I have feelings more than ideas. I am tired, but very happy. My 11th annual film festival has just wrapped at the Virginia Theater in my home town, and what I can say is, it worked. There is no such thing as the best year or the worst year. But there is such a thing as a festival where every single film seemed to connect strongly with the audience. Sitting in the back row, seeing these films another time, sensing the audience response, I thought: Yes, these films are more than good, and this audience is a gathering of people who feel that.
Let me tell you about the last afternoon, the screening of a newly restored 70mm print of "Baraka." The 1,600 seats of the main floor and balcony were very nearly filled. The movie exists of about 96 minutes of images, music and sound. Nothing else. No narration. No subtitles. No plot, no characters. Just the awesome beauty of this planet and the people who live on it. The opening scene of a monkey, standing chest-deep in a warm pool in the snow, looking. Looking in a very long and patient shot, which invites us to see through his eyes. Then the stars in the sky above. "Baraka" is a meditation on what it means to be awake to the world.
It's a good thing Ebertfest is no longer called the Overlooked Film Festival. One of my choices this year, "Frozen River," was in danger of being overlooked when I first invited it, but then it realized the dream of every indie film, found an audience and won two Oscar nominations. Yet even after the Oscar nods, it has grossed only about $2.5 million and has been unseen in theaters by most of the nation.
Those numbers underline the crisis in independent, foreign or documentary films--art films. More than ever, the monolithic U.S. distribution system freezes out films lacking big stars, big ad budgets, ready-made teenage audiences, or exploitable hooks. When an unconventional film like "Slumdog Millionaire" breaks out, it's the exception that proves the rule. While it was splendid, it was not as original or really as moving as the American indie "Chop Shop," made a year earlier. The difference is, the hero of "Chop Shop" wasn't trying to win a million rupees--just to survive.
This continues my experiment with predicting this year's Oscars entirely without logical thought of reference to rumors and odds, but entirely on the basis of my emotions, with reference to the newly-named human emotion of Elevation.
In a startling upset, "The Dark Knight" failed to make the cut in the Best Picture category Thursday, as this year's Academy Awards nominees were announced. The Batman drama, second top-grossing film of all time after "Titanic," was also a critical favorite and looked to many like a shoo-in.
A few weeks ago, the Hollywood trades were observing (or complaining) that, because of the 2008 presidential election, all the big studio Oscar-bait films had been pushed back into December. I mean, how are mere movies going to compete with that cast? "Obama. Biden. McCain. And Sarah Palin as Jaws."
Last year's Oscar-winner, "No Country for Old Men," played the Toronto Film Festival in early September, the New York Film Festival in early October, and began opening around the country November 9. The critics groups split between "NCFOM" (NY) and "There Will Be Blood" (LA, National Society), which was a 2008 release in much of the country.
This year, it's anybody's guess. "Slumdog Millionaire"? "Milk"? "WALL-E"? Something that hasn't won a critical consensus honor yet? (Right now my hunch is that the National Society of Film Critics will wind up going for either "The Wrestler" or "Wendy and Lucy." Just a hunch.)
UPDATE: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, bestower of the Golden Globules, has announced its nominations... and even with a total of ten best picture slots (in Drama and Comedy/Musical categories) it overlooked "Milk," "The Wrestler" and "The Dark Knight," all of which seem to me like fairly obvious Globuley-Oscary pictures. Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke and Heath Ledger all got acting nods, though. Go fig.
There will be lots to see between now and New Year's Eve -- and I still haven't caught up with "Milk," "Happy-Go-Lucky," "I Loved You So Long," "Ballast," "Rachel Getting Married," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- all of which have already opened theatrically. Still to come: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Nixon/Frost," "Revolutionary Road," "The Reader," "The Wrestler," "Doubt," "Seven Pounds"... none of which, however, have made much of an impact with critics groups.
The East Coast and West Coast critics have agreed on a few things here and there: Sean Penn in "Milk," Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky," Penelope Cruz in "Vicki Cristina Barcelona," "Man on Wire" for documentary, but... well, see for yourself:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Picture: "WALL-E" Runner-up: "The Dark Knight"
Foreign language film: "Still Life" Runner-up: "The Class"
Documentary film: "Man on Wire" Runner-up: "Waltz With Bashir"
Animated film: "Waltz With Bashir"