Is it possible to talk about the year in film 2009 without bringing up Avatar? James Cameron’s behemoth has become, as of this writing, the highest grossing picture world wide of all time, and the domestic record (set by his majesty’s own Titanic) is set to fall any day now. Of course, crunching the numbers reveals that only around half as many people that flocked to Titanic have seen Avatar. So what does all of this mean? I’m not entirely sure myself. I’m particularly cautious of zeitgeist criticism (as David Bordwell is fond of saying – which zeitgeist do you want to talk about?), and the notion that Avatar is some kind of game changer akin to the coming of sound, color or Cinemascope is particularly vexing. One thing is for sure – Avatar isn’t doing much in the way of storytelling, character development, or political discourse, nor is particularly interested in changing the grammar of the action-spectacular (for that, you’ll need to go and see Mann and To). Record setting box office grosses being what it is, Avatar is certain to influence a new crop of imitations, while continuing the fad of extra expensive 3D spectacle. Dave Kehr has an essential article in the current Film Comment that talks specifically about the new generation of 3D, as well as its history and formal properties. The article is also a bracing reminder that while the history books are fond of ‘eureka’, ‘lightning-in-a-bottle’ moments, the coming of sound and color went through many incarnations and incremental gradations before becoming the standards that they are today. I have no intention of getting all Bosley Crowther on you; for all I know, 3D might very well eventually become normalized, just another tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. As Kehr notes, just such a normalizing was taking place when the studios decided to kill the 3D experiment, releasing Hitchcock’s 3D produced Dial M For Murder in 2D versions and abandoning the process all together. So perhaps what I’m arguing against is not the process itself, but its new found place in the sun courtesy of Cameron’s onerous, simple minded fantasy spectacle.
One thing is for sure: the films that mattered most to me this past year have nothing to do with Avatar or its ilk. I’m not interested in trying to yolk together thirty odd disparate films, but a quick glance reveals more than a few filmmakers concerned with where we are right now, and how we are doing, as opposed to where we can travel with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of special effects. And as an exercise in world-building and fantastical speculation, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has Cameron beat hands down.
So here you are, in no particular order:
24 City (Zhang-ke)
Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa)
Summer Hours (Assayas)
35 Shots of Rum (Denis)
Bright Star (Campion)
Public Enemies (Mann)
Two Lovers (Gray)
The Headless Woman (Martel)
The Beaches of Agnes (Varda)
The Limits of Control (Jarmusch)
Lorna’s Silence (Dardenne Bros.)
Treeless Mountain (Kim)
The Sun (Sokurov)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Gilliam)
That’s a hell of a year, no matter how you look at it. I could have also made room for Soderbergh’s twin experiments Che and The Girlfriend Experience, one an epic spectacle made with the most intimate of means, the other a quick one-off that happens to be a bold statement about capitalism; Rian Johnson’s The Brother’s Bloom, a charming lark of a film that’s ostensibly about con men, but is actually a profound meditation on the nature of storytelling; Steve McQueen’s installation in search of a gallery Hunger; Laurent Cantet’s public schools docudrama The Class; Brillante Mendoza’s pseudo-verite riff on 'Goodbye Dragon Inn' Serbis; Philippe Garrel’s fevered, doom laden romantic mind-fuck Frontier of Dawn; Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, two ‘kids films’ that sneak in more adult emotional baggage than this adult might be willing to admit; John Hillcoat’s noble failure The Road, Park Chan-Wook’s fuck you to ‘Twilight’ Thirst; Gotz Spielmann’s slow-burn (damn near glacial) knife-twist of a revenge thriller Revanche; and of course, so as not be left out of all the other reindeer games, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (yeah, at this point it's become a bit over hyped. But damn do those action scenes work like gang busters).
One of the things that annoy me most about these kinds of year-in-review type articles is that we frequently forget that cinephilia is a full time job. I saw a couple of hundred films this year that were entirely new to me, although less than half of those were current releases. Of course, whatever isn’t currently in release isn’t in the position to become a hot commodity, and is therefore unlikely to generate much ado about anything. Dave Kehr and The Auteurs are doing their part to redress the balance, with Kehr’s weekly NY Times column on older films hitting dvd (and presiding over the web’s best discussion forum) and The Auteurs maximizing the autonomy of the web to talk about whatever the fuck they feel like. One of the years most important events had nothing to do with what’s new and hot, and everything to do with exploring the past as a way towards pointing to the future. The Gene Siskel Film Center provided a near-exhaustive retrospective of Nagisa Oshima (courtesy of the estimable James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario), a criminally under rated auteur of the Japanese post-war cinema and, along with Shohei Imamura, an essential voice of social critique and protest (Imamura himself got some past due recognition of his own with a Criterion box set release of three hard-to-see early features). Often dubbed the Japanese Godard, Oshima dabbled in a lot of genres, appropriated a lot of styles and ruffled a lot of feathers while exploring deeply embedded themes of psycho-sexual disgust, self loathing, institutionalized violence, post-colonial racism and macho self-aggrandizement, sometimes within a strikingly modern meta-idiom. We’ve still got a lot to learn if we are only now discovering the likes of Oshima while hailing Cameron and his obliteration of the human body (you can take that literally or figuratively).
Way back in 2000, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an essential essay lambasting critical complacency and the lazy, counter-productive, Hollywood sponsored notion that the cinema was ‘dead’. A decade on, she’s proving more resilient than ever.
Seven essential films by female directors? Now we’re talking. More please.
The release of ‘Farber on Film’: an essential collection, poised to bring Farber to a new generation of people hungry for authentic movie talk. His voice is missed, but it lives on.
The death of film criticism carries on unabated, or so I’m told. Myself, I can barely read all the words proliferating wildly all over the web. Yes, much of it is unpaid, and that’s a shame. Long live the passionate ‘amateur’.
Koch Lorber released Godard’s La Chinoise and Le Gai Savoir, and Masters of Cinema got their hands on the long unavailable Un Femme Mariee, while Criterion unleashed definitive editions of Made in USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with Vivre sa Vie on the way. At this point, someone has got to suck it up and get around to releasing Godard’s forgotten Dziga-Vertov Group films. It amounts to a kind of phantom oeuvre, and past critical assessments to the contrary, it’s time to let us decide for ourselves the (potential) value of these (lost?) films.