Friday, February 4, 2011

A Belated Look Back at 2010 (because two of you demanded it):

‘I’m reminded of the pipe dream of the late Carlos Clarens, a Cuban born film buff and critic… (Carlos) used to fantasize that one year the studios would fail to release a single new movie and would instead be forced to revive all the unseen and unseeable glories they had locked up in their vaults.’
Jonathan Rosenbaum

‘Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.’
Walter Benjamin

‘The concept of investing in the development of a cultured filmgoer is not evidenced in any aspect of commercial distribution. So why do we continue to validate this flawed institution by making a theatrical run the primary requisite for coverage? Media outlets that don't challenge such distinctions as "distributed" and "undistributed" are slowing down a paradigm shift that's already happening. The best, most challenging films left the art house long ago and occupied the sphere of film festivals and the internet. More importantly, the dissemination of these films has been left in the hands of savvy curators rather than soulless marketeers. These alternative systems are making exciting work readily available and deepening the cultural value of films by attaching a meaningful context to them (in a nutshell, this is the main purpose of a film festival).’
Gabe Klinger

All three of the above quotations encapsulate, more or less, what’s been on my mind all year. I saw something like 220 movies in 2010 that were entirely new to me (not including rewatching favorite films over and over again, either for pleasure or for study), although maybe less than a third of those were new releases. But I’d like to consider this a personal year-in-review, not just a top ten - as I’m fond of saying (perhaps too frequently even), cinephilia is a full time job, and I worked a lot in 2010. I filled in some huge gaps in regards to long standing favorite directors: Lang’s Moonfleet more than lived up to it’s reputation as a Serge Daney fetish object and formative touchstone of the New Wave directors (it offers in particular a kind of skeleton key to Rivette’s oeuvre); Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn is a mind boggling achievement; I caught up with a few new Tourneur’s as well - Nightfall, Stranger on Horseback, Experiment Perilous, Berlin Express, Way of the Guacho and Curse of the Demon (as well as the first Tourneur I’ve seen that I didn’t like – Appointment in Honduras); I filled a major gap in my Ray oeuvre with The Lusty Men, as well as seeing the first Nick Ray film that I didn’t like – Flying Leathernecks; I saw a couple of great de Toth westerns, Riding Shotgun and Ramrod; caught up with some of Renoir’s great, under appreciated American period – The Southerner and The Woman on the Beach; some Ford’s that had eluded me, Donovan’s Reef and Mogambo, and a series of Hawk’s masterpieces (in order of preference): The Crowd Roars, The Dawn Patrol, A Song is Born, and one of his supreme achievements, Red Line 7000. I could also mention outstanding films by Jerry Lewis, Borzage, Cukor, Siegel, Mann (Anthony), Rossellini, Welles, Tsai Ming-Liang and Rivette

In addition to catching up with these favorite directors, there are always totally new discoveries as well. The biggest one for me in 2010 was the remarkable Allan Dwan. I must pause to say thanks to Jake Barningham, who not only facilitated many of the above mentioned screenings, but also, single handedly, showed me, by my last count, thirteen films by Mr. Dwan. This is barely a scratch on his filmography, with something like 420 films credited as director, starting in the silent era. I also caught up with 7 titles by Joseph H. Lewis, thanks to a marathon on TCM, and was immediately smitten - he is a case for definite further study.

Despite all this rhapsodizing over older films, I did manage to see a few new ones, and liked quite a few of them. A brief list:

Liverpool (Alonso)
The Sun (Sukurov)
Butterflies Have No Memories (Diaz)
Lost in the Mountains (Hong Sang-Soo)
Around A Small Mountain (Rivette)
Girl on the Train (Techine)
Everyone Else (Ade)
Dogtooth (Lanthimos)
The Ghost Writer (Polanski)
Father of My Children (Hansen-Love)
Wild Grass (Resnais)
Valhalla Rising (Refn)
Centurion (Marshall)
Winter’s Bone (Granik)
Bluebeard (Breillat)
A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (Weerasethakul)
Vengeance (To)
Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
White Material (Denis)
Alamar (Gonzales-Rubio)
Our Beloved Month of August (Gomes)
Unstoppable (Scott)
Lourdes (Hausner)
Home (Meier)
Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
My Joy (Loznitsa)
The Place In between (Bouyain)
Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (de Oliveira)
(with an honorable mention for Carnahan’s The A-Team)

I stumbled upon Gabe Klinger’s comment on his annual Indie Wire best-of ballot, and it succinctly states better than I could what exactly has been bothering me regarding the did-it or did-it-not get distribution game; it all finally came to head this year (for me at least). Simply put, the whole question reeks of extreme cognitive dissonance at best, barely concealed marketing ploy at worst. Granted, most of the above films received some kind of traditional theatrical release in 2010, but a combination of financial woes, struggling independent distributors and decreased art house exhibition has led to strange list-making loopholes. The default mode seems to have become ‘when did a film play in New York?’

Exhibit 1: a friend complained that he couldn’t include Kiarostami’s Certified Copy on his best-of list as it had not been officially distributed (i.e. released theatrically in NY). Never mind that he saw it in a theatre here in Chicago, projected on 35mm film in optimal conditions. He could, however, include Cattet/Forzani’s Amer on his list (i.e. it got a NY release), never mind that it hasn’t played anywhere in Chicago and was viewed via a bit torrent file. I hasten to add that I don’t doubt his enthusiasm for Amer. It is, however, a strange state of viewing affairs (a further discord to confuse matters: I’ll have an imported region free blu ray of Certified Copy before it gets ‘released’ in Chicago, further muddying what the word ‘release’ even means) .

Exhibit 2: in an effort to not let myself off the hook, I must confess to my own viewing habits as well. I didn’t catch up with Alonso’s Liverpool until it hit DVD a few months ago. In my defense, it screened for exactly one weekend here in Chicago (it’s also a film that Cinema Scope has been promoting for well over a year, as it technically has a 2008 release date). I also saw two great films under less than ideal conditions, hence their lack of inclusion here – Godard’s Film Socialisme (minus English subtitles), and Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (via an astoundingly high def, albeit bootlegged, rip).

Exhibit 3: looking back, I realized that I placed both The Sun and 35 Shots of Rum on my 2009 best-list. Consulting my notes, I see that I viewed both of those films in early 2010. No doubt attempting to play the NY release game, I must have simply tacked them on before posting (same as this year, the list is going up a month or so after everyone else). The Sun hasn’t appeared on any recent lists, as it must have received ‘official’ release, but I’m seeing a lot of mentions for the Denis, which must have only recently achieved ‘official’ status. Further confusing the matter: lists that ‘belatedly’ included 35 Shots of Rum as well as Denis’ more recent feature White Material (I’m reminded of the strange soul that included Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn three years in a row on his Film Comment ballot – festival screenings, the year of official release, and its eventual DVD release). A brief addendum – the recent Film Comment ‘Final Cut 2010’ article includes de Oliveira’s ‘Eccentricities’ as well as The Strange Case of Angelica.

Exhibit 4: there’s no doubt that ‘On Demand’ and streaming film is going to radically alter how we receive movies – as I mentioned above, it’s already happening with some frequency. I myself viewed both the Weerasethakul and the Gomes online, courtesy of The surprise success of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has overshadowed most of Joe’s previous work, none more so than the exquisite short film that gave birth to the feature. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee came from a group of works that Joe has labeled the ‘Primitive’ series, including gallery installations and a series of videos. One could argue that the ultimate value of the internet will not be alternate revenue streams for the major studios, but instead the dissemination of small scale films like this. Ditto Our Beloved Month of August, although no one could accuse it of being small scale – it’s 2 ½ hours long. I was pleasantly surprised to see the film show up on some major lists, but again, this seems to be only because of a token NY release (or perhaps just a screening). has had it available for almost a year, at a more than reasonable three bucks.

Conclusion: I don’t want to go overboard here, but it seems to me that the longer we play by these ‘rules’, the longer we let distributors and corporations dictate what we can see and when we can talk about it. These are distortions and assumptions, not the least of which is that eventually, we can all see everything available, that everything will eventually reach home video, and if not, it probably wasn’t worth seeing in the first place. Case in point, the above mentioned films by Hong Sang-soo and Lav Diaz; both were produced for the 2009 Jeonju Film Festival as part of their annual digital projects showcase (a series including at least one other masterwork I’ve been able to see, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Fish, Underground). They screened here in Chicago thanks to Patrick Friel’s White Light Cinema group, but have yet to turn up at any other venue or on any home video format.

List making is ultimately an idiosyncratic, deeply personal avowal of taste, for better and for worse, and it seems to me that there is a vague effort to make it some how more ‘scientific’, as if the whole process was some kind of Gallup poll. Certainly the studios would like to gauge as much as possible the fervor for their product, the better to gauge their awards chances. But it is ultimately a process that crushes short films, experimental/avant-garde work, and all but a handful of documentaries.

Two closing thoughts:

“The game is not just vulgar, it’s stupid. Yet we all love games.”
David Thomson on list-making/canon forming