Ah, lists. Lists represent a problem for me in any form. While most of the blogosphere has chimed in with a traditional ten best list, I have had a hard time making one myself. All of the starts and stops have lead me to the understanding that art is not something that I enjoy ranking; I am far too aware that my own moods, needs and expectations are usually as important to my relationship with a film as the movie itself. That is to say, I somehow allow the experience of seeing a film with an audience to impact my personal assessment of the film. Most of us will admit to amazing communal experiences seeing movies; those moments in a theater that confirm (or even initiate) our love of film. Obviously, these are not the best set of critical tools; most critical minds try to divorce the context of attending a screening from the film being presented, and I try too. But sometimes, that wonderful convergence of experience and presentation lead to a feeling of absolute kismet. These are the experiences I want to celebrate at the end of 2005, the moments that reminded me of why I love film in the first place.
So, I present The Back Row Manifesto’s Top 10 Cinematic Experiences of 2005… Enjoy!
1. Kings and Queen/ La vie des morts at BAM’s Arnaud Desplechin Retrospective
As mentioned in my last post, 2005 has been a year-long love affair with Kings and Queen; I saw the film twice in 2004 (at Toronto and the New York Film Festival) before seeing it three times in 2005; at BAM, programming it in competition at the 2005 Sarasota Film Festival, and then seeing it again at the Cinema Village upon its theatrical release. I even got to interview Desplechin for indieWIRE, the best 45 minutes of my year hands down (Thanks Eug and Brian!). Of all of those screenings, two truly stand out; the near empty press screening at Toronto 2004 (where I saw the film for the first time) and the BAM screening with Arnaud Desplechin in attendance. I took a large group of friends to the screening, and while most were excited by our proximity to the stars in attendance (Michael Stipe sat directly in front of us), everyone who joined for the screening loved the film. The highlight of the evening was the Q&A, where Desplechin answered questions and was as humble and charming as ever. Of course, I just got the DVD as a Christmas present (Thanks, honey!). The following Sunday, BAM did us all a favor and screened Desplechin’s first featurette La vie des morts, which has rarely been screened here in the U.S. The screening, nearly full and bristling with energy, had the feeling of a private viewing for like-minded friends. The film itself did not disappoint, and the grainy print delivered the sense of communal revelation; the answer to a long, lost secret.
2. The Year of Herzog! Grizzly Man/The White Diamond/Wheel of Time
I didn’t see this one coming, but in early summer, I took in Werner Herzog’s Wheel of Time and The White Diamond and instantaneously fell back in love with Herzog as an artist. It was weeks later when I finally caught up with Grizzly Man, which I found to be one of the most important documentaries of the year. As I mentioned before, no other filmmaker in the past decade, maybe in all of film history, can lay claim to a stronger single year than Werner Herzog’s 2005, and with the impending release of Wild Blue Yonder and the fictional Rescue Dawn in 2006, Herzog appears to be on a five film in two year filmmaking bender that I anxiously await. Of all of the 2005 moments, two Herzog experiences stand out; Mark Antony Yhap’s statement of regret for his own inability to bring his rooster on board for his trip above the tree line in The White Diamond was probably the most human moment on screen this year, and the experience of watching Grizzly Man with my friend G, who was reduced to tears by the story.
3. The Wayward Cloud at The Toronto Film Festival
Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud is the one movie I saw this year that blew away every expectation I had. I went to a late-festival press screening in Toronto, exhausted from a week of parties, films, meetings, and far too little sleep only to be riveted to my seat for the entire film. Let’s be frank; If someone doesn’t buy and release this film, I may lose what little faith I retain in American film distribution. There is no filmmaker who blends a deadpan sense of humor so deftly with a humane appreciation of the cruelties of human suffering as Tsai, and I think The Wayward Cloud is his best to date. Anyone who has ever felt desire for another person only to be devastated by the consummation of that desire (and who among has not longed for something only to be shattered by the possession of it) will feel this film in their bones; I can’t say I’ve ever seen romantic love eviscerated quite so perfectly.
4. Darwin’s Nightmare at BAM
How did this film walk out of the 2004 Toronto Film Festival without being hailed as the masterpiece of the entire event? I foolishly skipped the Toronto screening only to stumble upon a preview screening at BAM (again, I must declare my admiration for Florence Almonzini and her continual excellence in programming) with J, only to walk away convinced that we had seen a primal representation of the documentary form. Everything about Hubert Sauper’s film is perfect; the dramatic structure, the images captured, the experiences conveyed. Not many films can lay claim to changing one’s world view, especially when it is as admittedly lefty as my own, but Darwin’s Nightmare proved my most pessimistic fears to be wild under exaggerations. I challenge anyone to watch this film with an open mind and not be shaken to the core.
5. Keane at the Nantucket Film Festival
If there were one movie for which I could grab American by the lapels, shake it violently, slap it a few times across the cheeks, and force it to sit down and watch, it would have to be Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, the most criminally unseen film of 2005. I was lucky enough to be able to program the film for the Nantucket Film Festival, and Lodge and his amazing daughter Serena joined us for the weekend; the experience of meeting the Kerrigans only heightened my appreciation for this incredible movie. For those who have seen the film, Lodge and Serena both went up after the screenings for the Q&A, and you can imagine the questions from the floor as father and daughter faced the audience. Interestingly, every preview I saw at the movies this season seemed to be premised on a family in crisis (MI3, Firewall, etc.), but as an expression of parental anxiety, there may not be a more potent movie ever made than Keane.
America, You Blew It: Damien Lewis in Lodge Kerrigan’s terribly neglected Keane
6. Caché & Press Conference at The New York Film Festival
Everyone loves a controversy, so it should come as no surprise that one of the year’s most controversial (and most excellent) films, Caché, provided the most heated press conference for a film I’ve ever seen. Of course, the conference wasn’t heated because of the film’s statements on bourgeois guilt and violence in modern-day Paris, but because the filmmaker wouldn’t spill a single answer to the film’s biggest riddle. Michael Haneke announced at the beginning of the conference that he would not answer any questions on the subject and, true to his word, deflected questioner after questioner who sought the director’s interpretation of his own film. It was a revelatory moment watching the best and brightest of the press corps rise to a collective boil because an artist refused to tell them what to think about his work; I am desperately looking forward to the reviews of the film where writers will be forced to think for themselves and feel their way through the film’s meaning. I write this almost one year to the day after we lost Susan Sontag, and it is heartening to watch an artist live up to her ideals.
7. The Best of Youth Double Header at The Film Forum
Am I the only person who moved to New York City specifically to be closer to cinema? Sure, I followed work as well, but deep down, I have always imagined the lifestyle available to a cinephile in NYC to be an ideal just beyond my reach; It’s not like I hang out with A.O. Scott or other film bloggers and spend long, languid nights talking about movies (although, god, that sounds amazing). Instead, I follow the anonymous crowds in and out of public and press screenings, having a cocktail or dinner after a film and talking about it for a few minutes before turning to other topics. But there was a single screening this year that was probably the closest I have ever been to living the dream; back to back screenings of Parts I and II of The Best of Youth at the Film Forum with about 6 friends, followed by a walk in the rain to TriBeCa for a long, conversation filled dinner. Let’s begin at the beginning; Our group sat in the front row for the first half of the film (everyone ran very late), but I looked down the line and all eyes were riveted to the screen. At the intermission, everyone was abuzz about the first half , and even the most cynical and impatient of the group had no intention to leave before seeing the second half. After moving our seats to the middle of the theater, a gentleman behind us asked what we thought so far, and we all talked glowingly about the movie; a very friendly conversation in a movie theater that sometimes you are often compelled to start if only to confirm that your pleasure is shared. I love when this happens. By the end of the second half, the group was emotionally exhausted and completely satisfied as we spilled through the glass doors and out onto Houston St. We got a table at the restaurant we had agreed upon, ordered lots of good wine, ate a ton of good food, and talked about the movie, and film, for hours. Even the bill was modestly priced. All in all, a perfect day. Thanks to M, G, E, KT, PG and J for sharing it with me.
8. Lilya 4-Ever at The Walter Reade Cinema (Sat April 2: 2pm)
This one is a no brainer; having seen everything by Lukas Moodysson except Lilya 4-ever, I bolted up to the Walter Reade to see their New Swedish Cinema screening of the film. I know I am late to the party, but somehow this movie eluded me for a couple of years despite my undying attempts to catch up with it. The movie is an awesome achievement, made more so by the fact that on this particular day, every degradation and outrage was so deeply felt. Sometimes, the right film catches you on the right day and your internal rhythms and needs match exactly what the film delivers, and this was my experience seeing Lilya 4-ever which has since become a personal touchstone for me (it is now available on Netflix, so no excuses). After the film, J was so inconsolable in the lobby of the theater, she couldn’t talk to me at all; she simply stood in front of the movie poster display and cried her eyes out. Her reaction was everything I had been feeling as well, and somehow, in the afterglow of the film’s devastating finale, we understood one another perfectly.
9. Overlord at The Sarasota Film Festival
There are moments that we film programmers live for; for many, that involves a world premiere film discovery being acknowledged and sold at a film festival. For others, like me, it involves being able to find an audience for a film (and a filmmaker) that might otherwise go unseen. At last year’s Sarasota Film Festival, I was able to bring in Stuart Cooper and his brand new print of the almost forgotten 1975 masterpiece Overlord to a wildly appreciative audience. I was shocked, not because of the warm response the film received from our audience (it certainly deserved it), but because of the number of people who came out to see it. If there was one film that made me feel like I had done my job as a programmer, that made me feel good about working for 6 months to put together a film program, this was it. Stuart was so gracious, the crowd so moved; everything in that theater was just how I had hoped it would be. I hope that bodes well for the film’s upcoming release from Janus Films; be sure to run out and see it in 2006.
10. Innocence at the Cinema Village
In all honesty, and despite the fact that I loved the film, the best thing about seeing the brazenly inventive Innocence was watching the parade of single men over the age of 45 walk into the tiniest theater in the Cinema Village, scrutinize the very small seating space for a modicum of privacy and, finding none, fidget uncomfortably in their seats until the lights went down. I’m not saying that anything was amiss during the screening, and I promise I didn’t see any trenchcoats, but let’s just say that the skeeve-factor on that particular weekday afternoon screening was off the charts. Of course, the film itself is so unique and full of wonder, with its own fairy tale logic and an entire universe of meaning glimmering in the frame, I rest easy knowing that any perv who saw Innocence with the hopes of being aroused must have left the theater slightly confused and maybe a better man for the experience. Here is the perfect example of art triumphing over misunderstanding, rumor and expectation by creating a world that resists any attempt at stereotyping.
Happy New Year and I’ll see you in 2006!