I THINK A CHANGE WOULD DO ME GOOD: 2008 and beyond
Click HERE to skip down to the list. /// Click HERE to skip down to my new 2009 policy changes.
As I stare at the keyboard attempting to look back on "the year in cinema," I'm reminded of Morales in A Chorus Line. I feel nothing. Sure, as I've complained elsewhere (notably my IndieWire ballot), 2008 will certainly go down as a year when festival programmers and film's other assorted cultural gatekeepers were particularly asleep at the switch. I realize that not every excellent film that's finished or near-complete by April can make it into Cannes. I'm sure that Thierry Fremaux and his merry band, if given the proper platform, could patiently provide an adequate, gently avuncular explanation to the rest of us as to how, for example, the Coens' Burn After Reading was NOT in fact a razor-sharp satire of witlessness at every echelon of society but was in fact a disposable piece of fluff well below the exalted standard of The Ladykillers. I suspect I would receive a fatherly pat on the head as I got the lecture about how Hirokazu Kore-eda exemplified the finest traits in Japanese formalism and observational realism ONLY when draining his films of every last smidgen of joy, and so those of us firmly convinced that Still Walking was in fact well on par with Maborosi, After Life, and the sorely underrated Distance were sad simpletons indeed. And of course, we'd finally get the stern talking-to we'd all been waiting for, where we discover why only us Anglophones think Claire Denis is a master. Pfft! Bandy about any and every justification, oh ye guardians of Cannesery Row. But I will forever have to ask this simple question of each and every film you reject. Is it really worse than Delta?
And, well, no use griping anymore about the Toronto exclusions (Martel, Hong, and Campos), since that ground has been covered incessantly, and we don't want to evince some kind of monomania. But say, while we're on the subject. Scott Foundas blogged for the LA Weekly about the Toronto Problem described above, situations he evidently worked to correct as a member of the selection committee of the New York Film Festival. But not so fast, Mr. Foundas! Let you who are without sin cast the first stone, and this year's NYFF wasn't exactly omission-free. While I myself have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing such controversial picks as The Windmill Movie or Bullet in the Head or The Northern Land (and I will jump at a chance to see any of them, rest assured), let's talk about Lisandro Alonso for a minute. He's a filmmaker who has been supported by the NYFF in the past, and he happened to make his finest film yet in 2008, not to mention his most accessible. So, dear sirs and madam, where the heck was Liverpool? [The selection committee, properly shamed, looks down silently, begins slowly drawing circles on the floor with its feet.]
So enough of that. 2008 was, by any measure, a mediocre year for cinema, but coming off 2007, when films which were very good to nearly great were plentiful, so abundant that 365 days were not enough time to catch up with them all, the comedown is all the harder. Nevertheless, filmmakers stepped up, runs were batted in, artists stood and delivered here and there. If I had to identify one single film artist who came into his own in an unprecedented way in 08, it would be Ben Rivers, whose work at this point ought to be commanding attention far beyond the strict confines of the avant-garde. His cinema reinvents ethnographic traditions as it speaks back to poetic throughlines in the dominant history of British art cinema; his syntax is immediately legible but utterly surprising, as if the films were always "inside" the film universe like fruit on a great tree just waiting to be harvested. Rivers will go on to do even greater things, rest assured. We are privileged to be in the midst of an artist of his stature at this stage in his career. As for my other top two films of 2008, they came from filmmakers whose previous work I had found interesting, promising, or frankly baffling, but this time around knocked me out. This of course means that re-evaluation is in order, and it's time to go back to that earlier work and see what I missed. In the case of Jennifer Reeves, her performance piece When It Was Blue clarified for me a tension between interiority and exploration that was present in her films all along. So when I revisited The Time We Killed, I viewed it with fresh eyes and a new frame of reference. It was revelatory, like seeing it for the first time. Similarly, Christian Petzold's Jerichow was the film that cemented that director's place within the great lineage of the New German Cinema, especially Fassbinder. I appreciated Ghosts, and actually disliked Yella, but I have a feeling that even if I don't reverse my opinion on second viewing, I'll at least come to them with a cleared appreciation of Petzold's larger project.
I could blather on this way, but I'll spare you. I mean, Steve McQueen's Hunger certainly changes the terms for contemporary political cinema, but does he also revitalize the biopic? (Che certainly doesn't.) Why was 7915 KM met with a general round of nodding appreciation when Geyrhalter is obviously one of the only documentarians who understands the craft of filmmaking? Did the final third of WALL·E really sink the film? In time, will I find that I was a bit too hard on Gomorrah, Rachel Getting Married, The Headless Woman, Ballast, or Pontypool, consigning them to Sevenville? Who knows, who cares, let us avert our gaze from the lint-filled navel for a moment, shall we?
2008 was a demanding year. We had a grueling presidential election (with the correct outcome, at least), an economy in freefall, and as the year closed, Israel and Hamas were (and still are, as of this writing) hammering the hell out of each other. Personally, my move to Houston has been difficult, since despite my best efforts I remain unemployed, and yet somehow (parenting, managing a household, writing, trying to be a decent spouse) I am busier than ever. From the grand global scale to the relatively insignificant details of my private life, this time-consuming website begins to seem just a tad indulgent, when it doesn't feel like an effort doomed to fail. The temptation to call it quits on the Academic Hack project has been fairly consistent for the entire year. Not a day goes by that I don't consider closing shop. I'd get more sleep, be a better husband and father, and, I think, be a much better writer in the long run. But somehow, just yet, I can't shitcan the whole thing entirely. I think this is because, although I am but a mere blip on Internet 2.0 or whatever we are now, but a tiny dumpling in the great stew in which swim the Spouts and the Filmbrains and the Houses Next Doors and whatnot, I know that a small cadre of you out there really appreciate what I do here. I know because you told me so, and I thank you for that.
So, the Hack abides. BUT, there will be some significant changes around these parts. And they are:
1) Beginning in 2009, I will NOT be reviewing every new release I see. You know, I'd been burning out for a while anyway, but this hideous awards season pretty much clinched it. Having to extract the molars to find something to say about, I dunno, Frost/Nixon or even The Wrestler was just about as agonizing as any grade school book report I ever handed in three days late. (Even some films I enjoyed, like Iron Man, hardly required commentary.) What's more, the bulk-rate reviewing has resulted in my feeling that quality has suffered immensely, and I just won't stand for that. I have tiny fragments of time to write (naptimes, the hours between my kid's bedtime and mine, a few daycare hours), but that's no excuse for, e.g., a piece that I'm proud of, like the Hunger review, being posted with umpteen uncaught typos. If I scale back, I can do the job and do it right.
2) I will be starting a supplementary blog for longer essays, mostly but not exclusively film related. This will not replace the current site, which will remain active. But it will allow me to direct RSS users to new content on this site, as well as holding a place for longer pieces that I have wanted to compose but haven't been able to accomplish within the format. This includes writing about older films, director profiles, or pieces of (god forgive me for typing this pompous phrase, but I'm at a loss for how else to put it) cultural criticism that may not relate to cinema at all.
3) Much more of my writing will focus on avant-garde and experimental film and video. If it were feasible, I would simply state that a majority of my writings would be about a-g film, but access to the work would not necessarily permit that. I will, however add the corollary that my writing about narrative cinema will tend one again to be focused much more on formal and structural issues, as well as the social / political ramifications of same; i.e., "seeing films experimentally."
I think these are workable changes that will, in the long run, mean less material produced, but much higher quality output. The web is littered with mediocrity. I despise mediocrity and have no interest in contributing to its massive junk heap, so I hope that with these amendments to my site I will be able to achieve a higher standard.
Best wishes to all for a wonderful new year,
2008 TOP TEN (2008 world premieres only)
1. When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, U.S. / Iceland) [p/m]
2. Hunger (Steve McQueen, U.K. / Ireland)
3. Origin of the Species (Ben Rivers, U.K.) [s]
4. Jerichow (Christian Petzold, Germany)
5. Speechless (Scott Stark, U.S.) [s]
6. WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, U.S.)
7. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina / France / The Netherlands / Germany / Spain)
8. Failed States (Henry Hills, U.S.) [v/s]
9. 7915 KM (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria)
10. 1859 (Fred Worden, U.S.) [v/s]
11. Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico / U.S. / Germany)
12. Burn After Reading (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, U.S. / U.K. / France)
13. Suspension (Vanessa O'Neill, U.S.) [s]
14. Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain)
15. Mount Shasta (Oliver Husain, Canada) [s]
A FEW "LUCKY 7'S" (alphabetical)
Ah, Liberty! (Ben Rivers, U.K.) [s]
Ballast (Lance Hammer, U.S.)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
The Diptherians Episode Two: The Rhythm That Forgets Itself (Lewis Klahr, U.S.) [v/s]
Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina / France / Italy / Spain)
Mock Up on Mu (Craig Baldwin, U.S.) [v]
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, Canada)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, U.S.)
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, U.S.) [s]
Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, U.S.)
Sparrow (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France)
Waiting For Sancho (Mark Peranson, Canada / Spain) [v]
2008 POLLS TOP ELEVEN (including earlier films which have been or will be commercially released in 2008)
1. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France, 2007)
2. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China / Hong Kong, 2006)
3. Hunger (Steve McQueen, U.K. / Ireland, 2008) [qualifying run in L.A. only; ineligible for select polls]
4. La France (Serge Bozon, France, 2007)
5. Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito, U.S., 2007) [v/m]
6. Mukhsin (Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia, 2006)
7. WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, U.S, 2008)
8. The Duchess of Langeais [Ne touchez pas la hache] (Jacques Rivette, France / Italy, 2007)
9. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, Spain / France, 2007)
10. Burn After Reading (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, U.S. / U.K. / France, 2008)
11. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, U.S., 2008)