Sunday, January 25, 2009

2008 Top Ten (or so)...

In the mad rush to stay on the cutting edge, we sometimes forget that cinephilia is a fulltime job. While a huge number of end-of-the-year-best lists have come down the pipe line (and here’s another), most of us tend to scrutinize the previous year in contemporary, present-tense terms. Certainly, this is understandable: as a kind of postmortem, it can be useful to see where we’ve been, where we are going, and who has emerged on the scene: those occasional figures that come out of nowhere and shock us with their originality and insight – we might call them artists. But before diving into the year in the strictly present tense, I must confess that some of the best times I had this year in a theatre - the most educational, the most entertaining and the most edifying – didn’t necessarily have anything to do with what we might call “now”. As I hope the below list will illustrate, I’m not deriding the year’s crop of current film, nor am I bemoaning some state of current affairs - I couldn’t stand to encounter yet another “not as good as 2007” list – far from it. But I think it is massively important to recognize the experiences that enrich our film knowledge and allow us to interact with, and communicate with, a kind of past-tense.

With Oscar night right around the corner, the media-industrial complex would like to have us believe that there are only 5 or 6 movies worth talking about for the next month (although there doesn’t seem to me much to discuss - certainly, they don’t offer much to think about). But 2008 brought a series of masterpieces, week in and week out, to the Gene Siskel Film Center, courtesy of Jonathan Rosenbaum and his First/Great Transition series. I can’t think of any place I would have rather been during those Wednesday nights, soaking in Scarface, The Big Sky, Shadows, Playtime, Mr. Freedom, The Rules of the Game, Sylvia Scarlett, Make Way For Tomorrow, Man’s Castle, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum and Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!, amongst two dozen others. It is an excellent reminder that not everything is available for consumption on home video (the Mizoguchi, Klein and Hawks, for starters), and that even the films that are readily available still have a power on the big screen that’s missing from even the most high tech home system. Anyone who lives in Chicago and doesn’t take full advantage of such programming is missing out.

My vote for the best dvd release of the year is Sony’s “Films of Budd Boetticher” box set. Five films, all starring Randolph Scott, all set in a dusty, barren landscape that is the American Frontier. Not one of the films clocks in at longer that 78 minutes, but the complexity and briskness of the storytelling puts the current Oscar bait White Elephants to shame. While I might complain about people watching films on dvd instead of on film, one has to admit that the sheer number of gems that are getting released has deepened our collective knowledge of film history in an age when repertory programming has all but ceased to exist. Certainly, this release will allow Boetticher’s reputation to sit along side Ford, Hawks, Walsh and Mann as one of the key masters of the Western genre.

I was also extremely excited (thanks Jake) to finally visit The Nightingale, an alternative screening venue right off of the Milwaukee Blue Line. Closely aligned with Patrick Friel’s White Lights Cinema and Gabe Klinger’s Chicago Cinema Forum, the space is a triumph of small scale, DIY inventiveness. I attended a screening of Lewis Klahr’s experimental animation, themselves a stunning example of no budget, hand crafted and deeply personal avant-garde film making. My one New Year’s resolution, and it should be easy to keep, is to attend as many programs here as possible. There’s a palpable sense of community and discovery that goes hand in hand with these almost secretive, off the beaten path screenings, and it’s always encouraging to know that one is not alone.

It’s always difficult to make a broad assumption about why one likes what they do – there’s no easy, overarching frame work that will easily encapsulate everything that’s going on in the world or why we respond to one film and not another. If some of my favorite films of the year seem esoteric, several are simply great entertainments that have fallen through the cracks. I think people largely limit what they are willing to see by blindly following publicity of one form or another, and without large advertising budgets, totally accessible and user friendly films get smothered by blockbusters or mini-majors that have some kind of dubious cultural allure attached to them. It can be a lose/lose situation for a lot of films that don’t easily fit into predetermined notions of “entertainment” or “art”, at least in the sense that “art” increasingly means “pseudo-significance”. I saw a lot of films this past year, and these are the ones that meant the most to me. I can only hope that my enthusiasm goes some ways towards highlighting the ones that got away, and, if cinephilia could be considered along the lines of always playing catch up – catching up to the past, as it where – the we’ve all got a lot of work to do. I, for one, can’t wait.

Still Life


24 City (Jia Zhangke): a banner year Zhangke fans, with the (belated) release of Still Life and several screenings of 24 City during the Chicago International Film Festival. Dong, something of a companion piece to Still Life (shot around the same time, using the same locations, although more straightforward in its documentary ambitions), is available on the just released dvd version of Still Life as an extra feature (I fear that the film’s relegation to supplemental material might insinuate that it is somehow lesser than Still Life – this is not the case at all. I would argue that the two films create a fascinating dialectical conversation about similar subject matter, and Dong is, in its own right, essential). Zhangke strikes me as a filmmaker for right now, in much the same way that Godard encapsulated the 60’s and Kiarostami the 90’s – in each case, these filmmakers were aware of what it meant/means to be part of the world in a particular moment, in all of its complexity. The shifting current of commerce has radically altered our world’s landscape, both literally and figuratively, and it is these seismic shifts and the resulting displacement of huge masses of people that fascinates Zhangke. He also intuitively understands how the past and present commingle into a tapestry, to the point that one cannot simply dismiss out right a history of communism as “bad” and a capitalistic future as “good”. We usually associate “progress” with a positive connotation, but Zangke views it with hesitancy and distance – what is progress for some is eradication for others.

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa): I’m not sure I can agree with the critical assertion that Tokyo Sonata is a huge change of pace for Kurosawa – he’s still obsessed with the apocalypse, but here he has located it deep in the heart of a typically dysfunctional family. The film’s sense of ennui and isolation hark back to the aimless youth of Bright Future, and a left turn late in the narrative threatens to turn the film into one of his horror efforts. But Kurosawa ends the film deftly, with a musical performance that leaves the film’s mysteries intact while still suggesting that there might be a glimmer of hope after all.

The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette): a relatively accessible Rivette – clocking in at just under two and a half hours, from a classic novel and replete with the period trappings so familiar to the art house – that nonetheless remains elusive and mysterious, almost opaque. Essentially a will-they or won’t-they battle of the sexes, Rivette’s snaking camera constantly shifts our point of view, usually several times within one shot. At least partially, the film is about role playing, a subject so dear to Rivette’s heart, as well as a kind of stubborn insistence on individual autonomy – neither character is prepared to surrender any part of themselves to the other. Rivette infuses the period costume drama with an ambiguous darkness missing from most post-Merchant/Ivory productions (certainly, not to be confused with The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley).

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin): a joyful movie, full of dizzying cinematic invention, about a dysfunctional family and the despair of a deceased son/brother that hangs over it. Only Desplechin could orchestrate such an endeavor, leaving this viewer bowled over by just how much life can be crammed into one film. This would make an outstanding double bill with Rachel Getting Married.

In the City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin): 2007 introduced me to the great Pedro Costa. I’ll remember 2008 as the year I saw my first Guerin film. A talent to be reckoned with, Guerin possesses an understanding of mood and pace keenly attuned to romantic longing. Mr. Alex Dowd has written eloquently about the film here, certainly better than I’m able to.

The Witnesses (Andre Techine): Techine continues his one man mission to chart a counter history of contemporary life and love – his is a sexually polymorphous world where there are no real distinctions between gay or straight, just human beings living in a sometimes beautiful, sometimes uncaring world.

Wall-E (Andrew Stanton): the year’s most humane entertainment, pessimistic about what we have done and where we might wind up, but optimistic about what we are capable of as human beings. Those giant binocular eyes reflect back more about us than we might care to admit, but see things we desperately need to embrace.

The Pool (Chris Smith): documentarian Smith tries his hand at a fiction feature and seems to have finally arrived as a fully achieved artist. American Movie and Home Movie always struck me as deeply conflicted works, coming dangerously close to mocking their quirky subjects while trying to simultaneously celebrate their uniqueness. With The Pool, Smith lets his story unfold naturally, with an eye for letting scenes play out in real time. Far from the third-world porn of City of God and its ilk, here we get a genuine sense of what it’s like to be poor, but not miserable - preparing a bed roll to sleep on the floor, packing all of ones possessions into an impossibly tiny knapsack, washing sheets by hand and hanging them to drip dry, scrubbing a bathroom floor on your hands and knees, or hustling on the street selling plastic bags to tourists. The titular pool undergoes several transformations as free floating metaphor, first as a symbol of wealth and longed for upward mobility, then as a mysterious, portentous symbol for an undisclosed tragedy, and finally a static, unquantifiable object to watch over, as unknowable as the future.

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant): Van Sant made two films this year. One of them is very good. The other is a masterpiece.

Reprise (Joachim Trier): probably the best film I’ve ever seen about being a young artist terrified of putting themselves and their work out there for the world to see (and judge). It’s also got the best use of a Joy Division song that I’ve come across. Trier gets it, plain and simple.

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme): Demme is always at his best when he allows himself to observe and linger over ordinary events, hence the perverseness of his last couple of remakes. But he’s been plugging away on documentaries at the same time, constituting a kind of parallel shadow career. It is these docs (Man From Plains, Heart of Gold, Storefront Hitchcock, The Agronomist) that reveal his real strengths and seem to have informed most of his aesthetic decisions involving Rachel Getting Married.

Frownland (Ronald Bronstein): an extreme, if logical, end point for the navel gazing “mumblecore” pseudo-movement. Amy Taubin did a pretty good job hammering the final nail into this particular coffin, with a special distaste for Joe Swanberg, in a Film Comment essay some months back. But Bronstein’s film accomplishes essentially the same thing, albeit with less eloquence and a grating sense of humor that quickly goes overboard into a mesmerizing train wreck of neurosis and alienation. The film asks us to spend a couple of hours with quite possibly the most unlikable character is recent memory (think woody Allen minus the gags and artistic pretension and ten times more annoying). As critic JR Jones has written: “Like its protagonist the film is difficult to watch, but it’s even more difficult to forget, asking us to locate the limits of our humanity.”

Bachelor Machines Part 1 (Rosalind Nashashibi): read about it here.

O’er the Land (Deborah Stratman): read about it here. I’ll add here only how excited I was that Ms. Stratman got her film accepted into Sundance - it is most likely the best film playing there this year. Here’s hoping the coming year greets her with even more success.

Gran Tarino (Clint Eastwood): a lumbering sledgehammer of a film – Eastwood isn’t much of a thinker, but he feels deeply and, at his best, demonstrates an unabashed, simple minded humanism that links him with Fuller. Indeed, this is his most Fuller-esque film, and one that seems to self consciously engage with most of Eastwood’s oeuvre as an actor, director and icon. Eastwood is, for all intents and purposes, his own history of violence, and he slyly subverts our expectations of what a man of action can be capable of. Sometimes crude, sometimes simplistic, but always infused with sincerity and an acute sense of aging – if this is, as has been rumored, Eastwood’s last film, he’s done a helluva job of putting his last will and testament on celluloid.

Sparrow (Johnnie To):

Mad Detective (Johnnie To & Ka-Fai Wai): Sparrow is director To’s lightest film; following on the heels of his epic 2 part Election series and the death obsessed, apocalyptic Exiled, I initially assumed it was slight. But there is a kind of sensual appreciation of movement and the human body that infuses the film with grace, both in concept and execution. A gang of pick pockets fall in love with the same mysterious woman, only to find out that she is using them to escape from her gangster warlord husband. Intimations of the New Wave, and Demy in particular, give the whole production a sense of playfulness, and the intricate wallet-lifting choreography threatens to erupt into a musical number at any given moment. Mad Detective begins as a kind of lark, with a ridiculous premise that presumably sprang from the mind of co-director Wai (he worked with To on Running on Karma, which, up until Sparrow, was the quirky odd-man-out in To’s oeuvre). A gifted detective solves crimes by getting inside the heads of criminals and parsing out various personalities, which To shows on screen by alternating between shots of an actor/character with shots of their alter egos (for instance, a fellow officer who has lost his suspect becomes personified, visually, by a crying child). The premise is funny enough for a while, but To ups the ante by suggesting that the detective is simply insane, and the climax of the film is less about catching the criminal and more about revealing whether or not our hero is crazy or a genius. Both films cement To’s status as a supreme master of choreographing spatial relationships, not just during slam bang action scenes, but the more mundane scenes of conversation, or just simply sitting down to dinner, that most directors flub with simplistic shot-counter shot. One gets the sense that each new film is To’s way of creating a problem for himself, some sort of challenge, and then figuring out unique ways of solving said problem. As a craftsman, any director could learn a lot from him.