Saturday, December 27, 2008

2008 - The Year in Review

For many years, David Lynch has been my favourite film director and no-one else came close. My favourite film is Lost Highway and until I rediscovered Krzysztof Kieslowski last year, no other film came close. Melbourne Cinémathèque's partial retrospective offered a great revision of the Colours trilogy as well as some of Kieslowski's earlier films. Perhaps I'm being sentimental, but I still can't knock Lost Highway off its crown. As I wrote about it previously, some kinds of movie magic can only happen once, and for me that was Lost Highway. No other film has affected me to the same degree.

And yet, Kieslowski's films are so sublime, meaningful and personally affecting that I have to acknowledge his ascendency in my personal estimation. His entire body of work is so awesome, so full of ideas, explorations of human complexity and conundrums. This year I watched Dekalog on DVD and was amazed at the staggering accomplishment (I hope Melbourne Cinémathèque screens it one day - I've suggested it, but I won't hold my breath waiting). As I mentioned in my review of 2007, Three Colours: Blue is the first film to come close to Lost Highway in my all-time favourites.

What is it that Lynch and Kieslowski have in common as film-makers? On the surface, not a real lot, but underneath I think there's some similarities. Lynch explores the bizarre, depicting stories that often don't appear to make a whole lot of sense. They're like abstract works of art that don't necessarily have explanations, or even need them. When there is an explanation, one doesn't need it to enjoy the film.

Kieslowski's films are usually highly stylised social realism, with not a touch of Lynchian fantasy. Yet both directors are men who reportedly have a deep sense of spirituality, away from religion, but are never overt about their personal beliefs in their films. You generally cannot extract a direct message from them. I find both directors' works exude a deep sense of humanity, albeit in very different ways. In writing this, I suppose I'm exploring the connections myself.

Lynch appeals to the inner artist in me; his films speak to me on the level that art is important, and the artist's perspective is important. We live in a world where logic, reason, empiricism and economic realities rule. Lynch's work defies this and I love that we can see films like this, that push and challenge us. Kieslowski's films directly address the social and humanistic values that are the core of my personal values. If I could make films like any one director, I wish I could make them like Kieslowski's. Most of them are near flawless, intellectually, emotionally, humanistically, technically and aesthetically. His films epitomise everything that is most dear to me about cinema, and he does it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, visually and aurally. So these two directors between them encapsulate important dimensions that represent the essence of cinema for me.

The above might seem like a fairly long preamble. It's something I wanted to get out of my system, and it has relevance to my end-of-year lists. Like last year, I've compiled separate lists for theatrical, festival and retrospective screenings. People like to compare lists (I certainly do) and it just seems more convenient and natural to divide them in this way. It makes it easier for me to compare films. With my lists below, I'm finding it more appropriate to group films rather than rank them absolutely, just like I can't really rank Lynch and Kieslowski relative to each other.

And here's a digression. Today was an important milestone for me on a personal level. Since my older son, Abhi, took his life just over two years ago, the bed he slept in when he regularly stayed with me has been unmade, exactly as he left it. It's been something that I've been unable to deal with or perhaps I've been holding onto, that I could smell him if I chose to, even though until today I didn't. And when I did, it brought tears to my eyes momentarily. Today I washed the bedding. It felt significant to me, and I just wanted to mention it. That's all.

So here's my picks of 2008:

Gus Van Sant has been one of my favourite American directors since Elephant, which until this year, was my favourite of his. I can't say I like Paranoid Park more, but I certainly don't like it any less. I love the subtlety of Paranoid Park and the fact that subsequent viewings enhanced my appreciation each time - this is the first film I've seen three times on the big screen during its theatrical release. The film looks terrific (with top notch cinematography by Christopher Doyle and inspired editing by Van Sant), the use of music is terrific, the characters are so authentic and the story is so moving.

Tony Gatlif's Transylvania is to Paranoid Park what Lost Highway is to Three Colours: Blue. They are so different but both so compelling that I can't separate them. They are my equal favourite theatrical releases of the year. I've loved everything I'm seen by Gatlif and I really should look out for his back catalogue. I love the cultural and cross-cultural elements of his films, the way he weaves music into his narratives and his documentation of the way of the Roma (gypsy life). Transylvania did all these too, but seemed to be much more effective than his earlier films. Maybe it was his casting of Asia Argento (reportedly the first time his main protagonist has been female). Maybe it was the multi-cultural aspect: an Italian from France travels to Romania to find the father of her expectant baby, hooks up with a German and... it's around here that I'm lost with all the cultural cross-roads, but I love it. There are some truly inspiration visuals and the film had me in tears more than once.

BTW, Paranoid Park is also the film I got to write a review for and get paid. I had a small piece published in The Big Issue (issue #299 from memory).

I've noticed people complaining about the quality of theatrical releases this year, but I think that complaint applies more to mainstream films, especially so-called blockbusters. It's been a struggle for the arthouse cinemas to get bums on seats for the serious films, which I find disappointing. Many niche films had short runs or screened only in Sydney, or straight to DVD. I'm not sure why support for truly arthouse cinema is waning, but I'm hoping it's cyclic and that people will tire of a dearth of variety and get back to those cinemas that take a few risks. Nonetheless, I'm quite happy with the overall quality of my top 10 theatrical releases.

For what it's worth, my nos. 3-6 are pretty much on a par, and little separates 7-10.

1. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, France/USA, 2007)
1. Transylvania (Tony Gatlif, France/Romania/UK/Hungary/Italy, 2006)
3. Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven, Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey/Italy, 2007)
4. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, France/USA, 2007)
5. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK, 2008)
6. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel/Germany/France, 2008)
7. La graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain, Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 2007)
8. Le scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, France, 2007)
9. Hunger (Steve McQueen, Ireland/UK, 2008)
10. Du levande (You, the Living, Roy Andersson, Sweden/France/Germany/Denmark/Norway, 2007)

Special mentions:
Little separates these from my no.10. Grindhouse was a guilty pleasure, some of the best fun I had in a cinema all year.
Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, USA/Germany/Italy/France/Romania, 2007)
Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, USA, 2007)
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2007)

OK, I'm a festival junkie. I go to as many festivals as I can, maybe even more. I love the cultural aspect and I love seeing the best of what the world has to offer. This is always a solid part of my cinema experience. There's little to separate my nos. 1-3, 4-6 and 7-10. In 2006, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Iklimer (Climates) was my MIFF favourite and the Dardenne brothers' L'enfant (The Child) was my overall favourite. This year their respective offerings compete neck and neck.

Azur and Asmar was a surprise favourite of the French Film Festival. It's a children's film and, like Ocelot's earlier film Kirikou and the Sorceress, it's just as enjoyable for adults. Ocelot's films are very well written, very moving and very thought-provoking. They're inspirational for children. Azur and Asmar is one of the most visually stunning animated films you'll ever see.

1. Üç maymun (Three Monkeys, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/France/Italy, 2008)
2. Le silence de Lorna (Lorna's Silence, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2008)
3. Azur et Azmar (Azur and Azmar, Michel Ocelot, France, 2006)
4. Milyang (Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2007)
5. Stellet licht (Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/The Netherlands/Germany, 2007)
6. Hofshat Kaits (My Father, My Lord, David Volach, Israel, 2007)
7. Omiros (Hostage, Constantine Giannaris, Greece, 2005)
8. O' Horten (Bent Hamer, Norway, 2008)
9. Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema, Various, France, 2007)
10. Izgnanie (The Banishment, Andrei Zvyagintev, Russia, 2007)

Special mentions:
Katyn (Andrej Wajda, Poland, 2007)
L'année suivante (The Year After, Isabelle Czajka, France, 2006)

I spoke to Constantine Giannaris, director of Omiros (no. 7 in the above list), who highly recommended the film that is my favourite in this section. The Mother and the Whore is simply sublime, full of intellectualisation (and pseudo-intellectual rants), nihilism and lament, culminating in an emotionally devastating and ambiguous ending. I love the title, especially the original one in French.

Cassavetes features heavily in this category, thanks to an ACMI retrospective. I also got to see a few Satyajit Ray films from his retrospective at the Indian Film Festival at the Nova. These are all well-known films below and there's not much I can add to what has already been written about them.

1. La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustace, France, 1973)
2. Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Alexandru Munteanu, Romania, 2005)
3. Shadows (John Cassavetes, USA, 1959)
4. Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, Satyajit Ray, India, 1955)
5. Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse, France, 1956)
6. Faces (John Cassavetes, USA, 1968)
7. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
8. No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda's Room, Pedro Costa, Portugal/Germany/Switzerland/Italy, 2000)
9. La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer, France, 1927)
10. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1979)

Special mentions:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, USA, 1976)
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray, India, 1959)
Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1957)

2008 hasn't been a great year for Australian films. My favourites have been Three Blind Mice (expect to hear about a release date in the new year), Son of a Lion and The Square, though nothing rates high enough to make into any of the above lists.

The year also marks a serious attempt by a player to challenge the paradigm that Australia makes crap films that no-one wants to see. Unfortunately, the tall poppy syndrome - a concept I until recently never used to subscribe to - really kicked in and every critic and his dog was keen to tear Baz Luhrmann off his cocky high horse and make him eat their shit. People are entitled to dislike a film but thhe venom and vitriole that floated around both the print and online media was unparalleled in my experience, and I've lost some faith in the quality of film criticism in this country. I feel it was an opportunity lost and no studio is going to take a risk like that anytime soon, not because the film was that bad, but because of the critical response.

Sure, Australia is a film with problems (but then, so does The Dark Knight), but it also has a lot going for it. A showing metric is that Metacritic ranks critics' reviews of Australia at 53% (quite low) but other users at 7.2/10, almost the same as IMDb (7.3). Here's a case where the critics and the audiences are divided. Unfortunately, the irrational frenzy with which local critics panned the movie would have kept significant numbers away. But those who did see the film obviously enjoyed it. I certainly did, and it improved on a second viewing.

I saw 274 films this year, 241 on the big screen and 33 DVDs. This is slightly down from 2007 (297/283/14). I never used to count DVDs, but I've decided to include them now as I see a few festival screeners. With the Boxing Day releases looking pretty shabby, I'm not expecting to see any more films in a cinema until the New Year, though I'll watch quite a few DVDs to make up for it.

Here's looking to 2009. May the new year bring whatever each of you deserves.

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