A new year (again? already?), a new look and feel for the blog (nice!) and so a moment to look backward before being flooded by the new films of 2009 and the cresting wave of submissions that have landed on the shores of the Sarasota Film Festival Programming office. In reviewing my indieWIRE “year end/best of” ballot, I was disappointed that the limitations of the theatrical release requirement prevented me from talking about the year as I lived it, the films as I experienced them this year. Not that I have buyer’s remorse or anything, more that any ballot like that will never reflect what I actually saw during 2008.* To that end, it has become an annual tradition on this blog to synthesize the experience of watching movies with the films themselves, to create a list of top “cinematic moments” of the year. The moment doesn’t have to be in a film, but it has to be related to the experience of cinema, of seeing a movie or of the theater itself, of participating in the culture of film. Rules established. And so, at the risk of being labeled an onanistic, navel gazing “hipster”…, let’s get to it, shall we?
10. Frownland at BAM
I have had the good fortune to meet Ronald and Mary Bronstein several times and Holly and I were proud to show Mary’s debut feature Yeast at the 2008 Sarasota Film Festival, so when Frownland had its “Brooklyn Premiere” at BAM this past autumn, I walked to my local art house, ran into an old friend from Florida and sat with her to take in Ronald Bronstein’s amazing story of a guy who just cannot say what he wants to say. I’ll never write a review of the film that compares to the perfection of what Manohla Dargis wrote in her NY Times review, but the post-screening Q&A featuring Ronald and the film’s star Dore Mann would forever erase any question I had about the film’s emotional veracity. Bronstein paced back and forth across the front of the auditorium with a ferocious commitment to tell the truth about his movie, validating every question with an honest answer and clearly utilizing in the moment to re-connect with the tremendous amount of feeling that went into making his film. How many Q&A’s had he done by the time Frownland had its Brooklyn Premiere? A hundred? And yet, you could still feel the passion that made the film tenable in the first place. I don’t think Ronnie has a “phone it in” bone in his body, and he and Mary are just the sort of uncompromising and honest artists that film needs right now. Dear Benten Films, I smell the greatest DVD Commentary track of all time…
9. My Manohla Dargis Sighting at The Albertson’s Starbucks, The 2008 Sundance Film Festival
I don’t often talk about my deep admiration for Manohla Dargis’ writing on this blog, but no critic working today has kept me on my toes like she has. In my opinion, The New York Times has been on fire the past couple of years, and a good portion of that heat comes from Ms. Dargis, a writer who is constantly asking all the right questions about movies. One of the not-so-secret secrets is Ms. Dargis’ apparent desire not to have her picture appear in print or online (here, allow me to do the Google Image search for you), so one grainy headshot from five years ago aside, I really hadn’t ever seen my favorite critic before, which, in this day and age, is an accomplishment for a critic at The Paper Of Record.
January 2008, Park City, Utah. I am in the Starbucks café inside the Park City Albertson’s, one of the best places at Sundance to grab a free WiFi connection without having leave the Industry screening area. I am sitting next to a man and a woman having a very smart and friendly conversation, and as I pluck away on my keyboard, a second woman walks up to the table and starts talking to the man. After a few moments of polite conversation, he says “Do you two know each other?” and the woman sitting at the table, right next to me, says “No… Hi, I’m Manohla.”
My eyes widen, and I slowly look up and see, well… the face of a woman I had seen like 1,000 times at various Press Screenings around the festival circuit over the last few years. SO THAT’S MANOHLA DARGIS…!
A quick blush, head down. A personal check list item cleared and then back to my writing…
8. Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell at The Kitchen
One of the films I have been championing ever since we had the US Premiere at Sarasota this year is Matt Wolf’s moving Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell. Not only is this a profound reminder of the personal toll that HIV/AIDS has taken on our culture, a fact that sometimes seems lost in recent times, but the film opened me up to the life and music of Arthur Russell, who now ranks among my favorite musicians of all time. On May 15, I was home in NYC from Florida and expecting to become a father within a few months when I headed down to catch Matt’s NYC Premiere of the film at the performance space The Kitchen, the very organization where Russell plied his trade as a composer and musical director during his creative prime. I had only seen a screener of the film on my TV, so seeing it on the big screen with that audience, at that moment in my own life (expecting a son) was a deeply moving experience. For me, Wild Combination is a near-perfect response to so much of the anxiety that has marked 2008; In the face of the rise of fundamentalist religious violence around the world and the battles over Prop 8 in California, it was a real gift to have seen such a beautiful, multi-faceted creative life so eloquently represented on the screen. The film went on to win the indieWIRE BOT on its opening weekend, and I felt a real sense of vindication for Matt and the movie. Not only is there a new collection of Arthur Russell music out now (the excellent Love Is Overtaking Me), but the film is now available for purchase on iTunes, so grab your iPhone or AppleTV and get on with the catching up…
7. Of Time and The City at The 2008 Toronto Film Festival
It should be clear to (both of the) long time readers of this blog that I have a thing for Liverpool. Liverpool Football Club is one of the most important things in my life (if I’m honest) and despite my adoration for all things scouser and Red, I have never been able to get myself Merseyside to visit the hometown of my heroes. I won’t tell the story of how I fell in love with Liverpool again, but let’s just say as a boy from Flint, MI, I found a lot of myself in the story of the place. So, it was a treat beyond imagining for me to get a personal tour of one man’s historic relationship with the city; You’ll never find a wittier nor wiser guide to the place than Terrence Davies’ haunting, elegaic Of Time And The City. I was lucky enough to catch a press screening in a Toronto multiplex (more on this below), projected in HD, and the cushy seats and crisp image went a long way toward enhancing my experience of the film, but it didn’t hurt to be sitting a few seats away from Jonathan Rosenbaum, either. Every once in a while, I would catch myself peeking over to measure if his delight with the movie was equal to mine, and it was a privileged moment to watch him watch… If only I could have read his mind… I won’t say much more about the film, just that I demand that anyone reading this sentence and living within 50 miles of New York City head down to the Film Forum next week and see this movie! Go go go!
6. 35 Rhums at The 2008 Toronto Film Festival
The last time I saw a Claire Denis film at the Toronto Film Festival, I wasn’t ready to have my head implode trying to wrap my brain around a hung-over, early morning screening of L’Intrus. This time I was prepared; a self-imposed sober evening and early bedtime preceded my morning press screening of Denis’ new film 35 Rhums. Professional that I am, I hadn’t really read up on the movie or listened to much advance word, so in my head, I was sitting down to watch the story of an African rebellion; I had mistaken 35 Rhums for the as yet unfinished White Material. I am an idiot. So, all prepared for the work of navigating a tough, political Denis film, I was instead washed away by a lovely, compassionate and deeply moving 35 Rhums, one of the best movies I saw all year. Once again, preconceptions and expectations fail and the cinema kicks my ass.
5. Wendy and Lucy at The 2008 New York Film Festival
History will be the judge, but I am almost certain that 2008 will go down as one of the most complicated, conflicted and shittiest years in American history. For me, this was the year of absolute fatigue in international relations (Iraq and Afghanistan, Mumbai, Pakistan, Israel and Gaza, piracy off of the Somalian coast, Congo, Sudan, Somalia itself, The Presidential crisis in Zimbabwe, and on and on) and electricity on the domestic political front (the election capping a years long wait for the nation to finally wake up from the Bush nightmare) all of which happened while watching the global economy literally evaporate. Somehow, it all felt (and continues to feel) deeply personal, part of a comprehensive assault on my conception of the world. Right smack dab in the middle of what felt like our political low-point (just before the election and during the early moments of the Wall St. collapse), I tucked into the Walter Reade and saw Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, which was the perfect distillation of every frightened, isolated emotion that was running through me at the time. Reichardt seems to be directly dialed into my anxieties, plugged into the way I see the world; from River Of Grass to Old Joy, I feel as though her concerns are my concerns, that she perfectly renders the unspeakable feeling of being alive in this world. Wendy and Lucy is a continuation of that power and is the movie of our times, a monumental articulation of the way in which America has abandoned every day people in the name of bullshit rhetoric and how our “American values” mask a dangerous, selfish disinterest in a truly collective welfare.
4. Three Monkeys at The 2008 Toronto Film Festival
This one is as much a technical Thank You as it is a second appreciation of one of the best movies of the year, but I have to say again what a huge treat it was to see Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys on a big screen with an amazing sound system. I wish I had been in Cannes to see this at the Palais, because I imagine the experience must have been incredible, but no movie I saw this year integrated all of the elements of filmmaking with such overwhelming force. We have to be honest, one of the great advantages of the blockbuster over the small, art house film is the depth of design and the scale of technical complexity that are available with piles of cash. Most art house cinemas, with their shitty sight lines, tiny screens and inadequate sound systems, are just fine when it comes to smaller films; its not like you’re missing the Dolby or anything! But can anyone in their right mind imagine catching The Dark Knight or Iron Man downstairs at Cinema Village? The image and sound do make a difference in terms of the immersive quality of a film; a good story is as important as the way in which it is told.
If anything, the screening of Three Monkeys at the ManU Life Center in Toronto made me deeply suspicious of what I must have been missing all these years. Here was a huge, pristine image, gorgeously photographed (the last shot is one for the ages) with a sound design to die for; Ceylan had carefully crafted every detail of this film to convey maximum meaning, to deliver layers of complexity on his themes of moral corruption and social decay, and it was all there on the big screen, rendered perfectly. If anything, moments like this justify the film festival as an idea; The proper presentation of film in its rightful theatrical environment. In the age of the digital download, YouTube and the DVD, this was a stunning reminder of the power of scale and design in enjoying the fullness of cinema.
3. Tony Manero at The 2008 New York Film Festival
And then again, forget technical complexity! If you asked me which movie made the deepest impression on me this year, which film knocked me out of my shoes, kicked my ass and has drilled its way into my brain, I would have to answer Tony Manero. No Q&A, no interesting adventure in the theater, just a “sit in a seat, lights down, roll film” movie that was completely unexpected and remains one of the true discoveries of the year for me. I loved every scuzzy, hand-held frame of this movie and not only was I disgusted, angered and (strangely) moved, I couldn’t stop laughing from the first five minutes on. Maybe I took a perverse pleasure in the film’s cowardice and immorality, maybe I was knocked dizzy by the totality of the atmosphere and the tonal discipline, or maybe it was the character of Raul, who knows? I am dying to see this film again. That Tony Manero does not have a distribution deal in the U.S. is no real surprise given the circumstances (this is by no means a feel-good quirky indie anything), but it is a fucking shame nonetheless. Did they clear Saturday Night Fever clips and music for the U.S.? Hmm. As my friend Jen would say, “The Best!”
2. Liv Ullmann Retrospective/ In Conversation at The 2008 Sarasota Film Festival
For me, one of the great privileges (and great responsibilities) of being a film programmer revolves around working directly with the artists responsible for creating the movies that have had such a profound influence on my life. I have been fortunate in my work to have met and worked with some of my filmmaking heroes; Werner Herzog, Robert Altman and Norman Jewison all spring directly to mind. This year, I was really lucky to be granted the opportunity to host Liv Ullmann in her first appearance since the death of Ingmar Bergman, To honor her, I worked to assemble a complete retrospective of the films she had done with Bergman (including those she directed from his scripts) and we honored Ms. Ullmann with our festival’s Master of World Cinema Award. Three important moments stand out; The amazing on-stage conversation we assembled between Liv Ullmann and Sony Pictures Classics President Michael Barker (who was terrific and deeply knowledgeable about Ms. Ullmann’s career), the generous and warm p Q&A with Ms. Ullmann after our screening of Faithless and, most important for me as a professional, the humbling experience of not having the proper print for our showing of the very hard to find Face To Face.
The House Next Door’s Keith Uhlich was very gracious in taking me to task for our decision to screen the old, faded and (much to my horror) dubbed version of the film that was delivered to us by the studio, but I have to raise my hand and say that I learned an important lesson from this experience; Never again will I take things at face value in terms of what is promised to me, and I’ll never again compromise for the sake of completion. Had I known we had a faded, dubbed version on our hands, I would have had a tough decision to make and I certainly would never have let it pass without comment. That said, I feel like this was a galvanizing moment for me as a programmer, a reminder of my responsibility to the audience and the artist; I am haunted by our screening of Face To Face to this day. Lesson learned and a big moment for me.
1. A Christmas Tale at Magno/ Interviewing Arnaud Desplechin at The 2008 New York Film Festival
It should come as no surprise that the film and artist that has dominated this blog throughout 2008 would once again feature on my “top moments” list, so let’s just give thanks for constants; The sun will always rise in the East, you’ll always face death and taxes, and I’ll always be in love with the movies of Arnaud Desplechin. A brief recap is in order, I think. There are two phases of my life to this point; the years and months before October 1996 and each moment since I stumbled in from the cold autumn rain, into the (now defunct) Key Theater on Wisconsin Avenue (near M Street) in Washington, D.C. for a screening of Desplechin’s My Sex Life… or how I got into an argument. This year brought a new film, A Christmas Tale (which I have seen innumerable times and which still thrills me) and a second opportunity to meet with Arnaud (oh so briefly) and interview him for indieWIRE. Look, as long as he keeps making films (his mention to me of his “French teenage drugs-and-hip-hop-in-the-80’s” film is already filling me with nearly unbearable anticipation) he’s going to end up at or near the top of my list. I play favorites. I know where my loyalties lie. At the end of any given year, no one is going to beat Arnaud Desplechin in my book and, this being my book, I would be happy to wrap 2008 in the afterglow of Vuillard family and their battles over a post-holiday transfusion… except…well.. this wasn’t any old year…
The Unrateable, Mind Blowing, Illegal (?) Once In A Lifetime Moment
There is a law in the State of New York that prohibits the use of film or videotape during the delivery of a baby. I assume it is to ensure against having a record of possible malpractice, but for whatever reason, the law bans taping/filming. When my wife went into the delivery room to give birth to our son, I was allowed only my small point and shoot camera. Little did they know (or maybe care), but that point and shoot camera has a video function and, when the Dr. announced that I should get my camera ready for a picture because the baby was coming, I did what all nervous, freaked-out fathers would do; I switched the camera to video mode, lifted my arms above the curtain and was able to capture my son’s birth on video. When they took Nicolas to the baby warmer, I was able to join him there. I switched the camera back on and grabbed another quick moment of him warming up, my finger grasped firmly in his tiny hands. I never felt anything like that in my life. I sometimes pull up the little Quicktime files (they only last about a minute each) and remember the feeling of becoming a father, remember how small Nicolas used to be and what an incredible moment that was for my wife and me. Of all of the history and cinema that took place in 2008, this is the one moment I will keep with me forever; a little hand-held gateway into a wondrous new world. Nothing could beat it. Best moment ever.
*And so, upon reflection, I feel I owe two films a sincere apology. First, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I saw in 2007 and excluded from my poll ballot last year because it hadn’t been theatrically released, but then re-excluded this year because I remembered it had been four-walled in Los Angeles for a week in 2007. That film was my top cinematic experience of 2007 (and listed as such on my Top Moments list last year), so I felt that I had given it proper due. If the film is actually a 2008 U.S. release, it is time to re-write my list because I don’t think I will ever get over the movie. So, I’m going to chalk it up to a grey area and move on. The other film is Flight Of The Red Balloon, which I adored when I saw it in 2007 and which I just re-watched on DVD after submitting my ballot. Had I not seen it again, I may have let my regret pass without mention, but upon further review it is one of the loveliest films I have ever seen and it is criminally absent from my ballot. Not for the first time, everyone else was right and I was wrong…