Festivals & Awards
A review of three films that premiered on the second day of Sundance 2021, including the latest from Ben Wheatley.
A review of three films that premiered on the second day of Sundance 2021, including the latest from Ben Wheatley.
A dinosaur that started on four legs and then graduated to two, just like humans; a Chinese poet writes about his experience of torture in prison; why all journalism is "advocacy journalism"; why it matters that 50 Shades of Grey will have a female director; a brief history of the president as action hero; the 50 essential lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movies; artist creates portraits of people she's never met via DNA samples from cigarette butts.
Oh my. Here we go again with all the deathiness. Movie criticism keeps dying deader and deader. Film itself has keeled over and given up the ghost. Cinema ist kaput, and at the end of last month "movie culture" was pronounced almost as deceased as John Cleese's parrot. Ex-parrot, I mean. Then the movie "Looper" came out, posing questions like: "What if you could go back in time? Would you kill cinema?" Or something like that.
People, this dying has gotta stop.
Everything reminds me of movies. And movies remind me of everything. My life has been divided into roughly three states of consciousness: the time I've spent awake; the time I've spent asleep (and dreaming); the time I've spent in-between, in the dark, inhabiting movie-worlds. They're all essential, holistic components of what you might call my Total Life Experience. And I find that in some respects they all run together, aspects of one seeping into another: images, patterns, metaphors... So, when I read this re-evaluation of the new Apple iPhone 5 -- the feel of the thing -- it struck me as also being about a quality of certain movies that we don't discuss very often.
We all live in our own little subcultures. In mine -- loosely categorized as international film-festival cinephiliacs -- big-name contemporary filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke and the Dardennes brothers (yes, they've all won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) are huge, huge stars. In fact, some of us, whether we like them or not, feel they are overexposed, on the verge of becoming more than famous: ubiquitous. Like Kardashians or something. (I'll be honest: I don't know what a Kardashian is, but I keep hearing the term.) I mean, good god, the Dardennes have been all in your face throughout the 21st century, making movie after movie and picking up awards everywhere you look. And don't even get me started on Kiarostami. That guy became the international flavor-of-the-film-fest-cicruit in the 1980s, achieved his biggest commercial success in 2010, and has a new film in competition at Cannes right now.
I suppose it's true that, to most people outside our own little coterie, the Cannes Film Festival means just about nothing. Its impact on the American box office is negligible (although Kiarostami's Palme-winner "Taste of Cherry" grossed a pretty impressive $312 thousand in the US in 1998. That's about what "Marvel's The Avengers" took in while you were reading the last sentence). I guess fame -- or importance -- depends on your perspective.
A few things got me to thinking about this. One was Manohla Dargis's NY Times dispatch from Cannes. I love her observations:
By accident or by design, today's films premiering at Cannes, whether in competition, in the "A Certain Regard" section, or in special screenings out of competition, revolved around relationships, good, bad, or worse. Whether the bond is with a woman who has lost the will to live, an Orca whale (both seen in "Rust and Bone"), a cheating wife-beater ("Mystery"), a ghost ("Mekong Hotel"), or a male prostitute ("Paradise: Love"), things don't always turn out for the best.
French director Jacques Audiard has enjoyed a high profile since his "A Prophet" made a splash at Cannes in 2009, winning the Grand Jury Prize. It seemed like just another prison movie to me, but others loved it. The film went on to win an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and a host of festival prizes. Audiard is back with "Rust and Bone," a star vehicle for Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who came to new visibility by starring in this year's Oscar-nominated "Bullhead."
I was especially looking forward to "Rust and Bone" because Schoenarts had given such a powerful performance in "Bullhead," for which he had bulked up ala De Niro for his portrayal of a violent man whose life is defined by his steroid use. In "Rust and Bone" he's Ali, an unemployed guy who moves to the seaside town of Antibes (just down the road from Cannes, actually) to camp out in his married sister's garage after he's suddenly saddled with the custody of his five-year-old son. A former amateur boxer, he gets a job as a nightclub bouncer.
Marie writes: kudos to club member Sandy Kahn for finding this - as I'd never heard of the Bregenz Festival before, despite the spectacular staging of Puccini's opera Tosca and which appeared briefly in the Bond film Quantum of Solace; but then I slept through most of it. I'm not surprised I've no memory of an Opera floating on a lake. Lake Constance to be exact, which borders Germany, Switzerland and Austria near the Alps...
Tosca by Puccini | 2007-2008 - Photograph by BENNO HAGLEITNER(click to enlarge)
"Would you believe in a love at first sight?" "Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time." "What do you see when you turn out the light?" "I can't tell you but I know it's mine." -- Billy Shears, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sometimes I can pinpoint the very moment I first fall in love with a movie. It may happen in the first shot (Bong Joon-ho's "Mother"; Michael Haneke's "Caché"), or may be clinched in at the very end (the terminal instant of Rahmin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart"), but in many cases there is an identifiable point at which I know that I am in love, even while the movie is unspooling, and by that time it's not likely there's any going back, unless the movie simply implodes.
Here are a few of those times from 2011 when I realized I was falling hard...
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
There's not so much snow as in director Tomas Alfredson's previous feature, "Let the Right One In," but it gets plenty chilly here, in Cold War London, Budapest and Istanbul. The emotional iciness sneaks up on you: by the end, as the strands of loyalty and betrayal unravel, leaving characters exposed to some very cold realities, I found it uncommonly moving. (Yes, I cried -- more than once.) Not unrelatedly, "Tinker Tailor" (no commas in this title) is one of the most hauntingly and imaginatively composed movies (both in terms of framings and shot sequences) that I've seen since... maybe the last Coen brothers picture. Early on, it catches you a little off-guard when, in the midst of a hushed, paranoid conversation in a musty apartment, there's a cut to a monochromatic, neo-Gothic Eastern European skyline (punctuating John Hurt's use of the word "Budapest" -- a word that will become code for loss, failure, disgrace).
A few weeks ago on Facebook -- that sly keeper of family secrets, whose memory seems to have increased incrementally with its new Timeline mumbo-jumbo -- an actor of some repute posted a list of the best Twitter accounts of 2011, as compiled by a wholly forgettable outlet. He had been placed relatively highly, and someone commented that it was a very subjective list. Apart from the fact that taking issue with "a list of the best Twitter accounts of 2011, lol" is by definition absurd, the statement presented a logical fallacy (I am fully aware of the irony of regarding a throwaway Facebook comment in such depth). All lists are subjective: that's why they're lists. Nonetheless, this fairly simple fact gets lost in the year-end frenzy as interested parties start calling for the list-maker's head, like angry villagers wielding pitchforks, if and when their favoured books, albums, films, etc fail to place on a given critic's compilation of the year's best.
(Picture the headline above in Comic Sans.) MSN Movies contributors have selected our Top 10 Movies of 2011. What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Are these movies "the best"? Are they our favorites? Are they "movies we got to see before the deadline"? In my case, it's some combination of all three -- but I'm really quite happy with the aggregate results. As for my own contribution, as usual I hadn't seen everything I wanted to by the deadline ("A Separation," "Hugo," "The Artist," "Mysteries of Lisbon," "Midnight in Paris" among them), and still haven't, but them's the breaks. My lists will evolve in coming days (Village Voice/LA Weekly poll, indieWIRE Critics Poll, and so on), but I do want to say that I went all-in with my emotions. I picked these movies 'cause I love 'em, not because I merely admire them or appreciate them.
The Big List starts here; the individual lists start here.
Of course, as much as we love lists, the best thing about the MSN feature is that we have short appreciations of the top 10 movies, written by some very perceptive and eloquent people. And me, too. You will find the Group List, with excerpts and links to the full mini-essays, below -- and my personal ballot at the bottom. Let me know what you think -- and be sure to read the previous post ("Idiocracy and the ten-best trolls") for a good laugh:
For the last month, I've been watching almost nothing but Abbas Kiarostami and Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies -- and it's been the best run of good-to-great movie-watching I've had in years. How did this happen? Well, I was beguiled by their most recent pictures: Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" and Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" -- both prize-winners at last year's Cannes Film Festival (best actress for Juliet Binoche, and the Palm d'Or, respectively). For reasons I'll get into in a bit, the only Kiarostamis I'd seen before were two of his biggies, "A Taste of Cherry" (1997) and "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999); and the only Apichatpong (just call him "Joe") movie I'd seen was "Blissfully Yours" (2002).
The films of both these directors have been widely (mis-)characterized as "difficult" (please see Girish Shambu's excellent rumination on that term here, if you haven't already), but that's not why it's taken me so long to familiarize myself with more of their work. I don't have any good reasons, but I'll be honest: I was put off by the critical hype for Kiarostami, which in the art-cinema world was exceeded (in my perception) only by that for Quentin Tarantino in the pop-art-cinema world. Also, I remember the press screening for "The Wind Will Carry Us" at the Toronto Film Festival and, during the final shot (which was nice but a little too on-the-nose for me), a critic behind me let out a rapturous sigh intended to be overheard by everyone in the vicinity: "Masterpiece!" I admit (I'm only human) that made me a little nauseous, and some of my critic friends who were much more involved in the festival scene than I was at the time were outspoken Kiarostami naysayers, so I didn't feel particularly motivated to seek out more of his work.
Chicago digital filmmaker Nelson Carvajal recently quoted the late Direct Cinema / Cinéma vérité pioneer Richard Leacock in a post at Free Cinema Now in which he defends -- for personal, aesthetic reasons -- the fashionable handheld camera technique known variously as the shaky cam, the queasy-cam and (when combined with chaotic cutting) the snatch-and-grab:
Anyone who knows my shooting style knows that I'm not a fan of tripods. To me, most static "pretty" shots that I see from other indie filmmakers represent an analogy for an elusive Hollywood-esque model of moviemaking. Ever been on a student film set and notice how much of the day goes to laboring over a shot that really doesn't grab you in the end? We go to the movies and are swept away by the big budget vistas and then for some reason we're convinced that our camcorder, a tripod and a light set will accomplish the same feel. And when it doesn't, we're surprised. But we shouldn't be. At the end of the day, it's all about the content of what we're trying to show, say or provoke in an audience. So instead of trying to mimic or recreate a sense of grandness without the necessary resources (like an outrageous Hollywood budget for example), why not create our own language for the cinema? Let Hollywood make "Sucker Punch." We'll instead focus on breaking away and discovering new ways to tell our stories.
I suppose this is why I embrace "direct cinema" filmmaking so strongly. I love grabbing the camera and just improvising as I go. It's a shooting style that liberates my senses; it awakens me.
• Grace Wang of TorontoIt's my last day in Hong Kong and I'm spending it indoors - specifically - at a Starbucks in Kowloon Station across from the cross-border bus terminal, of which I'm booked to get on a bus in 3 hours back to Mainland China.
Across from me in the cushy tan sofa, a woman is dozing over an English newspaper. The headlines reads "EU summit puts off the tough decisions"... Hmm, not exactly light Sunday afternoon readings (or is it Saturday? I lose count). She has long curly dark brown hair that is half-dry and is dressed fashionably in jeans and a black leather jacket. She looked a little anxious when asking whether the seat was taken, and a little taken aback when I blurted out "no" in English (caffeine hasn't quite sank in then yet). Is the newspaper part of an effort to brush up on her English? I wonder. Did she have a rough night? Is she waiting for someone?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest movie "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" scored some points from me at the beginning. After the enigmatic opening sequence featuring a cow and the jungle shrouded in strange atmosphere, the following sequence with a car going along some country road drew my attention. The land was different, the trees and plants surrounding the road were also different, and the climate was also different, but the mood was somehow familiar to me.
It was not different from what I remember from our family's occasional short journey to my grandmother's country village. We also went there by a car, we also went along a paved country road, and I used to pensively look at the landscape outside car while a little bored in backseat.
Ever since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgements, and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.
To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")
When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix, Reel.com, RogerEbert.com)... but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.
The Self-Styled Siren (aka Farran Smith Nehme) makes no apologies for her passion for pre-1960s movies. In a particularly lovely piece called "Intimacy at the Movies" she examines the mysterious forces behind her "old-movie habit." You see, the New York Film Festival was in October, and the Siren devoted herself to catching some of the big cinephiliac treasures of the fall, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes-winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," Raoul Ruiz's "Mysteries of Lisbon"... and she loved them, but...
Sometime around the two-week mark the withdrawal became too much and I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I was going to dig up a pre-1960 movie and watch it to the last frame. Maybe some followers thought I was being cute about how much I needed to do this. I was as serious as "All Quiet on the Western Front."
And I watched "Ivy" [Sam Wood, 1947; starring Joan Fontaine and Herbert Marshall]. And it was good. So good I started to wonder if this was simple addiction. It did feel uncomfortably like I was one of those people who went to sleep in Shreveport and woke up in Abilene. "Come on, Oscar nominee from 1934, let's you and me get drunk." But surely nobody ever wound up in rehab because they couldn't stop quoting Bette Davis movies. I can, in fact, stop anytime I like. Don't look at me like that. I have a Netflix copy of "Zodiac" right there on my dressing table, you just can't see it because it's under the eyeshadow palette. I've had it three weeks and haven't watched it yet, but I'm telling you I could watch it right now if I felt like it and if my daughter weren't already downstairs watching the 1940 "Blue Bird." I just don't want to. I'll watch "Zodiac" this weekend. Right now I need to keep watching old movies, I have too much else going on to quit something that isn't harming me anyway. Hey, did anybody else notice some benevolent soul has posted "Hold Back the Dawn" on Youtube?
Revisiting Dwight Macdonald's famous essay, "Masscult & Midcult," and other ideas old and new -- continued from "When 'I get it!' means 'I don't get it!' and vice-versa."
"It seems to me that nearly the whole Anglo-Saxon race, especially of course in America have lost the power to be individuals. They have become social insects like bees and ants. They are lost to humanity, and the great question for the future is whether that will spread or will be repulsed by the people who still exist..." -- Roger Fry (1866-1930), from a letter quoted "Roger Fry," a biography written by Virginia Woolf(1940); also quoted by Dwight Macdonald in "Masscult & Midcult"
A while ago I added to the epigraphs in the upper right corner of this page a quotation from writer-actor-director Tom Noonan that echoed something I had long felt to be true, but had never articulated: "I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." I don't feel that way very often anymore; gone are the days, when I was first discovering the richness of the still very young art of film, when I might see several masterpieces in a week, or even a day -- in classes, film series, rep houses, art houses, mainstream cinemas or on TV. But I was inclined to feel that movies,the art form of my time (and literature, music, art of all kinds), brought me closer to my own life by focusing my attention on what it means to be alive. Like millions of others, I found the only religion in which I could whole-heartedly believe in movie theaters, libraries, bookstores, and concert venues.¹
In "Masscult & Midcult" (1962), published when "Citizen Kane" was as old as "GoodFellas" and "Miller's Crossing" are today, Dwight Macdonald contends that art (movies included) no longer seeks engagement with an audience, but is content to serve as another opiate of the masses: "The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, but merely distraction."