Wednesday, August 08, 2018

In June, Jordan Ruimy invited me to participate in a poll he was conducting for Awards Daily: it was a summing-up of the first half of 2018, and he was asking for a list of ten of the best films released from January to June. It turned out that there actually had been quite a number of exceptional films released during the first six months of 2018; i started with a list of over 20, and finally winnowed it down to ten (unranked): "Zama" (directed by Lucrecia Martel); "The Rider" (directed by Chloe Zhao); "Lean On Pete" (directed by Andrew Haigh); "24 Frames" (directed by Abbas Kiarostami); "The Guardians" (directed by Xavier Beauvois); "Tehran Taboo" (directed by Ali Soozandeh); "Western" (directed by Valeska Griesbach); "Summer 1993" (directed by Carla Simon); "Good Luck" (directed by Ben Russell); "I Had Nowhere to Go" (directed by Douglas Gordon). (The other films which i had included in the initial list were "The Death of Stalin", "Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc", "This Is Our Land", "Disobedience", "En El Septimo Dia", "Bernard and Huey", "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", "First Reformed", "In the Last Days of the City", "Ava", "Tully", "Where Is Kyra?", "Claire's Camera" and "Black Panther". And a few films which i'd seen just before or right after i'd handed in my list included "Leave No Trace", "Nico, 1988", and "The Captain".)

What this list reminded me was the central importance of the New York Film Festival to my cinematic experience: at least half the films on my "top ten" had been at the New York Film Festival ("Zama", "The Rider", "Western", "Good Luck" and "I Had Nowhere to Go"). These are the kinds of films which exhibited a degree of formal integrity as well as stylistic inventiveness, and also proved to be substantive in terms of content. I'll give the example of "Zama": it started out with subtle dislocations in terms of the soundtrack, and the sense of alienation which the slight aural disjunctions create becomes symptomatic of the alienation of the main character, a European grandee who has been sent to govern in "the New Land". And often, the visuals show the characters dwarfed by the lush landscapes of the tropical jungle. What Martel is doing is creating a visceral framework, with the dislocations of sound and the overwhelming of sight, for the audience to experience the alienation of the Europeans who come to "rule" a land which already had its own population. And the driving narrative is so brilliantly handled, so that the complexities of colonialization are formally foregrounded.

The New York Film Festival has been so much a part of my cinematic education, and though there have been ups and downs, there are always worthwhile films in the mix. Also: the number of sidebar events (the focus on documentaries, the "views from the avant-garde", and so on) means that there will be any number of works which might not be "mainstream" but which will be challenging.

Right now, a controversy has arisen, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has added a new category, relating to what they are calling "Popular Film"; they're adding a category to account for the "tentpole" movies, the "popular" franchise movies. Of course, this is coming at a time when many of the franchise movies haven't done as well as expected: the "Star Wars" movies seemed to have plateaued, and the profits on the Marvel and DC movies have not been as expansive as before. Of course, there are exceptions, relating to the novelty factor ("Black Panther" proved to be even more successful than had been predicted, and it was a critical bonanza as well), but the Motion Picture Academy started out in 1928 with two awards, one for Best Picture ("Wings") and another for Unique and Artistic Production ("Sunrise"), and now the Academy seems to want to return to those distinctions. After that first year, the Artistic Production award was discontinued, but in recent years, that would be the designation for so many of the winners, and this has meant the ratings for the Oscar telecast have reflected this fact accordingly.

When "Chariots of Fire" won the Oscar for Best Film in 1982, the Film Society of Lincoln Center issued a press release, because "Chariots of Fire" had been the Opening Night of the New York Film Festival. In the last few years, the New York Film Festival has been one of the fall film events which have premiered many of the award season contenders (the others include the Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival). From the point of "Chariots of Fire" on, the New York Film Festival had become a significant guarantor of "quality" in terms of prestige, and many films which passed through the festival have gone on to serious contention. But that's not the reason the New York Film Festival has been so valuable to those of us who really consider film as an art: we're there to discover something revelatory. And at its best, that's what we get at the New York Film Festival.


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