Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good heavens, it's already almost two weeks since i've blogged anything! Yet in the last few days, a lot has happened.

Today is Christmas Eve; usually i spent it at my brother's, but this year, i went and dropped off my packages and then came home. One reason is that the last time i was there on Thanksgiving the cats were around, and after a few hours, my allergies blew up, and for the next two days i had hives all over. But i was also tired.

At the end of last week, IndieWire started to publish the individual ballots... as of yesterday, mine is now available. But in looking over people's Top Ten lists, it's becoming apparent that this idea of some sort of consensus is becoming more and more tenuous in this decentralized film epoch. For example: in terms of tallying the ballots, the consensus film was Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Flight of the Red Balloon"; however, that was a film i saw in 2007, and it skipped my mind that it was released in 2008.

In last week's Village Voice, J. Hoberman mentioned that it was Ken Jacobs's year: "Razzle Dazzle" (his most accomplished digital feature) had a week's run at Anthology Film Archives, MoMA gave him a retrospective of recent work, including a week's run of "Return to the Scene of the Crime", his digital reworking of his masterwork "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son". But Ken Jacobs wasn't the only one. Guy Maddin also had a terrific year, with the concert version of "Brand Upon the Brain" playing selected engagements (though it never had a week-long run as far as i know) and then "My Winnipeg".

Of course, in more traditional terms, Gus Van Sant had a very exciting year, with the release of "Paranoid Park" (the most fully realized of his dead-boy mood pieces, which started with "Gerry") and the completion of "Milk". "Milk" is interesting because it's so contradictory: a lot of people who have championed "Gerry", "Elephant", "Last Days" and "Paranoid Park" have found "Milk" disappointingly traditional, yet what's fascinating about "Milk" is how Van Sant constantly undercuts the big moments: it's almost as if he throws away the climatic moments. Yet there's a lot to admire in "Milk": certainly it's well-acted, though the one thing missing is any sense of passion. When the guys look at each other... nothing. It's simulated, but there's no real stimulation.

After we saw "Milk", Larry and i were talking about things like Gus Van Sant's own obsessions, such as his constant mooning over straight boys. Even if it hadn't been financially important to find a "bankable" star for the film (and in show business terms, that's coded for "straight"), Van Sant wouldn't have wanted to have a gay person in the lead anyway. But he doesn't want to show flat-out gay passion and affection: i don't think it will ever be in him to make an actual gay love story.

One thing: even after i posted my ballots for the Village Voice/LA Weekly poll and the IndieWire poll, i was still seeing movies. "The Secret of the Grain" was one, another was "Tokyo Sonata". I don't know if it would have significantly changed my lists, but both films were certainly worthwhile.

I remember that "Secret of the Grain" was at the Tribeca Film Festival, but i missed it then. I remember talking about it with Wendy Sax, who had seen it; she liked it, but felt it meandered in the second half, and that it got repetitive. And i understand what she means: how many times do we need to see the old man running after the kids who've stolen his moped?

The polls are pointing out the differences in terms of release dates, especially since there are now options such as self-distribution (which was the case with "Ballast") and there are such things as museum screenings. I included Bill W. Jones's "Tearoom", because it played every day during the entire "run" of the Whitney Biennial.

But in both polls, there's the list of "undistributed" films. But what does that mean? On several people's lists, there is "Treeless Mountain", but that film is scheduled for a run at Film Forum in the next three months. And then there are the mistakes: i thought Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours" had a distributor, evidently, it doesn't, since several people included that among the undistributed films. I would have put "Summer Hours" as well, since i think it's a terrific film.

Oh, well, another year. Now i'm trying to figure out my choices for the DVD Beaver poll. I know that i consider the Masters-of-Cinema/Criterion releases of Dreyer's "Vampyr" my number one choice, because i think it's an important example of how digital technology is helping with film restoration. Right now, i'm thinking of what's important in terms of DVDs: that is, for a long time, it's been what important film is finally available on DVD (Renoir's "Rules of the Game", Dreyer's "La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc"), but that leaves a problem when the DVD is not the best, but the film is (example: the New Yorker Films DVD of Bresson's "A Man Escaped"). I think Flicker Alley has done some great things this year, i'll probably go with the Abel Gance pair ("La Roue" and "J'Accuse").

But that's enough.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Over the last few days, i've been compiling my list of notable movies of 2008, which will be winnowed down to the proverbial Top Ten. So many people have been vocal about how mediocre this year has been, but i've come up with at least 40 movies that i think were worthwhile. Scott Foundas sent along a master list... but i think there are omissions. Three omissions: Bill E. Jones's "Tearoom" (which had a "run" as part of the Whitney Biennial: it played twice daily for over four months during the run of this year's Biennial, and it was a premiere, i.e., it hadn't been shown anywhere else before); Ken Jacobs' "Razzle Dazzle" (it had a week's run at Anthology Film Archives in the spring) and "Return to the Scene of the Crime" (it had a week's run at MoMA this fall)... and i have a question about Guy Maddin's "Brand Upon the Brain" which had its "concert" showings at the beginning of 2008. But those two-three day "events": was that enough to constitute a "theatrical run"?

The "directors" of the year were obviously: Guy Maddin with "Brand Upon the Brain" and "My Winnipeg", Ken Jacobs with "Razzle Dazzle" and "Return to the Scene of the Crime", and Gus Van Sant with "Paranoid Park" and "Milk". The most perplexing director was Gus Van Sant: "Paranoid Park" was probably the most accomplished of his "lost youth" movies ("Gerry", "Elephant", "Last Days"), an elegiac snapshot of disaffection and alienation, and after having devloped this decidedly antidramatic style, he went into "Milk" which (on the surface) seems to be a "traditional" biopic, an "inspiring" story of one man's courage and political effectiveness. Yet at almost every turn, Van Sant seems to undercut the emotional highs, he (unintentionally?) tempers the bravado. Yet "Milk" is effective in spite of itself. But it is an example of a "cool" director working on a "hot" subject. It should be more "rousing", yet the understatement becomes its own statement, and ultimately works in the film's favor.

In terms of "acting": this year is also perplexing. There were movies with terrific performances given by nonactors, such as "August Evening", "Ballast" and "Chop Shop"; then there were real "star" turns, such as Sean Penn in "Milk" or Asia Argento in "The Last Mistress" or Fanny Ardant in "Roman De Gare".

And the oldtimers of the Nouvelle Vague came up with some fascinating work: Jacques Rivette with "The Duchess of Langeais", Claude Chabrol with "A Girl Cut in Two" and Eric Rohmer with "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon".

I have to admit i've gotten sick of documentaries: there were just too many. And yet... i was glad i saw the Hurricane Katrina doc "Trouble the Water", "Man On Wire" about Philippe Petit was sensational and utterly engrossing, and Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World" was just about the most visually beautiful film i saw last year.

And "Waltz With Bashir": what is it? It's an animated... documentary? Yet it was amazing.

Yet there were so many wonderful movies: the Turkish "Times and Winds", the Israeli "My Father, My Lord", the Thai "Wonderful Town". There were excellent American indie films, at a time when the movement seemed exhausted, yet there were "Ballast", "Wendy and Lucy", "Momma's Man".

So i don't understand why people don't think there were any good movies this year. But now i've got to make my choices....

Monday, December 01, 2008

Dentist's appointment, so in a rush.

According to IndieWire, "Milk" won the iBot per-theater box office over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Nathan Lee had some interesting observations about "Milk"; on Friday, i watched Charlie Rose, where he had on Sean Penn, Gus Van Sant, and Josh Brolin.

Well, it's World AIDS Day, otherwise known as Day Without Art.