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From an awkward scene with a knife to an A-listers comeback with the sounds of Fiona Apple, Guardian writers pick their favourite big screen bits of the year

The ride Ford v Ferrari

Photograph: Merrick Morton/AP

In Ford v Ferrari (AKA Le Mans 66), Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) has been tasked by the Man in the guise of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to build a racer that can beat those rotten eye-talians who think they are better than us. Shelby can do it, but he needs Letts to get off his back with the rules and regs and let his genius soar! (Ayn Rand would love this movie.) After some comedic business, Ford winds up in the test vehicle alone with Shelby, who zooms him through sphincter-clenching turns at incredible speeds. When he slams the brakes, Ford sobs.

At first you think the scene is just to mock the unmanliness of this pencil-pushing suit. Then it changes. Shelbys velocity has so rattled Fords emotions he explodes in grief that his late father cant see his name on such a powerhouse, and in deep sadness that hes not a man of vision himself. He recognizes in Shelby everything he isnt, and it floods out his eyes and nose. It is a weirdly tender moment, reminding us that even comedic baddies in a dad film are people, too. JH

The strip Hustlers

Photograph: Barbara Nitke/AP

Jennifer Lopezs dazzling pole dance caused a ripple of gasps around the screening room where I saw Lorene Scafarias clever con movie Hustlers. Its not just that J-Lo looks so great for her, or anyone elses, age. And its not just that the moves required for this dance are so demanding, she later released a YouTube video of the rehearsals in which she gazed horrorstruck at her own bruised thighs. Its mostly that its a very old-school star move: the flaunting of talent, professionalism and charisma that we associate with a routine by say, Fred Astaire. But also, Ramona is the films central enigma and this moment, her first appearance, sums up the movie.

Her gymnastic display inspires something more tangible than mere lust: admiration (from an overawed Constance Wu), and financial reward. Ramona hugs those dollar bills close to her heart as she strides off stage. The choice of song, Fiona Apples Criminal, is as prophetic as her payoff line is prescient: Doesnt money make you horny? PH

The arrival Homecoming

Photograph: Parkwood Entertainment

A quote from Toni Morrison, some grainy analog establishing shots of the Coachella grounds, and then: it is time. The camera dollies up to a drum majorette who taps out a count, mean-mugs for a moment, and then blows her whistle to summon the demi-deity known as Beyonc Knowles-Carter. The director of photographys choreography works in perfect tandem with the dancers as one continuous shot pulls forward while they twirl out of the way to reveal Queen B, so resplendent and regal that both the nickname and the crowds slavering idol-worship of her instantly make sense.

To the strains of a HBCU-styled marching band, she strides down a catwalk to the stage with one foot in front of the other to maximize the swing of her hips. She might as well be walking on water, so supremely in command of this massive spectacle that she reminds us why we talk about pop stars in religious terms. CB

The evaluator Marriage Story

Photograph: Netflix

As rapturous as the reception might have been for Noah Baumbachs shattering divorce saga Marriage Story on the festival circuit this fall, no one could have predicted its instant virality earlier this month when it landed on Netflix. But while Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssons devastating argument became its most memed moment, its the lighter, yet still astute, set piece involving a court-appointed evaluator that made the biggest impression on me.

Its a perfectly calibrated sequence of awkwardness with Drivers theatre director Charlie painfully determined to show that hes a stable parent but knowing, as his soon-to-be-divorced wife says earlier on, that outside observation on any given day would reveal flawed parenting. This tension lingers throughout as he tries to bury his instinctive reaction to his sons gentle insolence while trying, unsuccessfully, to seek some humanity or humour from the unknowable visitor Nancy Katz, played hysterically by the standup comic Martha Katz. Im not sure if another line has amused me this year quite as much as Charlies son asking him to do the thing with the knife over dinner in front of an understandably suspect Nancy and silently raging Charlie. Uncomfortably brushing it off, he eventually decides to explain his trick but it goes horribly, stomach-churningly wrong and he ends up bleeding profusely while trying, yet again, to pretend everything is fine. Its gruesomely, outrageously funny and a reminder of Baumbachs ability to make drastic yet effortless tonal switches. BL

The karaoke Booksmart

At a graduation eve party in Booksmart, one of the most criminally underseen movies of the year, shy overachiever Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) sits on the floor in a crowded room, sloshing through the end of her drink and admiring an overconfident theater friend belt out Alanis Morissettes You Oughta Know on a karaoke mic. Amy, out for two years but inexperienced, spends most of the film careening from confident and brash, in the presence of best friend Molly (Beanie Feldstein), to tongue-tied in front of Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), her crush of two years; when Ryan hands her the mic halfway through the song, the sound cuts out a fever pitch of nerves. But then Amy crushes it, nailing the songs ending and revealing to her classmates that, low-key, she can sing.

This scene does an impressive amount in about a minute, namely: live out the fantasy that has occupied about 65% of my daydreams since age 13 (I cant sing), prove that Dever has ARRIVED, salute an ultimate banger of a song. But it also captures the warm invincibility at the bottom of your first drink, the high of leaning into someone elses confidence or of unlocking that fearlessness in yourself the type of finely observed, wild yet grounded fun that made Booksmart one of the most resonant high school movies in a long time. AH

The fuckbox – High Life

Photograph: Allstar/Alcatraz Films

When Claire Deniss desolately beautiful science-fiction nightmare High Life premiered at the Toronto film festival, the fuckbox scene became a brief but intense meme for the few on film Twitter who had seen it: in a film that was hard to describe and distil as a whole, it was the salacious detail singled out to pique others interest. Thats a reductive way to tease a film prickling with so many layers of philosophical and sensual detail, but once seen in context, its also an entirely indelible image: Juliette Binoche, nude and scar-torn, entering a space-borne masturbation chamber, straddling a dildo seat and riding it until, as Lil Nas X might say, she cant no more. Performed with abandon by Binoche and shot with visceral candour by Denis making a tensing, thrashing map of the actors back alone its one of the most extraordinary sex scenes in modern cinema: an expression of female erotic autonomy that outlasts any early quips about it in the memory. GL

The crying Midsommar

Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

Ari Asters Midsommar is a portrait of how a toxic relationship quietly, but surely, unravels. At first its subtle: Florence Pughs Dani frets that she overburdens boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) with her own drama and mental health issues, and that her need for emotional support is unattractive. When her whole family dies suddenly, shes desperate to hold on to Christian. She appeases. She apologizes. She stifles her cries after Christian and his friends subtly pressure her into taking shrooms, as specters of her dead sister haunt her.

The whole film is about Dani feeling silenced and invalidated by a man who views himself as the saddled victim. Thats why its so weirdly refreshing when, in Midsommars terrifying climax, the Hrga women embrace Dani for who she is, cupping her face and encouraging her to sob as loudly as she wants. Crouched on the floor, they cry as one, and as their wails reach a communal crescendo, you see Dani finally finding some measure of healing. Sure, its a crazy Swedish cult, but there Dani finally finds someone who actually acknowledges her agony. GS

The tai chi – The Farewell

Photograph: AP

The quiet sentimentality of Lulu Wangs charming sleeper hit shines brightest for me in a scene where twentysomething Billi (played by Oscar-buzzed Awkwafina) and her grandmother, Nai Nai, practice tai chi outside.

Nai Nai coaches her granddaughter through some of the movements, lightly nagging Billi about practicing tai chi everyday in that cute, but kind of annoying, manner family members are known for. Its obvious Billi has no plans of practicing tai chi after this scene and doesnt deem it particularly useful. Then Nai Nai proudly and confidently credits the martial art for her continuing good health, a big smile on her face. Thing is: Billis grandmother has terminal lung cancer but does not know it. So Billi performs the tai chi movements with a renewed energy, owed to the strange mixture of guilt, sadness and stress she feels over the secret illness. She pushes out bad energy and inhales good, yelling out an awkward, meek Hai!

An hour later, at the end of the film, we see Billi walking down the streets of south Williamsburg. Shes still upset over her grandmothers cancer and visibly overwhelmed and stressed. Out of nowhere, she stops in the street, takes a deep breath and yells out a loud, reverberating Hai! The circularity of the moment Billi going from disinterest in tai chi to seeking relief through it highlights how our families can arm us with specific tools to handle the stressors of life. It reminds me of the hours me and my late grandmother would spend putting together 1,000-piece puzzles. As a kid, I was confident I would never take part in such a boring, odious activity as an adult. Today, its my favorite pastime. AW

The confrontation The Souvenir

Photograph: Bbc Films/Allstar

Generally speaking, scenes in which lovers kiss and make up following an infraction are joyful affairs. They come at the close of a movie, following heart-rending misunderstandings that have left a happy ending in jeopardy. Thats not the case in The Souvenir. After months of casual, incremental borrowing to fund his heroin habit, Anthony (Tom Burke) stages a robbery at the flat of young girlfriend Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). This is purely to bankroll smack not the luxe trip to Venice they embark on soon after, which she pays for, and during which she twigs what hes done.

When they return to London, Julie asks and Anthony admits. But hes not sorry. Hes wounded she has brought it up his abhorrent behaviour compounded by this cavalier attitude. Youre shocked, and relieved surely shell give him the boot?

And she quietly forgives him. Anthonys arrogance and obfuscation, his hurt words about only doing what he needs to, in a world she wouldnt understand, which hes protecting her from, fall on appalling open ears. Blame is smoothly shifted. Repentant Julie strokes his foot and forgets her heirlooms.

Joanna Hogg shoots the confrontation in one static shot; the couple sitting opposite in armchairs, until Julie bridges the gap. The viewer knew the truth would out and assumed it would be a bigger scene. That its not moves the relationship into new territory. You can no longer underestimate Anthonys actions or his hold over Julie. The moment she reaches out in supplication is the chilling heart of a fairly scary film. CS

The knife fight John Wick 3

Ignore the whys (the film-makers did); basically, its Keanu Reeves versus a bunch of faceless goons in a surprisingly tooled-up antiques shop, and for me, one of the most exhilaratingly gruesome action scenes in recent memory.

It starts with a few gunmen, easily dispatched, but things really kick off when Reeves and an opponent realise they are in a corridor of glass cases packed with all manner of bladed weapons. So much glass-smashing, knife-throwing, shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking, grunting and limb-twisting ensues, you can barely keep track. It is brilliantly choreographed and executed, but whats so great is how messy it all looks. And painful. Nobody is neatly killed. Knives miss their targets. The deaths get ever-more cartoonishly horrendous. And the scene ends with a flourish: the last, wounded assailant sits groaning in the foreground; from way back down the corridor Reeves hurls a final axe, which, of course, hits its target in the side of the head. The first time I watched this scene I laughed out loud in horror and admiration, which was kind of awkward as I was sitting on a crowded plane. SR

The heroin Pain and Glory

Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

Painfully clean-living as I am, I have never understood why so many films I like feature the consumption of heroin. Christiane F, Trainspotting, The Souvenir, Permanent Midnight and of course, the champ: Requiem for a Dream. Now we can add another to the list: Pedro Almodvars autobiographical reverie Pain and Glory. Now, most films posit heroin as a one-way ticket to the morgue, or at least to total social dysfunction; for Almodvar, though, it seems to be the next best thing to an after-dinner mint. His alter ego Salvador (Antonio Banderas) appears to handle it all with remarkable ease, using it to soothe his emotional worries and act as a vehicle for remembrance. Experiencers of the real thing may have a different view, but I presume Almodvar knows what hes talking about. Its quite the eye-opener. AP

The brow mop Amazing Grace

Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

Sydney Pollacks lost concert movie Amazing Grace was finally brought out this year showing the live filming in 1972 of Aretha Franklins gospel album of that name at New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Watts, Los Angeles. Franklins calm and restraint at the centre of this boiling cauldron of musical energy is compelling. The most startling moment involves her father, the Rev CL Franklin, who addresses the congregation and then, while Aretha is actually singing, he rushes forward to mop her brow. Was this the sort of thing he used to do when she was a little girl? Is it touching that he does it now? Or weirdly dysfunctional and coercive? Either way, it is a compelling image in a remarkable film. PB

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The director has limited himself to pure drama for his 20th movie. Here he talks about Brexit, the vanished freedom of the 1980s, and his need for solitude

Is Pedro Almodvar getting more respectable? You might say so. When the international film scene first caught up with the Spanish writer-director in the late 80s, he had already been notorious in Spain for nearly a decade with his films inspired by low life and high melodrama lurid, cheerfully scandalous, irrepressibly polysexual stories of porn stars, punk rockers, serial killers and rebel nuns. Now, 20 features into his career, Almodvar has long been recognised as a European classic, with his films since the mid-90s, including All About My Mother and Volver, largely turning away from outrage and perversity. Instead, Almodvar has come to specialise in emotional complexity, stylistic elegance and a distinctly high-art sobriety, never more so than in his latest film, Julieta, based on three short stories by the Nobel-winning Canadian author Alice Munro.

Its little surprise, then, to see Almodvar receiving one of the ultimate accolades for professional seriousness an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, which he was awarded in June alongside composer Arvo Prt, Apple designer Jonathan Ive and other international notables from science, law and theology. Yes, theres a certain piquant irony to the director of church-baiting comedy Dark Habits being honoured alongside a Czech monsignor. Typically, however, the film-maker saw the camp side of things: filmed after the ceremony examining his scarlet doctoral robes, he commented: I thought it was a Sister Act parody.

The same week, I meet Almodvar, 66, in a London hotel. He enthuses about the honour and about the laudatio, the official address in Latin, a language he learned as a boy at a religious boarding school in Extremadura. The ceremony was gorgeous, he says, leaning across a table in a bright tangerine polo shirt, his shock of silver hair making him look oddly like a chunkier cousin of David Byrne. I was very good at Latin. I was so pleased to listen to the laudatio because I knew what the guy was saying. There was something very, very old about it, but also a very modern point of view, very alive. I loved it. It was on the level of the Nobel prizes, he beams.

Almodvars last two films marked a return to his earlier, outr mode. The Skin I Live In, which reunited him with one of his most famous discoveries, Antonio Banderas, was a gothic surgical drama with a transgender twist. Less successfully, Im So Excited!, a hyper-camp farce set on an airliner, was loved by Spanish audiences but nosedived elsewhere (somewhat lost in translation was the films intended dimension of political allegory, depicting a Spain without a credible pilot at the controls).

Watch the trailer for Julieta.

But Almodvar finds himself back on terra firma with his most severe film to date, Julieta. Based on stories from Alice Munros 2004 collection Runaway, it charts the biography of one woman played by two newcomers to Almodvars cinema Emma Surez, as Julieta in middle age, and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self. Structured as a flashback, the complex narrative takes in a dreamlike night of passion, a love triangle, subsequent tragedy and Julietas retreat into depressive isolation. Rather than melodrama, Almodvar has said he was after something more austere this time pure drama.

Not that my other films are impure, Almodvar explains in Spanish (he skips in this interview between his native language and slightly rusty English, sometimes turning the standby interpreter beside him). Impurity has a moral meaning in Spanish, which I dont like. I just wanted much more restraint.

His intention was to strip out the familiar traces of his style: Nobody sings, no one talks about cinema and theres no humour. I had to force myself there; sometimes during rehearsals the odd comic line would come up, which was a relief for the actors. But after the rehearsals, I decided, no humour. I thought it was the best way to tell such a painful story. And also, you know, its fantastic that in my 20th film I could make a change. I mean, this is very welcome.

Almodvar had hoped to adapt Munros stories for some time and even tipped his viewers a wink by sneaking a copy of Runaway into a scene in The Skin I Live In. Intended to be his first English-language film, his adaptation, originally titled Silence, was to star Meryl Streep. In the end, however, he balked at working in English, and at the Canadian cultural specificity of Munros world, and set the story closer to home Madrid, Galicia, the Pyrenees. Its not a faithful adaptation, but once I moved it to Spain, I had to make it really mine.

Almodvars 2011 movie The Skin I Live In, in which plastic surgeon Robert (Antonio Banderas) uses his scalpel skills for extracurricular purposes.

He loves Munros stories, he says, because theres so much about her that I identify with shes a housewife who writes (in recent interviews, he often refers to himself today as a housewife). The essence of Munros writing, he says, is a great strangeness. What I like best about her is something thats impossible to translate to cinema, her commentaries around the main incidents minor comments but they become the most important thing in the story. At the end, I feel I know less about the character than at the beginning. For me, thats a very positive thing.

In the end, Almodvar decided to have his protagonist played by two very different performers, a choice that yields a moving reveal when a towel is removed from Julietas head after a bath to reveal that Ugarte has been replaced by Surez, visibly 20 years older. I dont trust ageing makeup, says Almodvar. It pulls me out of a film. When you use an actor who has aged, theres something that you cant imitate the eyes, the way she looks at things, the rhythm of walking, the body language.

This coup de cinma is all the more poignant for viewers who may remember Emma Surez from the 90s as the angelic-looking lead of Julio Medems surreal existential dramas The Red Squirrel and Earth. Two decades on, her looks and acting style have acquired a stately severity that is absolutely compelling and all the more moving for being so contained.

As for the younger Julieta, shes played with hyper-alert energy by Adriana Ugarte, the star of a hugely popular couture-themed TV series, El tiempo entre costuras (literally, The Time Between Stitches). The director cast her purely because she was superb in her audition, he says; he has no interest in Spanish TV. For me, it isnt a reference. I cant judge the actors in Spanish TV fiction. I mean, they are brrr! Poor things! he laughs. They dont have time to do a good job.

Almodvar has always said that he works with different actors in different ways. On Julieta, he enforced a rule of strict reserve no comic lines, but also no tears, no overt emoting. He gave Surez a reading list of books on pain and loss, including Joan Didions The Year of Magical Thinking, while directing Ugarte seems to have involved teaching both deportment and social history.

The way I directed Adriana was much more physical. It was more to explain how in the 80s a young lady behaved. Twentysomething girls now are so different from the girls of that age. I had to explain that a girl in the 80s would have felt free to fuck a man on a train if she felt like it. There was a feeling of extreme liberty and equality among the people that I knew, men and women. The modern women of that time behaved like men in their sexuality, in the decisions they made. The bad education I gave Adriana was to make her a woman of the 80s.

Whether or not Almodvar can claim authoritative knowledge of how young women behave today, he certainly knows what hes talking about with regard to Iberian subcultural history for cinemagoers around the world, his name is synonymous with 80s Spain and its mores. Born in a village in the La Mancha region, Almodvar moved to Madrid in 1968, got involved in underground theatre and started making Super-8 films variously inspired by Andy Warhol, John Waters and the Hollywood melodrama tradition (he was already also an art cinema devotee, passionate about Bergman and Antonioni). He eventually emerged as a mainstay in the Movida Madrilea (the Madrid Scene), an explosion of art, music, design, nightlife and general cultural liberation that lasted into the mid-80s and was a celebratory, wildly eclectic response to the end of the Franco dictatorship.

Almodvars early work was overtly provocative, intensely sexual and marked by comic-strip flippancy. His barely seen first feature in 1978 was entitled Folla folla flleme Tim (Fuck Fuck Fuck Me Tim) and, two years later, his canonic debut proper Pepi, Luci, Bom featured the director himself presiding over an erections contest. His 80s films are among the classics of queer cinema, although Almodvar has always refused to be categorised specifically as a gay film-maker. A friend of mine recalls him fulminating when she asked him whether he made gay films: Did people ask Hitchcock if he made fat films?

Volver (2006): in her third role for Almodvar, Penlope Cruz stars as a single mother whose daughter gets into trouble. Photograph: Allstar/Sony Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Almodvar is known for his reluctance to discuss his private life, which is, in any case, very rarely touched on in the Spanish media, although some papers have identified photographer Fernando Iglesias, who sometimes plays cameo roles in his films, as being his partner for over a decade.

I ask Almodvar whether he is nostalgic for the energies of the movida years, of a different, more optimistic Spain. I dont like nostalgia as a feeling but its true that tolerance, beauty, freedom are what defined the 80s and its not what defines this decade in Spain. The films I made at that time, I had no trouble making, nobody got offended, yet theyre quite provocative. He is convinced that his 1983 anti-clerical comedy Dark Habits could not have been made today It would have had a very radical and violent response from the religious establishment. Theres a new phenomenon on the rise in Spain, he says the offence to Catholic sensibilities. He mentions a recent Gay Pride poster, which showed two Virgins, associated with Barcelona and Valencia, kissing. The archbishops held masses to condemn it. That would have been unthinkable in the 80s.

We talk about the current state of politics, Spanish in particular and European in general, since our interview happens to fall in the few days between the outcome of the Brexit vote and the general election in Spain. Almodvar commiserates with me on the turn of affairs in Britain. In Spain, we are all in shock. For my generation and the generation that came after, London represented freedom. I first came here in 1971 during the Franco dictatorship, so you cant imagine what that meant for a young Spanish man. Regarding the bad morale arising from Brexit, he adds: If it extends to Spain, it will favour this feeling of fear and uncertainty and the more conservative side of Spanish politics, the Partido Popular (Peoples party).

He was right, of course: the following Sundays results saw the rightwing PP maintaining its position in power. Almodvar had already voted in advance for the leftwing Podemos; he has been a prominent critic of the PP and is among many who regard the recent massive hike on VAT for cinema tickets as the governments punitive revenge on the film communitys opposition to Spains involvement in the Iraq war.

Theres no doubt that the downbeat mood of austerity-era Spain has played its part in determining the tenor of Julieta. Reality always filters through into my films, even when I try to reject it. It finds a crack to seep in through. The climate of the last four years in Spain has been of enormous unhappiness and even though I havent personally suffered from the harshness of the economic situation, Im surrounded by people who have. I dont think Julieta is a metaphor for Spain today but its no accident that my 80s films were much happier.

Julieta also reflects his personal mood. In the last three years, Ive suffered physical pain and great solitude. If he had written the script in a different decade, he says, he could imagine Julieta going out, meeting people in the streets of Madrid. She would be involved in others problems. Now it was very easy for me just to talk about her kind of solitude. I know a lot about solitude.

I ask what he means and why especially now, since he has often talked about solitude in the past; in one book of interviews, he recalls feeling isolated as a 10-year-old because other kids werent interested in discussing Ingmar Bergman. In this case, he says, solitude is something I choose. Anyway, you have to experience loneliness for this sort of work.

How so because he needs to be alone to write?

Its a mixture of everything, he shrugs. Its a mixture of time passing, of getting older, the fact that going out is much less exciting. Im at an age when everything is less exciting and I have to look for inspiration much more inside myself and my home than outside.

Photograph: James Rajotte for the Observer

There is a downside, he admits. Im afraid of turning into a misanthrope. I want to see what other peoples problems are and to empathise with them. I have to be careful not to isolate myself too much. This is something, indeed, that hostile Spanish critics have accused him of as his international profile has risen.

He shrugs again. Anyway, I dont want to complain but [hes speaking English now and emphasises the but] I have a lot of migraines, I dont hear with one ear and Im photophobic. I dont go to award ceremonies because TV lights mean having a migraine the whole evening. So the press in Spain think I feel scorn for the ceremony.

Sometimes solitude comes from something specific, like the fact that I dont smoke, I dont drink, I dont take drugs, I dont hear well. I dont want to be a drag for other people, so I stay at home. Its as simple as that.

Because of his hearing problem, he had to warn the people sitting beside him at lunch in Oxford that his conversation might accidentally sound silly or surrealistic. And they were very charming about it.

Whatever his longer-term woes, 2016 has not been an easy year for Almodvar. In April, his long-standing repertory player Chus Lampreave, a much-loved specialist in grandmother and eccentric doyenne roles, died. A few days later, shortly before the Spanish release of Julieta, it emerged in the Panama Papers, the leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, that El Deseo, the production company founded by the director and his brother, Agustn, had set up an offshore company in the early 90s. Given the directors prominence as a leftwinger, this was a major embarrassment, to say the least. Agustn issued a statement to explain that the short-lived company had been set up to facilitate co-productions but was never used; Pedro commented that he accepted his responsibility but later added that he and his brother were some of the least important names implicated: If it was a film, we wouldnt even be extras.

It was a very bad moment, Almodvar says. I was on the front of every single newspaper and TV programme. The press was using me, in the most sensationalist way possible. It was awful, because its very hard to be part of a list of people that you hate. But I felt used by the media. Im absolutely against tax havens but Im also against the commercialisation of news.

This unwanted exposure, he says, partly accounts for the fact that his usually faithful and very diverse Spanish public adolescents, many, many gay people, lots of old ladies, housewives, every category and every profession seemed to reject Julieta. The film scored his worst Spanish box-office in 20 years, although it went on to triumph in France and Italy.

One reason for Julietas disappointing domestic showing, surely, is that it is such a dark film, hardly calculated to please a nation facing tough times. The director also points out that Spanish audience figures have diminished anyway, partly because of that VAT hike. It must be galling for him, though, that Julieta was significantly trumped at the box-office by a sex comedy called Kiki, Love to Love (not to be confused with the directors own 1993 Kika), which, by all accounts, is in the spirit of Almodvars 80s work.

The Oscar- and Bafta-winning All About My Mother (1999). The film follows a woman (Cecilia Roth) whose son dies in an accident and her subsequent attempts to track down his transgender father.
Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Tristar

The directors spirits visibly rise when I ask him about the retrospective of his films that has just begun at Londons BFI Southbank, for which he has also made a personal selection of must-sees from the history of Spanish cinema. Which title would he most urge British audiences to see? Without hesitation, he chooses 1964 drama Aunt Tula, while among his own films he recommends Law of Desire and Talk to Her. He clearly takes his curatorial role seriously because a few days later I get an email from his publicist to say that Almodvar has had a rethink scratch Aunt Tula, hell go for another early 60s title, the black comedy El verdugo (The Executioner).

On the sources of his own inspiration, Almodvar claims the choice sometimes just imposes itself, as presumably it did when Alice Munros stories came to fascinate him. The truth is, Im not very conscious when I write, when I decide to do one story and not another. Im very permeable I dont exactly decide the story myself. It sounds paranormal.

Im curious to know what the maestro is reading now and his assistant goes into the next room to fetch a paperback a Spanish translation of Nothing Grows By Moonlight, a novel by Norwegian writer Torborg Nedreaas. Its fantastic, its incredible, Almodvar enthuses. I Google it later; its about a miners daughter who forms a masochistic obsession with her teacher. It seems just the sort of thing that Almodvar might feel like adapting if he remains in his current downbeat mood, but you wonder if hell allow himself some jokes in it.

Julieta is released on 26 August. The Almodvar season is at BFI Southbank throughout August and September

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