spoken dialogue as there is in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, with wordless yells being the closest it gets to it. However, the beautifully haunting visual design sucks the viewer in and keeps them held tight, their eyes flitting about the screen like a mosquito. You drink in the detail with a hard-to-understand fervour.
The story that it tells is simple enough to communicate in words, yet shot through with visuals that verge on the truly inspired. Looking at a scene and immediately unpicking its meaning in my head, while the next scene played and my eyes kept drinking, was an unbelievably sublime cinematic experience. No other film reached that for me this year.
Its silence also invited me to think a lot about the film. One of my favourite film critics, Mark Kermode, spoke eloquently on his BBC Radio 5 show about how silent cinema could be, to an extent, wide-reaching by the fact of its silence. In his words:
To explain more would spoil the experience of this magical realist fable for readers, a discovery that needs no words, just the finely observed gestures and crisp visual storytelling that defined the golden age of silent cinema.
For Kermode, the addition of language to a film constrained its horizons. Language created new brands of cinema that conformed to the language barriers that rose up. English audiences began to watch French films less; the Netherlands and Japan grew further away from another overnight. As for The Red Turtle, I’ll close with another Kermode rejoinder which summarised my thoughts exactly.
I could say more, but this is a film that respects the sound of silence. It is a work of art which transcends boundaries of language, culture, geography and age. It is simply magnificent.