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Pub date December 31, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


1. Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA, 2008)

A masterful film was made in San Francisco by someone who doesn’t just live for the city, but does the city know it? Dorsky’s latest (along with the superb companion piece Winter) screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and was part of a retrospective at New York’s Anthology Film Archive, but as far as I know it has yet to have a public screening in his hometown, where he resides on the avenues that separate the filmmakers and film lovers of SF’s streets, and the Film Society in the Presidio. This summer, along with kino21’s Konrad Steiner, I put together a program devoted to Dorsky’s one-time peer and brother filmmaker of sorts, the late Warren Sonbert, whose revelatory explorations of editing and direct vision lead up — in far more frenetic and sprawling sense — to what Dorsky is doing today. Sarabande is the time and place where Dorsky’s devotional cinema reaches the sublime. This country priest of a film critic may be misreading the signs, once again, in making such a claim — but so be it.

2. The Exiles restoration (Kent MacKenzie, USA, 1961)

This night in the life of urban American Indians occupies a one-of-a-kind place and time. The title renders any description superfluous — what form of exile is stronger than the one discovered while drifting through a stolen home? MacKenzie’s movie, with the life-and-death tunnel vision of its gorgeous Weegee-inflected vérité cinematography, revealed a lost United States. Today it’s a haunting marker of a moment before this country’s commercial independent cinema went in countless stupid and phony directions, and of an area of Los Angeles that has vanished. People are rendered disposable. Lonely spirits continue to gather.

3. Wimbledon Men’s Final 2008: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7

If you believe what you read and what you see, Raise the Red Lantern and Hero director Zhang Yimou’s production of the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony was the spectacle of the year — so dazzling it erased the torch’s troubled travels from what’s left of a collective memory. Television networks have it on rerun, art publications like Artforum can’t stop parsing and usually praising it. (It also garnered an excellent lengthy "movie review" in the magazine Cinema Scope.) Yet Zhang’s endlessly-rehearsed and prefabricated festivities paled in comparison to the marathon drama and dazzling finale of this year’s last match at Wimbledon. The spine-tingling aspect came from fate, not machination, as night crept into a stadium that doesn’t use lights, and the victor’s triumph gave way to an outrageous spontaneous ovation of flashbulbs. It didn’t hurt that Rafael Nadal is the sport’s version of his idol, Zinedine Zidane. Lil Wayne said it best: "I love his motivation and his heart is so big. He leaves it on the court."

4. The Juche Idea (Jim Finn, USA, 2008) and Light is Waiting (Michael Robinson, USA 2007)

Convulsive cinema is radical cinema, one of the reasons the gut-busting aspects of these two movies are vital. Finn’s look at Kim Jong-Il’s film theories (yes, "Dear Leader" is a film theorist with publications to his name) is uncannily timely, from its clips of North Korean stadium parades — shades of Zhang Yimou’s Beijing bombast — to its satirical insight that little separates dreaded (and oft-ridiculous) socialism from the broken-down ghost of late capitalism. Also, best use of ski jumps, rodents, and fly-face sculptures this year. Robinson finds a Satanic kaleidoscope within the fractured pixels of an episode of Full House, making the discovery roughly around the time one of the Olsen twins re-manifested as an angel of death. His statement for the movie still might be the definitive one: "Tropes of video art and family entertainment face off in a luminous orgy neither can survive." Dying of laughter has rarely felt better.

5. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008)

The growing wave of top 10 raves and critic’s awards for Alfredson’s deeply subversive eternal preteen romance is a rare heartening aspect of this year’s feature film malaise.

6. California Company Town (Lee Ann Schmitt, USA, 2008), Viva (Anna Biller, USA, 2007), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2008), and When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, USA, 2008)

The heart of American cinema in 2008 is as wild and strong as these directors’ visions. Schmitt’s scorched-earth exploration of California’s abandoned past, closing with a final chapter on Silicon Valley that refreshingly breaks its own rules and throws down the gauntlet, is the timeliest movie in a year of ever-accumuutf8g economic disaster. Biller’s tribute to the bodaciously vivid soft-core fantasies of Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger couples enthusiasm with smarts with kinky results. It also features a character whose incessant cackling laughter practically becomes hallucinogenic. Reichardt starts off what could have been just another shaggy dog story by paying tribute to the Polaroid Kidd (she’s also sussed out the new depression), and allows her lead actress’s offscreen back story to silently color in a thousand shades of loss. In sync with Skuli Sverrisson’s incandescent score, Reeves’ movie makes love to nature. The past-tense in the title proves she’s looking ahead.

7. Wild Combination (Matt Wolf, USA, 2008)

In his feature debut, the talented 25-year-old Wolf chooses a documentary subject he has an affinity for, and Russell’s still-blooming musical legacy automatically gives the film a unique soulful beauty. While the pastoral and waterfront imagery is expected, Wolf’s humane insight as an interviewer is a wonder to behold. It results in one of the year’s most emotionally powerful films, when following the reticent Russell could have been futile. The final 10 minutes are a complete rebuke to all the idiotic discourse that rails against (and perhaps even for?) gay marriage.

8. Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK/Ireland, 2008) and Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2008)

Is hunger sated by milk? Can milk alone get rid of hunger? Steve McQueen is the last art star with film director aspirations, and Gus Van Sant is a movieland auteur who always seems to look longingly at the art world’s white cubes. Both have made bio-dramas about political icons: McQueen speculates about the life and death of IRA leader Bobby Sands, while Van Sant, in case you haven’t heard, has realized his fascination with a certain trailblazing gay San Franciscan. Funny, then, that McQueen makes a riveting experimental work that devolves into a standard heroic final passage, while Van Sant crafts a traditional film in drag. In interview, McQueen told me that he thought of Hunger‘s standout confrontational scene as a bit like the 1982 Wimbledon final. (See, tennis is uniquely cinematic.) But his visceral perspective is most effective early on, when scarcely any words are spoken, and his oblique references to everyone from Jean Genet to Van Sant’s old love Alfred Hitchcock don’t seem merely precocious.

9. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2008)

I may have enjoyed this movie because I know next to nothing about (and don’t give a damn about) Mickey Rourke’s misadventures. He arrived in my frame of vision as a modern-day American version of Jean Cocteau’s Beast, blinking out some perfectly round tears when he isn’t pulling staples out of his leathery salon-tanned hide. Look no further than the corrupt endgame of Hulk Hogan — better yet, try to avoid looking at it — for proof that such a figure suits the late-Bush era, though of course Rourke’s brawler has true working-class heart. A working class hero is something to be.

10. Manny Farber, 1917-2008

A lot of critics, ranging from musty well-off bores to young upstarts, wrote tributes to Farber upon his passing. But I have to wonder, who in the current era’s echo chamber of Web-bound opinion has actually learned from him? Ten years ago, there were at least a few voices (Chuck Stephens, Edward E. Crouse) whose writing carried traces of Farber’s spiky structures and wonderfully disorienting shifts in point-of-view. Now, I don’t see hear anyone with a voice like his, but more troubling, I don’t see newer generations of film critics picking up on the fact that he approached the medium as something other than a passive "entertain me" observer. Farber’s vision of film was anything but literal. He was, and is, an artist.

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