As I wind down two weeks of bachelorhood (and complete control of the movie selections here at Casa Segredos), I began to think about the film choices made, why I made them and what - if anything- I could take away from the experience. I watched more films than was healthy during this stint, logged all of them and wrote blog entries for some. The following is an effort to summarize the results of my little film festival.
I first settled on working through a series of classic films I'd missed that made the “They Shoot Pictures” website top 100 films, but only managed to see a couple of them. My January/February issue of Film Comment arrived and it included a long and well-documented list of both the best of 2009 and the best of the decade. I watched a few of these that I'd missed, several new releases, no TV, a couple from Uptown Mike Brown and 5 rarities I ordered from the U.S. The complete list is as follows;
The Shout (1978)
Deep End (1971)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)
Syndromes and a Century (2006)
Colossal Youth (2006) (….most of it)
Bangkok Dangerous (2008)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Raging Bull (1980)
Rolling Thunder (1977)
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1973)
A Serious Man (2009)
Who Killed Teddy Bear (1962)
Ong Bak 2 (2009)
Give 'Em Hell Malone (2009)
Two Lovers (2009)
La ciénaga (2001)
The Holy Girl (2004)
Headless Woman (2008) (for a second time)
Ronin (1998) (ditto)
Tropical Malady (2004)
Red Riding 1974 (2009)
Red Riding 1980 (2009)
Looking back over the list, a couple of groupings became obvious. I watched a block of films from the '70s, mostly kooky genre films and curiousities that were, in most cases, both entertaining and rewarding. The best were the two films by Jerzy Skolimowski, The Shout and Deep End. I watched several films that were on the Film Comment “Best of the Decade” list, two from Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (good, just not my cup of tea), Ming-liang Tsai's Goodbye Dragon Inn, which I didn't care for and three from Lucrecia Martel, a trilogy of sorts from a very talented Argentinian director that I can't get out of my head. Acclaimed films from 2009 included the Coen Bros' A Serious Man, two of the films in the Red Riding trilogy (the third one's on deck), Avatar and a film I wouldn't have given a second look had it not made #16 in FC's top 20 films of 2009, Two Lovers.
From this widely divergent and varied bunch of films, I started to notice that there is a particular kind of film that occupies “best of” lists like Film Comment's, the recent Cinematheque decade poll, and others. None of them rate terribly high on viewers polls, but top endless critic's lists, which begs the question: why? I poked around at this issue a few weeks ago but it became clearer as I watched half a dozen of them over the last two weeks. I think the divide between films that achieve critical acclaim and those that gain popular appreciation (and therefore much larger audiences) has grown in lockstep with the mega-marketing campaigns and the huge box office numbers that pop-cinema has racked up over the last few decades.
Film Comment's decade rankings came from 100 filmmakers, critics, reviewers and writers who offered a variety of opinions and commentary about the decade's best/most influential films. A particularly insightful choice came from an English critic, Leslie Felperin who chose The Lord of the Rings trilogy as the “film(s) of the decade”;
“....for exemplifying the big-budget, heavy-on-the-visual- effects, safely retro, male-skewed aesthetic..... it's the kind of filmmaking for which the increasingly unadventurous general audience, who like to see known quantities up on the screen, will remember these years for.”
I think Felperin might have articulated better than I've heard before the current state of modern film and why the chasm that's opened up between critics and audiences appears to have grown in recent years. I purposefully buried Cameron's monstrosity Avatar in my viewing list because it is the very kind of film that I believe Felperin is talking about. It might seem strange to call the visually spectacular Avatar “unadventurous”, but on every other level it is curiously banal and intellectually stillborn. As Nick pointed out in his earlier review, it's as though the script was conceived and penned by the creators of FernGully. I'd add the Lion King meets Go-Bots meets the Smurfs. It's a great movie in the same way a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera is a great car. Beautiful to look at, but where do you put the groceries?. Whereas Disney and Universal create theme park attractions based on their movies, Avatar seems to have evolved in the opposite direction. Its depth may be limited to the incredible 3-D visuals, but really, who cares?
I've come to the conclusion that proper film critics have retreated to increasingly obscure and predominantly foreign output in an effort to cobble together a modestly-coherent modern cinematic vision to write about, which leaves them at odds with the Dark Knight/Lord of the Rings/Avatar audience filling the Cineplex's these days. Exceptions exist of course, The Hurt Locker is both modestly popular and one of the more intriguing films to come out of Hollywood's pop-factory this year, but it's an exception. While I didn't particularly like it myself, A Serious Man probably falls into the same category. It's interesting that Up made the cut in the expanded Best Picture category for this year's Oscars whereas Coraline, a superior film in every possible way (according to nearly every critic out there, whose word I'll have to take for that), didn't.
Beyond the films I've already posted about, the two loose trilogies that brought SNUFF to a close fell more into the acclaimed camp than the popular one. Lucrecia Martel's bizarre and unnerving debut La ciénaga from the early part of the decade (followed in 2004 by The Holy Girl and last year's The Headless Woman) and the British mini-series/film trilogy, Red Riding, which I'm currently working my way through, are examples of the kind of films that critics have championed of late. La ciénaga is a difficult film that made several of these top-ten-of-the-decade lists. It's a rambling and oddly unstructured movie about an extended family self-destructing during the financial debacle/decline that's paralyzed Argentina in recent years. A formerly upper-middle-class family of 6 comes apart at the seams as Mom and Dad drink themselves into oblivion as their world metaphorically (and physically) crumbles around them. It's a cautionary tale about what happens to a society when traditional values and the money disappear - and it ain't pretty. Over the course of the film, an image of the Virgin Mary apparently appears on a local water tower, spurring countless visits from various locals searching for a way out, a quick solution to reverse their declining fortunes or some sort of redemption that isn't forthcoming. It was hard not to think about Obama being a real-world variation on this same theme. As the rest of the first world increasingly begins to take on the look of Martel's Argentina from a decade ago, one wonders how prescient La ciénaga might be in future retrospect. From a critical standpoint, this film says more about the human condition in the opening scene than anything James Cameron has ever (and likely will ever) put up on the screen. Martel's more recent The Headless Women, a film that also made a good number of 2009 top-ten-lists makes far more sense having now seen her earlier works.
Red Riding has a bit of a convoluted history. I believe it started as a BBC miniseries, received some high praise/critical acclaim, morphed into a limited theatrical released film trilogy and is now being remade by Ridley Scott and will be set in the American Rustbelt. For a film that wasn't on my radar until 4 days ago, it landed with a thud earlier this week with about 5 inquires about its availability and several critical mentions as one of the cinematic events of 2009. It was released last year on PAL in the U.K. but went quickly out of print. The first two films in the series are excellent, set in Yorkshire in the miserable 1970's during a wave of child abduction/murders. I downloaded all three films to watch while I figure out a way to get a copy from the U.K. (Amazon won't ship it to Canada for some reason).
At the risk of meandering around here without coming to any particular point, the collection of films I watched over the last couple of weeks reiterated for me why cinema remains such a powerful medium. The hugely entertaining, yet weirdly vacant, Avatar represents one end of the current cinematic spectrum - the culmination of a trend toward spectacle overshadowing meaning. Alternative filmmaking, on the other hand, seems to move further and further from mainstream appeal, opening a gap in the middle that becomes more defined with each passing year. Only a handful of films in the recent past have a foot in both camps and I wonder if the lauded “golden ages” of cinema's past are simply times when more films than normal converge on the fine line between exhibitionism and introspection, or more to the point, movies that sit at the intersection of entertainment and contemplation. These days we seem to have to choose one or the other - which I think is the point being raised by critic Leslie Felperin. It's interesting to consider whether it's the mainstream or the arthouse that's shifted in recent years. As my little film festival draws to a close, I'm inclined to say both.