Sunday, February 14, 2010

2009 - The Year in Review

I'm a bit late with my year in review, largely because of what the past year brought me. Most prominently, I had two close shaves with death. The first was a motorcycle accident in January. It didn't really affect my film-going, though I was home-bound for a week, during which time I couldn't watch any DVDs with sub-titles as my vision was impaired. While I walked out of hospital on the day and was back at work a week later, it would be another four months before I felt confident enough to commute by bicycle, which threw my health campaign behind significantly. My motorcycle was written off and replaced by insurance, though I used my motor scooter for a couple of months.

The second set-back was pneumonia, which I developed just after MIFF, and which I attribute to being run-down. The consequence of that is that there have been very few late nights, hardly any second films at Melbourne Cinémathèque (which normally finishes around 11pm or later) and less late-night blog entries. I bought a new laptop around the same time and I've had all sorts of problems with accessing files. At one stage I thought I'd lost a heap of valuable data, but it was a false scare, thankfully. I'm still not set up where I want to be, but it's do-able and I expect to be there soon.

2009 stats
Before I post my best-of lists, I thought I'd jot down some personal 2009 stats. During the year, I saw 269 films, of which 31 were DVDs, 75 were cinema releases, 97 were retrospective screenings and the rest (66) festival and other special season screenings. Only 88 of these screenings were attended with family or friends; the remaining 181 I watched alone.

Melbourne Cinématheque really is the year-round film festival and accounted for 52 of the films I saw, followed by 35 at MIFF, 11 at the French Film Festival, 9 at La Mirada, 8 for ACMI First Look screenings, 7 for ACMI Australian Perspectives screenings, 6 at the Spanish Film Festival, 4 at each of the ACMI Focus on Girls 247/ and the ACMI Focus on Hopper's America. Other ACMI Focus seasons accounted for another 7 films. Other festivals I attended included the German, Italian and Turkish (3 films each), Jewish, Israeli and Russian (1 each), and various others.

I saw 110 films at ACMI, 28 at Nova, 18 at the Forum (MIFF), 17 at the Kino, 15 at the Como, 14 at Hoyt's Melbourne Central, 11 at Greater Union (MIFF), 9 at the Sun and 16 other films across 7 other cinemas.

Repeat screenings
I saw two films more than once on the big screen: both Avatar and Inglourious Basterds I saw three times each.

Nominal countries of release
Many films are multi-national productions. My count is based on the primary or first-mentioned country. The top four countries remain pretty much the same as for the last five years: USA (72), France (47), Australia (38) and UK (16), followed by Italy (13), Spain (13), Japan (8), Germany (8, included West and East Germany), Poland (6), Sweden (6), with 50 films from another 25 countries (Austria, Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hong Kong, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Portugal, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey and USSR). That's a total of 34 different countries, more or less my average of the last few years.


121 of the films I saw during the year were unclassified. Only 4 had an R-rating, a disappointingly low number and down from 8 the previous year. I suppose this reflects the lack of risk cinemas are taking, or the lack of interest from cinema-goers in risky films, depending on your perspective (and I tend to think that the exhibitors are responding to conservative market demand). 31 were MA, 74 M, 30 PG and 9 G.

Year of release
135 of the films I saw were released in 2008 or 2009 and another 21 from 2000 to 2007.
10 were from the 1990s, 15 from the 1980s, 32 from the 1970s, 33 from the 1960s, 11 from the 1950s, 7 from the 1940s, 4 from the 1920s and 1 from the 1910s.

It's interesting to reflect on the year past, to look over the long list of films seen and pick out the highlights. Each year there are so many special moments, so many special films, for so many different reasons. As usual, I've compiled various lists: cinema releases, festival screenings and retrospective screenings. I'll also list my worst films of the year and those I found over-rated. Voila !

Top 10 cinema releases
Special mention:Note that these are not in any particular order, except I'd nominate The Limits of Control as my no. 1, the next four listed as equal second and the rest pretty much tied. As with any list, it's subject to change and any one of a dozen or more films could have easily slipped into the bottom of the list. Most of my top 10 did something special. I'm very fond of Jarmusch's films, but this is the best of his I've seen. Some found it style over substance, though for me the style is the substance. Summer Hours is on the surface a bland French family drama, but sneaks under your skin in a subtle way, capturing emotions in a rare way. Most of what I considered flaws or shortcomings in my initial take of Inglourious Basterds seemed to evaporate on repeat viewings. This might come to be seen as Tarantino's masterpiece in years to come. Samson and Delilah is not just the best Australian film of the year, but the best since 2006's Em 4 Jay by Alkinos Tsilimidos. It's handling of indigenous culture and use of music and sound are simply sublime and unique. The Wrestler has such pathos that is so wound up in the real-life story of its lead and has an ending to die for.

The Hurt Locker is easily the best film of the recent Iraq/Afghanistan conflict, one that takes you on a first-person perspective - the seminal war film of the time. My words about The Wrestler are just as applicable to JCVD, which is basically a black comedy. Revolutionary Road cements in my mind Sam Mendes' insights into the complexity of human relationships, refusing to take the simplistic and populist views that prevail in society. And he does a damn fine job of depicting it on screen.

Top 10 festival screenings
  • En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2007)
  • Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)
  • Kynodontas (Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2009)
  • Pandora'nin kutusu (Pandora's Box, Yesim Ustaoglu, Turkey/France/Belgium/Germany, 2008)
  • Julia (Erick Zonka, France/USA/Mexico/Belgium, 2008)
  • La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)
  • La vie moderne (Modern Life, Raymond Depardon, France, 2008)
  • L'instinct de mort (Public Enemy Number One - Part One, Jean-François Richet, France/Canada/Italy, 2008)
  • L'ennemi public n°1 (Public Enemy Number One - Part Two, Jean-François Richet, France/Canada, 2008)
  • Palermo Shooting (Wim Wenders, Germany/France/Italy, 2008)
  • Sonbahar (Autumn, Özcan Alper, Turkey/Germany, 2008)
Again, no particular order, though I think I'd nominate Guerín's film as no.1. I missed it at La Mirada film festival but caught it at Melbourne Cinémathèque. The following three come second, followed by the remainder. I love the mystique of a Haneke film, the way he poses more questions than he answers. The White Ribbon was my MIFF favourite. It leaves you thinking about the story and who did or didn't do what for hours or days after. Two films from the Turkish Film Festival made my list and, from memory, there were only eight films programmed. This is a festival to watch out for. Palermo Shooting was poorly received by most, but it resonated with me because of it's handling of the subject of death. I connected not just with the theme, but exposition of the nature of death (personified by the always great Dennis Hopper).

Top 10 new discoveries of old films
  • Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1957)
  • Léon Morin, prêtre (Leon Morin, Priest, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1961)
  • Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1963)
  • Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnès Varda, France/Italy, 1962)
  • Le feu follet (Louis Malle, France, 1963)
  • Au revoir, les enfants (Goodbye, Children, Louis Malle, France/West Germany, 1987)
  • Overlord (Stuart Cooper, UK, 1975)
  • Lacombe, Lucien (Louis Malle, France/West Germany/Italy, 1974)
  • Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, USA, 1970)
  • À bientôt, j'espère (Be Seeing You, Chris Marker, Mario Marret, France, 1968)

Special mention:
  • Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Jeanne Dielman, Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975)
  • En construcción (Work in Progress, José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2001)
  • Wanda (Barbara Loden, Barbara Loden, USA, 1970)
  • Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers, Konrad Wolf, East Germany, 1972)
  • Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, Australia/USA, 1971)
The top five above are all sublime masterpieces. The Seventh Seal has haunted me since I saw it shortly after my motorcycle accident. I completely related to Von Sydow's character being stalked by Death. Both Bergman and Malle featured heavily in this list. Malle I discovered for the first time at Melbourne Cinémathèque whereas my appreciation for Bergman has been a slow distillation process. His The Silence almost made the list, a film that left me nonplussed at MIFF a couple of years ago. With each successive Bergman film I've seen, my respect for him and his insights has snowballed, so that when I revisit one of them, I see it with new eyes.

The second five are also brilliant, but I place them just behind the others. But really, with Cinémathèque, there are so many gems to discover from the history of cinema, and this section of the films I see is definitely the strongest.

Top Australian films
My favourite local films were:
  • Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia, 2009)
  • Mao's Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, Australia, 2009)
  • Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, Australia, 2009)
  • Last Ride (Glendyn Ivin, Australia, 2009)
  • The Combination (David Field, Australia, 2009)
I won't include Three Blind Mice. Though it was released in 2009, I saw it in 2008 and it was my favourite Australian film that year. A special mention to the Warwick Thornton shorts that screened at the Nova, namely Green Bush (26", 2004), Payback (10", 1996), Mimi (13", 2002) and Nana (6", 2007). Green Bush is my pick of them. While Samson and Delilah revealed Thornton as a hot new talent, these shorts demonstrated that his talent has been brewing for quite some time, awaiting the recognition that culminated in Samson and Delilah
winning the Un certain regarde prize at Cannes and multiple AFI awards.

Worst films of the year
  • My Life in Ruins (Donald Petrie, USA/Spain, 2009)
  • Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer, Australia, 2008)
  • Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, UK/Australia/USA, 2009)
  • The Spirit (Frank Miller, USA, 2008)
  • Caos calmo (Quiet Chaos, Antonio Luigi Grimaldi, Italy/UK, 2008)
  • Rudi y Cursi (Rudi and Cursi, Carlos Cuarón, Mexico/USA, 2008)
  • Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, Australia, 2008)
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a pretty dumb comedy but funny, because its depictions are based on a reality that those of us who have anything to do with our respective Greek communities will recognise. In my case, the male protagonist mirrored my experience, right down to being vegetarian and I could relate to every scenario. But My Life in Ruins is just a disaster. The writing is poor, the characterisations trite and I found nothing to laugh at, at all. Dying Breed is schlock horror but I found it putrid and it was the first film in quite some time I walked out of half way. Sherlock Holmes? That's not Sherlock Holmes, but rather just another bland action hero film by a mediocre action film-maker.

There must be a strong market for mediocre Italian family drama in this country. And you'd think that's all Italy produces, going by what is distributed locally. I could have walked out of the ridiculously manipulative Quiet Chaos at any time from the five minute mark. Puerile shite.

You'd think the same duo who starred together in one of my favourite Mexican films, by the director of that film, would come up with something a bit better than this. Just because a character is stupid doesn't mean the screenplay should be. With Rudi and Cursi, it is.

Most over-rated films of the year
  • Elegy (Isabel Coixet, USA, 2008)
  • Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)
  • Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK, 2009)
I suppose this last list is contentious, because I'm defying the general trend. Each of these films was lauded but I was completely underwhelmed by them. In fact, Elegy I hated (read my review if you want to know why). Two Lovers simply did nothing for me and I couldn't buy into the story. Fish Tank seemed too derivative for me, a clone of Ken Loach in a genre that even he seems tired of - mind you, I'm kinda over Ken Loach, especially after his MIFF grandstanding.

So, how do I see the year overall? I don't know, it just was. I find it hard to compare one year with another, but looking at my 2008 year in review, I'll give it a try. Good theatrical releases are always the thinnest part of my cinema experience. Overall, 2009 seemed comparable to 2008 in this regard, though my top films in 2008 (Paranoid Park, Transylvania and The Edge of Heaven) were a lot less mainstream than this year's (The Limits of Control, Summer Hours and Inglourious Basterds). Last year, 3 of my top 10 were English-language films compared to 8 this year (or 7 if you exclude Samson and Delilah).

The overall quality of festival screenings seems a little down on 2008 also, by my estimation. 2009 has only a couple of real stand-outs compared to about 6 in 2008. However, the retrospective screenings look much stronger. Even though I missed many Cinémathèque screenings, the number of stand-outs for me roughly doubled compared to 2008.

This kind of talk is somewhat irrelevant. One meal is better than another, but overall as long as we're nourished, does it matter? What's important to me is the exposure to different cultural and artistic experiences, diversity and challenge. I can't really conclude that one year was better than another; overall I'm happy with what I saw. There was a large number of films that did little for me and the challenge for me in 2010 is to be more discriminating and to try to avoid films that are 'just OK'. Let's see what the year brings.


Anonymous said...

thanks Paul.

no mention of Beautiful Kate? Great debut by Rachel Ward, chamber piece of family dysfunction and dying patriach rang true, and never seen incest tackled on celluloid before. Topical also, with the Vienna case, and the US case, and some in Australia in 2009.

Inglourious Basterds was overrated, I detested it, and Tarintino made all characters thoroughly unsympathetic, except the heroine Shoshanna Dreyfus.


Paul Martin said...

Chris, I detested Beautiful Kate. It had some good elements, but it just didn't work for me.

I liked all the characters, even Pitt's, which many wrote off as too cartoonish. I liked the blend of characters, my favourite being Shoshanna. It just got better on repeat viewings.

Cultural Gal said...

Hi Paul,

thanks for that -- you've reminded me of some juicy films I still want to see, especially the Jarmusch. I'll give the Tarantino a go though he's not my favourite, and perhaps The Wrestler.

Good to see Revolutionary Road on the Top 10 list -- I thought it was unfairly treated by critics. I wasn't crazy about Mao's Last Dancer, but I admit it was still extremely watchable!