Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Year End Round Up (Part 1)

The verdicts are in, and in an unexpected bit of critical solidarity, it seems virtually unanimous that 2007 has been one of the best years for movies in quite some time. But look again, as even a cursory glance of a random sampling of top tens would suggest that every critic has picked the same dozen or so films to single out as distinguished products. To be fair, a handful are making my list as well (see below), but the notion rubs me the wrong way for a few reasons. One, there is little examination into the process that allows us, as viewers, access to certain product. When a film is labeled as “indie”, there may or may not be any awareness that the major studios all have “boutique” labels, which cultivate the same kind of brand labeling as any other corporate entity. As critics line up to fall all over themselves heralding a return to “adult” films, they’re still lining the coffers of the companies that spend the rest of the year churning out garbage for teens with disposable income. It might seem churlish of me, but suggesting that a handful of critical and popular favorites have elevated this year above and beyond any other in recent memory seems to suggest an overwhelming lack of critical veracity, as well as any sense of artistic discovery. In Roger Ebert’s recent Sun Times feature listing his top ten films of the year, there was a line up of the usual suspects front and center – Juno, No Country For Old Men, Atonement, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Into the Wild, etc. What was at first mystifying (and ultimately infuriating) was the relegation to a separate, smaller section, a laundry list of animated, foreign, and documentary features. The implications of this, at least to me, are crystal clear – that any films falling within these (very broad) confines can and should be ostracized, existing only to be lumped together and therefore even easier to dismiss en masse. Not only are the explanatory notes significantly shorter, but they have also been printed in even smaller type (to be fair, if one visits the article online, the entire feature is presented as one piece, and the font size is the same; this strikes one as a fascinating irregularity between the printed word and online writing) . I’ll pose a simple question: does No Country For Old Men need any more press at this point? Or would Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye’s epic meditation on abortion and left vs right ideology, benefit more from some free press? The simple answer is that Ebert liked one film more than the other. More complicated is the suggestion that Ebert instead coral the studio product in a sidebar with smaller print type on the bottom of page 13 while presenting the others in the larger article. Seems far fetched, right? And yet we don’t blink an eye when we skim over a list of films we’ve never heard of in the first place.

Far from suggesting that Ebert has ruined movie reviewing, I simply want to raise a few questions. Having done so, allow me to submit that this was, in fact, a great year for movies. I’ll only add that every year is a good year for movies, inasmuch as there’s always something to seek out if one is willing to. In keeping with my contrarian tone, my top ten films of 2007 is more like a top 20, give or take a few. And while no one wants a critic to pile on arbitrary titles, like seeing Casablanca for the first time and deciding it’s the best film of 2004, I do take as fair game any film that an average person could walk up to and buy a ticket for (so festival screenings qualify). In addition, due to the vagrancies of film distribution, movies that played for the first time in Chicago this year could actually be several years old. This does not particularly bother me, as we aren’t involved in some kind of scientific experiment requiring empirical evidence. List making is ultimately a narcissistic activity, declaring to anyone who will listen what our individual taste is and challenging someone to take us to task for it. If such an activity is to have any value beyond this, it should be educational, drawing attention to those innumerable films that inevitably fall between the cracks.

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen): You might assume from my ramblings above that I hated the film, and I must admit that I’m slightly troubled by the almost unanimous praise it has received across the board. And yet it might very well be a thriller for the ages; tough, taunt, remorseless. The performers are uniformly great, and it seems silly to single out Javier Bardem over Tommy Lee Jones or Josh Brolin. The film builds quietly to a metaphysical conundrum, namely, are we becoming more and more soulless? It’s masterful craftsmanship that sneaks up on you. If all mainstream films were this good, it would indeed be a year for unbridled celebration. Just for grins, check out Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum's contrarian assessments at www.davekehr.com and www.chicagoreader.com. It is a fascinating crash course in just how dangerous it can be to suggest that a film that everyone else loves might actually not be that good, even self-flattering.

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa): Costa is perhaps the most singular auteur to arrive since critics latched on to Bela Tarr. After reading about the film for some time, I first caught up with it earlier this year during the Chicago Latino Film Festival. In a fitting bookend to the year, the Gene Siskel Film Center presented a retrospective of Costa’s work in December. He’s a filmmaker in desperate need of a wider audience, and these seem like the first (perhaps tentative) steps towards this end. There’s no denying that Colossal Youth is a difficult film and it seems unlikely to win over the same audience that has made No Country such a hit. And yet it says more about the state of our world (not just the American psyche) than any other film I’ve seen this year. A man visits various residents of a Portugese tenement (he calls them his “children”) who are in the process of being relocated to a newer, more modern state run building. Shot entirely in static, epic length long takes, it is a film that restores individual identities to those that, due to poverty, substance abuse, etc., are no longer a part of proper society. Costa’s camera captures figures in natural light, dwarfed by their man made surroundings, yet struggling to be heard.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien): Hou has been expanding his visual repertoire over his last several features, moving away from static tableau framings and introducing some close ups and more frequent tracking shots (for the best survey of his body of work, see David Bordwell’s “Figures Traced in Light”). Flight of the Red Balloon observes, quite intimately, a harried single mother, her young son, and the Taiwanese nanny employed to care for him during the day. It’s a simple drama about an average family (a friend even complained that it was too simple, leaving him relatively bored). And yet Hou’s camera (aided by frequent cinematographer Mark Lee-Ping) reveals emotions and ideas almost entirely through discrete compositions and movements. The narrative is oblique, even elliptical, but we are left with a beautiful portrait of a family going through everyday life, replete with all the normal joys and sorrows. A much longer piece on the film’s deceptively simple mis-en-scene is in the works.

The Man From London (Bela Tarr): Tarr’s first film since 2000’s Werckmeister Harmonies is perhaps even more demanding than his epic, 7 hour Communist meditation Satantango. I suggest more demanding as he introduces the barest trappings of a noir-ish crime thriller before totally discarding it, leaving the viewer with little to grasp other than his lush, high contrast black and white cinematography. A night watchmen oversees a deal of some sort go sour, leaving one man dead and an unidentified brief case up for grabs. Grab it he does, and off we go on… what, exactly? The film is less about narrative and more about lovingly choreographed long takes that keep individual points of view in constant flux. I’ve only had a chance to see it once, and it’s ludicrous to attempt any real exploration of the film without multiple viewings. Regardless, it’s a unique, beautiful experience, and here’s hoping it finds distribution at some point in the next year. I should add that it took Werkmeister Harmonies several years to gain even the most perfunctory theatrical distribution, and that other than a handful of screenings over the years, Satantango has never had a theatrical run.

28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo): Like all the best horror films, this one is overflowing with political subtext. England has been evacuated after a viral outbreak. Eventually, the virus thought to be contained, habitants are slowly allowed to reenter the country. With equal parts governmental hubris and familial breakdowns, all hell breaks loose and both the infected and civilians are gunned down in an attempt to restore order. I don’t think the correlation between insurgent zombie and innocent civilian needs to be further explicated.

Black Book (Paul Verhoeven): Verhoven’s magnificent return to form follows a Danish Jew (Canice van Houten) falling in love with a Nazi commandant while fleeing the resistance that is supposed to liberate her. In some ways, it is a forceful adaptation of Vonnegut’s “Mother Night”, while also allowing Verhoven to indulge in his own particular brand of violent, sexy irony. Surprisingly, the most entertaining mainstream film of the year happens to have subtitles.

Inland Empire (David Lynch): Lynch reinvents his own oeuvre, perhaps reinventing cinema in the process.

Offside (Jafar Panahi): Young women attempting to attend an Iranian championship soccer match are caught and detained (they can’t be in the stadium alongside the men). At once a scathing critique of an oppressive social regime, it also gradually emerges as a film about strong national pride. Panahi embraces this contradiction, suggesting that one can love their country while still disagreeing with its policies and hoping to make it better. In other words, a must see for the Bush administration and anyone who subscribes to a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. This is humanist filmmaking at its very best.

Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye): an epic documentary nearly two decades in the making, Tony Kaye fields comments from a variety of talking heads, both left and right. It seems a dubious notion to suggest that anything can be totally apolitical, or, by the same token, totally fair. And yet Lake of Fire comes remarkably close to doing just that. It’s a demanding experience – part of its power comes from its epic running time, and there is graphic surgical footage of abortion procedures. There are no real answers here, only a stunning exploration of different values dangerously at odds with each other.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu): Speaking of which, another contender in the Romanian New Wave (rounding out the Death of Mr. Lazarescu/12:08 East of Bucharest trifecta) suggests that denying women freedom of choice is an inherently reactionary political decision. The title of the film refers to how far along a young woman is in her pregnancy, and we follow her and her best friend as they navigate early 80’s communist Romania seeking an illegal abortion. It’s harrowing, to say the least, and yet what emerges as the most hateful aspect of the whole sordid affair is the notion of an oppressed people inflicting pain on each other, rather than the regime that subjugates them.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach): a powerful historical film about the birth of the IRA. It would, in fact, seem that history is doomed to repeat itself, as a group of Irish insurgents tackle the hugely superior British military force bent on occupation and subjugation. Anyone sensing a trend here? I thought so…

1 comment:

Hanlon said...

Sorry I'm just commenting now but you weren't exactly forthcoming with the address. In re criticism of critics I have this to offer.
I think the question becomes what is the critic's job. The critic is certainly a publicist but I doubt that most critics think of themselves in that way, or think of themselves primarily in that way. I would posit that it's reasonable to assume that a critic as populist as Ebert is reviewing films for people who are interested in the cinema primarily as a means of entertainment. I think the highly intellectual and analytical approach to film-making that you and our peers take is unique and not for everyone. Given that, I think it's fine that he reviews movies that people can see. That's his job. Anyone really into cinema will seek out Bordwell and go to the one week run of Lake of Fire, but most people go to the movies as a luxury and don't really look to the cinema as a place to get a rigorous mental workout.
I attempt to offer that with no value judgement on whether one is better than the other, but merely as a description of the state of affairs. I understand you'd probably like to change that, but you have to ask yourself do you really want to watch an intense eastern European film with a bunch of tweens who are texting the whole time?