Sunday, December 26, 2010

A blizzard is hitting the American northeast, and it has been snowing for hours. The past few weeks have been interesting in terms of movies: it's amazing what's been doing well at the specialty box office. Some movies which have been building their audiences include "Black Swan", "The King's Speech", "The Fighter".

I did file my ballots for the VillageVoice/LA Weekly poll and the IndieWire poll; because of the difference in the scoring, my selections were slightly different, though the first five films were the same. Usually, in these polls, i'm very conscious of the fact that the films which i see in any given year are mostly the smaller independent and/or foreign releases, and i alway gear my ballots accordingly, in order to highlight movies i think are worthwhile but which might not make other people's ballots. (Since i've been doing these polls, examples would include Ken Jacobs's "Star Spangled to Death", Agnes Varda's "The Beaches of Agnes", Tsai Ming-liang's "Goodbye Dragon Inn".) I don't expect the movies i see to garner a majority of votes; another problem is that the movies i see and like often have a very delayed release. One of my peculiarities is that on my ballots i try to only mention each film once: if i mention a film because of the writing or the acting, it's because i'm trying to single out specific achievements. So (as an example) if i listed "The Kids Are All Right" as one of my best films (i did), i didn't mention Annette Bening or Julianne Moore (though i did think their performances were exceptional).

I've been thinking about the polls, the results and the reactions. I saw more movies in commercial release this year than in the entire decade past: being in Berlin, i saw whatever movies were playing, and the international release for most major commercial films is pretty uniform. So i wound up seeing a movie like Paul Greengrass's "Green Zone", which i found to be very well-done, with a sharp and informative script and some excellent performances. I also saw a movie like Atom Egoyan's "Chloe", which didn't quite work, but i thought the actors (Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried) were good, and i didn't regret seeing it.

Of course, one of the good things about Berlin was the Kino Arsenal, because every month there was always a retrospective of great merit. While i was there, some of the directors surveyed included Michelangelo Antonioni, Carl Dreyer, the Dardenne Brothers, John Ford, Daniel Schmid, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, so there was usually something worthwhile.

Some of the most important films i saw this year were restorations or revivals. Two such revelations were John Ford's "The Sun Shines Bright" (which i saw in an excellent 35mm print at the Kino Arsenal, which made me realize that the times i had seen it before it has been in 16mm prints) and Edward Bland's "The Cry of Jazz". Antonioni's "Le Amiche" played at Film Forum here in NYC; this was taken as the theatrical premiere by many, though "Le Amiche" was shown in NYC in 1963. It might not have been reviewed in the New York Times, but Stanley Kauffmann and Dwight MacDonald took the time to write about the film because of the limited run (which might have been at The New Yorker).

One of my favorite films of 2010 was Manoel de Oliviera's "The Strange Case of Angelica", which is an amazing film no matter how you look at it. A funny, melancholic fable about mortality, it was just a seamless display of offhand mastery, with special effects that seemed charmingly old-fashioned. How astounding that Manoel de Oliviera is over 100 years old! With the release of both "Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl" (made in 2009) and his latest "The Strange Case of Angelica", he's so obviously the filmmaker of the year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I've spent the last few days trying to come up with my lists for the Village Voice/LA Weekly annual film critics poll. One thing: because of the release patterns for American movies in the international market, i was able to see a lot of the commercial movies which i ordinarily wouldn't have seen. The Kino Arsenal and the Berlin Film Festival (even though i had a horrendous time with the press office) also provided a lot of compensations in terms of indie films and international films (big example: "Our Beloved Month of August"). A movie like "Green Zone" (which proved to be engrossing and quite impressive) was a movie i would have missed in New York City, but i saw it in Berlin. Usually, with the acting catgeories, i try to avoid the usual American/English candidates; perhaps that's a little snobbish, but that's been my modus operandi.

But it's hard to know American release dates. One example: a film which i loved was Joao Pedro Rodrigues's "To Die Like a Man". But it's been playing the festival circuit (where it's racked up an impressive litany of critical commentaries) for two years now, but is it ever going to have a standard American theatrical release? There are movies like Soderbergh's "And Everything Is Going Fine" (a film "portrait" of Spalding Gray) which are getting a theatrical run, but "LennonNYC" and Scorsese's "Public Speaking" (about Fran Liebowitz) haven't gotten theatrical runs, though their exposure was probably greater on television. (And coming up: "Wishful Drinking", the World of Wonder guys' document of Carrie Fisher's one-person show, also on television.)

Ok: an admission that one problem i've been having with recent movies is the preponderance of documentaries. I'm a person whose aesthetic interests tend to be formalistic, and what can you say about most documentaries, which depend on the presentation of information? Sometimes, this information is "intimate", as in all these film portraits of show business/artistic personalities (Spalding Gray, John Lennon, Fran Liebowitz, Carrie Fisher, Joan Rivers, Keith Haring, Phil Spector, Mark Kostabi, et al) but then, what we judge are our own attitudes as reflected in those people. So the "judgement" becomes a reflection of our attitudes towards the person, and not a judgement about the film as a work of art. And to a larger extent, this is true of documentaries like "Client 9" or "Inside Job": our attitudes (towards Eliot Spitzer, towards Wall Street) necessarily color our judgement of those films.

In France, so much of the documentary tradition derives from a very literary basis. This is apparent in the work of Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais. The commentary becomes an integral provider of meaning, so that analysis and information are presented jointly.

And this can be seen in Nicolas Philibert's "Nenette". I have to admit that when i went into the screening, i had certain preconceptions: years of seeing documentaries (on PBS's "Nature" or on Animal Planet) which provide these leisurely panoramic views of animal life. But "Nenette" is different. For one thing: the space is very confined, Nenette the orangutan is stuck in an enclosed space in the Jardin des Plantes Exotiques in Paris. So most of the shots of Nenette are simply close-ups of her as she lies around in her cage.

But what animates the film is the commentary; we hear what initially seems to be random comments. Presumably, this was recorded as the people walked through and stopped to look at Nenette. Some of the comments are funny, quite a few seem to be reading the information posted near the cage. And this commentary provides a verbal drama, as people recite the information, and that information is interrogated and interrupted. But gradually, one voice recites the facts of Nenette's life and that provides the narrative arc of the film.

So "Nenette" isn't simply an observational documentary on one orangutan in the zoo in Paris, but the commentary (which is "neutral") provides information which allows us to see Nenette "in the round" as it were. And i was struck at how much "Nenette" fit in to the documentary tradition in France, especially having seen such films as "The Beaches of Agnes" and "Remembrance of Things to Come" recently. The commentary turns what could have been simply an observational documentary in the Animal Planet mode into an essay on captivity. So "Nenette" turned out to be more complicated than i had anticipated, and is a better film for that reason.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Both Irwin Kershner and Mario Monicelli died; i've just seen "The Passionate Thief", one of Monicelli's comedy-dramas, which was an excellent example of his particular style. Irwin Kershner's legacy is rather like Alec Guinness: it's gotten swamped by the "Star Wars" mystique.

Irwin Kershner's early movies ("The Hoodlum Priest", "The Luck of Ginger Coffey") were mired in distribution problems, which always happened with independent films during the 1950s and 1960s. When he tried to work in the studio system ("A Fine Madness" and "The Flim-Flam Man"), he wound up embroiled in difficulties, where his films were taken away and re-cut.

But his career is an example of how things turn out. Kershner was teaching film throughout the 1960s, and almost two decades later, one of his students would ask him to direct a film. The student was George Lucas and the film was "The Empire Strikes Back". And that was the lead in terms of all the obituaries.

Movies like "The Hoodlum Priest" and "The Luck of Ginger Coffey" are representative of the independent movies of the period (late 1950s-early 1960s): mostly black-and-white, with stories that dealt with "off-beat" subjects which weren't handled in Hollywood. Kershner's movies weren't as startling as movies like "On the Bowery" or "Shadows", but they were part of the attempt to create an "alternative" to Hollywood.

And the fact that Kershner's most noted credit would be the essence of the Hollywood system of the 1970s-1980s is perhaps symptomatic of most careers in the movies.

Seeing Soderbergh's "And Everything Is Going Fine" was disconcerting; the way the work was edited, it really did seem almost seamless, and so fragments from recorded performances, television interviews, etc. meshed into one biographical portrait of Spalding Gray. I had to admire Steven Soderbergh's skill.

Last week, i watched "Public Speaking", Scorsese's movie about Fran Liebowitz, which was on HBO. Both of these pieces were very well-done, but they point to a certain problem with performance: how are we to judge people when they are presenting themselves?

Just watched "Looking For Eric"; there are so many "new" films being made which haven't gotten distribution, or there are foreign films ("Looking For Eric" is a British film, directed by Ken Loach) that had limited distribution here, and the cable stations are snapping them up, and so there are many chances to catch something you've missed. "Looking For Eric" opened in New York City during the winter, and actually played Berlin about a month later, but i missed it. (Two nights ago, i watched something called "Bedrooms", which was made this year, with Barry Bostwick and Dee Wallace. As far as i know, that one never got a release.) Now i'm watching "La Cucina", an indie about three women trying to cook, starring Leisha Hailey, Rachel Hunter and Christina Hendricks (before "Mad Men").

With both "Bedrooms" and "La Cucina", the "story" breaks down into segments so that there can be scenes between two (or three) people. In a way, it's so that the filmmaking is more manageable, but it's so obvious that it's distracting. This is the essence of what talent is, and what talent isn't. A movie like "Masculine Feminine" or "Before the Revolution" actually did the same thing, but there was such fluidity in the movie, who had time to notice that it was breaking down into two or three character sequences? "La Cucina" also provided one of those nagging moments; i caught the film after the credits had started, and missed the cast list. And the person who played Leisha Hailey's husband seemed awfully familiar, and i couldn't place him... and then i realized it was Osgood Perkins (the son of Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson).

The problem with so many indie movies is that there really is a certain look, which is sort of the default position, not of limited means, but of limited talent. And both "Bedrooms" and "La Cucina" hit me right in the eye.