Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Cinema

Early in September, a couple of weeks prior to the 2010 New York Festival, I speculated on this site that the truly notable cinema of 2010 - that is, cinema that shifts our perception of where the art-form has been, where it is going and where it might go - had yet to reach American screens, but that with the aforementioned event, the cinematic year would soon begin in earnest.  Exactly three months after making this prediction, I posted my ten best films of 2010 list, comprised entirely of work premiering during or after the festival (in addition to a single title, Hong Sang-soo's Ha Ha Ha, which has yet to screen in the US - though it is currently available on an English-subtitled DVD).  Of the nine domestic premieres, eight played at the NYFF, with Tony Scott's Unstoppable (pictured) the lone exception.  Collectively, nine of my top ten premiered in festivals during the past year - seven at Cannes, one at Venice and one at New York - with the Scott again the only outlier.  All of this is to suggest what I suspect is obvious to many Tativille readers, beyond the capriciousness of my Scott choice: namely, that truly superior work of cinematic art almost always emerges out of the festival circuit.  

My own experience over the past few years suggests that at present the average number of major works per year is somewhere in the vicinity of a baker's dozen, with a great year pushing twenty and a very bad year struggling to reach double digits.  That I managed to see ten such works in less than three months - for the record once again, in order of preference, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, Raoul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, Cristi Puiu's Aurora, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, David Fincher's The Social Network, Hong's Ha Ha Ha, Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte, Scott's Unstoppable and Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angélica - suggests that 2010 should almost certainly prove above average ultimately.  Of these, the very best were as good a group at the top end as we have had in a few years.  

Of course, the calendar year invariably reveals additional examples from recent years, which for me included one of the ten best films of the equally strong 2008, Miguel Gomes's Our Beloved Month of August, and four more in the same column from the comparatively average 2009: Maren Ade's Everyone Else (pictured), Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love, Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch and Mia Hansen-Løve's Father of My Children.  I would also cite a pair of additional 2009 premieres, Giorgos Lanthimos's Cannes Prize-winner Dogtooth Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar as strong runners-up from the previous twelve months.  For those viewers that might have missed them on the festival circuit in 2009, 2010 also featured the commercial releases of a group of substantial achievements, Claire Denis's White MaterialJacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain, Bong Joon-ho's Mother and Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl However, since I saw all four of these in 2009 - and since I named the Denis and the Rivette as two of my ten best last year - my choices for 2010's Ten Best Films' Mini-Poll, which will commence later this weekend over on Tativille's sister site, will instead feature my top eight from 2010 - listed above - and two from 2009 (Everyone Else and I Am Love) replacing numbers nine and ten (in fourth and seventh places respectively).

Concerning current trends in contemporary film art, I would beginning by citing the preeminence of  Apichatpong and Kiarostami in world film art, and not only because the two directors made the year's two finest films.  Apichatpong produced the more notable of the two works - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand) is the clear choice for the best film of 2010 -while also foregoing the structuralist-inspired two-part structure that defined his previous three masterpieces.  In this latter respect he is joined by Hong who similarly redefined his idiom - or at least presented a potential new direction moving forward.  Both Apichatpong and Hong justifiably won top prizes in their categories at Cannes.  Another Cannes prize-winner, Frammartino's Le quattro volte, one of the year's most unexpected pleasures for this writer, intersected elsewhere with Uncle Boonmee inasmuch as it too provided a tale of reincarnation, albeit of a Pythagorean rather than Buddhist variety.

Kiarostami's significance extended beyond the fact that the master made his best film (Certified Copy, pictured) since 2002's Ten, returning to narrative fiction filmmaking for the first time in eight years (for the first non-documentary work of his career made abroad).  In particular, 2010, for New York area viewers especially, helped to clarify the director's significance to the cinema of the past ten years with a spate of post-Kiarostami documentary-fiction hybrids reaching theatres.  Most noteworthy among these was 2010's most important theatrical premiere, Lisandro Alonso's 2001 La libertad, which presented a viable, novel direction for the cinematic medium in the wake of the Iranian's 1990s corpus.  Kiarostami's work, by way of Alonso's, in turn presaged Gomes's Our Beloved Month of August, González-Rubio's Alamar and Frammartino's Le quattro volte once again.  In sum, 2010 revealed Kiarostami's perhaps heretofore under-appreciated impact on contemporary world cinema, while revealing one of his inheritors, Alonso, as one of the most important figures of the previous decade.  (Apichatpong is of course a second descendant whose place in 2000s cinema was secure even before 2010's major masterpiece.)

Perhaps the biggest cinematic news story of 2010, however, involved a third Kiarostami disciple, the director's former assistant Jafar Panahi.  Released on bail earlier this summer, the director has since been sentenced to six years imprisonment and a twenty year filmmaking ban.  Beyond the enormous human and political tragedies represented by Panahi's jailing, and its implications for the Iranian film industry - it is not insignificant that Kiarostami directed his first fiction feature outside Iran this year - Panahi's absence from world cinema during his prime years is nothing short of catastrophic for the art form; Panahi is indeed one of the very few filmmakers working anywhere today who consistently makes films that belong to that baker's dozen of major works each year.

Though the Iranian cinema's future is questionable to say the least, therefore, exceptionable film art does continue to be made at a greater than average proportion in such newer hot-spots as Romania (Aurora and Tuesday, After Christmas) and Portugal (Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl and The Strange Case of Angélica, axiomatic producer Paulo Branco's Mysteries of Lisbon and 2008's Our Beloved Month of August).  The recently emergent Germany offered up one of its absolute peaks in Everyone Else.  And outside these key developing sites in the cinematic landscape, even Italy seems to be in the early stages of a long-awaited revival, with I Am Love and Le quattro volte representing notable successes - alongside Kiarostami's Italian-made masterwork Certified Copy.

Among French productions, many of the very best of 2010 were in fact hold-overs from a great 2009 for the national cinema: White MaterialAround the Small MountainHadewijch (pictured), The Father of My ChildrenJacques Audiard's A Prophet and Catherine Breillat's comparatively Oliveira-esque Bluebeard.  Included likewise for many in this list would be Alain Resnais's Wild Grass, though I found it to be one of the year's more disappointing outings: it is not immediately clear to this writer what Resnais gains in this instance from his blend of cognizant artificiality and forced whimsy.  Also not quite up to expectations for this writer, though still a good deal better than average, was Olivier Assayas's five-plus hour, made-for-television Carlos.  While the film's lack of visual interest and formal invention throughout much of its substantial length belies its substantial critical reputation, Carlos nonetheless succeeded in being continuously engrossing.  Further notable but somewhat elusive for this writer were a trio of late short films by Jean-Marie Straub, including his final collaboration with Danièle HuilletItinéraire de Jean Bricard (2008), which screened as part of the second Migrating Forms event.  Lastly, Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme was perhaps one-third a great film on the basis of its opening act's unparalleled imagery - the best of the filmmaker's recent work has contributed unspeakably beautiful compositions like those on the film's cruise ship - though the remainder of the film's excessive opacity, as well as its comparatively lackluster visuals, portended something far lesser.  Then again, more than any of the other above titles, I stand to be corrected upon a second viewing of the Godard.

In Asia, Lee Chang-dong's Poetry confirmed the Korean director as one of the globe's leading directors of the middle (that is of middle-brow cinema), with an extraordinary female lead performance and a straight-forward novelistic structure.  Lee's Secret Sunshine (2007), perhaps a step up from his latest, even if its virtues are nearly identical to those of Poetry, received a belated US release in 2010.  While it has been three years since I saw Secret Sunshine - one of the reasons I don't hold to US distribution for my lists - I did manage to view two recent Hong features on home video, the aforementioned Ha Ha Ha, and his prior, more conventional, though still solid Like You Know It All (2009).  I also screened a pair of creditable Korean features from the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival, which have and will not (most likely) receive US distribution: actor-director Yang Ik-Joon's first feature Breathless (2009) and Lee Kyoung-mi's Crush and Blush (2008).

Among the offerings at the disappointing 2010 incarnation of the event, the best new work that I saw was Tetsuaki Matsue's very small, DV Live Tape (2009, pictured), a mobile street concert featuring Japan's Bob Dylan, Kenta Maeno.  Matsue's wistful New Year's Day feature easily bested Japan's higher-profile offerings from the 2010 NYFF, including Tetsuya Nakashima's widely-admired Confessions. Wilson Yip's very solid past fest favorite, Ip Man (2008), received limited US distribution in 2010, as did Johnnie To's lightly likable Vengeance (2009).  In retrospect, East Asia has produced few major works during the past couple of years, with Korea taking the lead since Japan's very strong 2008.  

Though 2010 did present more than its share of high-end achievements, and a fair number of honorable mentions from the past couple of years, few films of even moderate success were produced in Hollywood.  Among those productions that I would highlight (beyond Fincher and Scott's excellent efforts) were Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, one of their most purely pleasurable, if somewhat atypical features.  Christopher Nolan's Inception, which presented some of the year's most impressive cross-cutting - in its final forty-five minutes especially - while also proving a new signature for its director (though the film did want largely in its visualization of the mind).  Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan showcased impressive craft, an attention to the relationship between form and content, and a bounty of cinematic and extra-cinematic references, though it also further affirmed the director as the creator of a deeply unpleasant body-of-work.  Ben Affleck's The Town bested Debra Granik's Winter's Bone as the year's most geographically precise American feature, while offering additional counter-evidence for those - myself included - who feared that the actor-director's directorial career would qualitatively resemble his 2000s acting corpus. Finally, Clint Eastwood's Hereafter expanded the director's thematic universe, while again demonstrating its filmmaker's exceptional control of pace.   

Outside the domain of Hollywood, Roman Polanski's belated Bush-era thriller The Ghost Writer represented decidedly better than average work from a director in the same late stage as Eastwood.  In the realm of documentary, I would further cite a trio of documentaries as being of interest, though perhaps more for their subjects than for their filmmaking per se: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's 2009 Sweetgrass (pictured), a lyrical piece of landscape filmmaking charting a now extinct agricultural mode in the mountains of Montana; Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, a revealing portrait of the contemporary art world and market that offered valuable behind-the-scenes documentation of an ephemeral aesthetic trend; and Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished, a re-framing of previously believed-to-be benign newsreel footage as staged Nazi propaganda, which accordingly disclosed the National Socialist's planned means for justifying the Final Solution by depicting Jewish residents of the Warsaw ghetto as objects of disgust.  While none were major achievements, all three did at least offer some (new) insight into their subjects. 

Naturally, the above account is limited not only by this author's access to the work, but by an additional series of variables, including an unfortunately timed illness that prevented me from attending a screening of Andrei Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (pictured) for which I had previously purchased tickets.  Other than the Romanian film, my biggest viewing omissions this year may have been a couple of films with theatrical engagements still to come: Mike Leigh's Another Year (which opens Jan. 21 in New Haven) and Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men (Feb. 25 in New York).  Perhaps my colleagues' choices for the best films of 2010, to which I will provide links below as they are posted, will include some or all of these films.  Regardless, they are certain to provide a number of titles that I missed altogether over the course of the past twelve months, with R. Emmet Sweeney already revealing a wealth of overlooked, mostly American features with his "ten best genre films of 2010" list.


Lasse Winther Jensen said...

Michael, have you seen Ben Russell's debut feature Let Each One Go Where He May? I haven't seen it myself, but from what I read and from what I hear from friends who've seen it, it indeed sounds like one of the more interesting cinematic work of recent years.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Lasse, Russell's film was not even on my radar, so I do appreciate the heads-up. It is these sorts of works - from unexpected corners of the globe and especially from relatively unknown or under-appreciated auteurs - that are the easiest to overlook at their time of release. Any other recommendations from the past year or two that I missed?

Lasse Winther Jensen said...

I think you've covered most things that I'm aware of myself. As you probably know already, you need to see Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy, which I don't particularly like myself, however it's definitely worth watching.
I can also recommend two very interesting Swedish films. They may be quite hard to pick up, and they are not at all flawless, but they are very interesting and promising works. The first is called Falkenberg Farewell and it's directed by Jesper Ganslandt. It was Swedens Oscar submission in 2006, but don't let that fool you, it's a quite accomplished recollection of youth (more info on Wiki) with highly interesting visual aspects.
The other Swedish film is called Man Tänker Sitt, which is very hard to translate so on festivals it has been screened under the English title Burrowing. It is written and directed by Henrik Hellström and Fredrik Wenzel (who is also heavily involved in Falkenberg Farewell as both cinematographer and co-scriptwriter) and it has a totally unique vibe and atmosphere. Quite beautiful, quite disturbing and almost non-narrative and around one hour long. It is a Thoreau-inspired investigation of the Scandinavian wellfare state and as such it is something entirely different in Scandinavian cinema and I can't really compare it to many other films. The two fims seem to represent some sort of filmmaking collective who function in different roles in each other's films and especially Man Tänker Sitt is the type of film that you almost like because of its flaws and the type of film that raises your expectations regarding the future projects of its makers.

But I would so love to see Russel's film, which sounds completey unique and like something totally new. However it seems to be the type of film that you almost have to watch on a cinema screen and one that will be very hard to find in any format.

Angelo Caiazzo said...


Just wanna thank you and your sister site for pointing out many films I, a severe film lover, critic, and filmmaker, might otherwise never have even heard of.

Here's a contending bone. I don't know how that Eisenberg kid ever got a job in Hollywood. His acting and presence suck ass like a Hoover on a Persian.

Social Network is rated #1? Adventureland "genius"?

Nah, just part of the growing trend making self-deprecation a virtue, and weasely wuss-bags into heroes.

So I don't see for the life of me what people who like these films are seeing. And don't even get me started about that piss-poor exercise on how not to write a script/edit a film: INCEPTION.

Yours in controversy. I do enjoy what you offer.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Lasse, I appreciate the report from my ancestral homeland - a national cinema to which, I will admit, I pay little attention.

Angelo, I believe you are confusing being nasty for being controversial. Though you would never, never read that ADVENTURELAND is "genius" around these parts - it is obvious that it is not - I would stick up for Jesse Eisenberg, who I thought gave an extraordinary, receding performance in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Besides, can you imagine a better casting for Mark Zuckerberg on the level of appearance? I can not. Also, INCEPTION is edited quite well in it's final act - generating visceral excitement from its Griffithian cross-cutting - though I would agree that the screenplay can and should be scrutinized.