Year in Film

Year in Film: 2010


YEAR IN FILM To recap: 2010 was the year Oscar started dipping his golden fingers into the previous year’s pot of (mostly forgettable) big releases and fishing out 10 Best Picture nominees. Blue Pandora people were defeated at the podium, though they did leave a cultural stain behind — it’s safe to say, for example, that nobody’s been styling weddings after The Hurt Locker.

Predicting the next Academy Awards class requires looking past 2010’s top earners (Toy Story 3 and Inception aside) and focusing on films that pleased both critics and audiences (The Social Network, Winter’s Bone, Black Swan) — though if you’re in a betting mood, the carefully calibrated The King’s Speech seems exactly like the kind of movie the Academy will reward over anything achingly contemporary, staunchly gritty, or knowingly out-there. But as any true film fan knows, it’s usually not the movies that make the most money, or even win the most awards, that resonate and beg revisiting in the months and years that follow.

The Guardian’s annual Year in Film issue takes a look at some of 2010’s more notable trends, starring films you liked (The Kids Are All Right) and hated (I’m Still Here) — and films you wanted to see but forgot about and are now rushing to put on your Netflix queue (Splice). (Note: the “you” in the previous sentence is, uh, me.) And since I’m talking in the first person now, let me steer you toward my favorite documentary of the year (and 2010 boasted some great ones, including my second-favorite, The Tillman Story), made-for-ESPN tale The Two Escobars. I was lured in by heavy advertising during the World Cup — apologies to the Giants, but Landon Donovan’s ridiculous game-winner in USA versus Algeria is my pick for sports highlight of the year — and was unexpectedly mesmerized by its tragic story; only later did I learn of the film’s San Francisco connection. Read on, and pass the popcorn.

>>Babes in bondage

Or, 2010’s perfection-pursuing fatal femmes

>>Get “real”

The Social Network, Catfish, and I’m Still Here push the boundaries of truth and fiction

>>Past imperfect

Digging through the year in archival footage

>>Rate irate

Confidential to the Motion Picture Association of America: F-U

>>Baby daddy drama

Parsing 2010’s bumper crop of sperm donor comedies

>>Goal difference

Top 2010 doc The Two Escobars examines two sides of Colombian narco-soccer

>>Guardian critics pick their best movies of the year





The Year in Film: Guardian critics on 2010’s best!


Dennis Harvey’s Top 20 of 2010

Note: because this was generally such a crap year, a “best” list seemed too much of a stretch. Ergo this is a Top 20 list, in no particular order, of films I enjoyed most one way or the other (The Killer Inside Me, Everyone Else, and I Spit on Your Grave definitely representing the other). No doubt The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and several other currently awards-baiting titles have finer qualities than some here, but they’re not what I’d gladly watch again right now.

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK/Netherlands)
The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev, USA)
The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, USA/Sweden/UK/Canada)
The Desert of Forbidden Art (Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope, Russia/UK/Uzbekistan)
Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
City Island (Raymond De Felitta, USA)
OSS 177: Lost in Rio (Michel Hazanavicius, France)
Daddy Longlegs (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie, USA/France)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, USA)
Let It Rain (Agnès Jaoui, France)

Anton Chekhov’s The Duel (Dover Koshashvili, USA)
Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany)
Babies (Thomas Balmès, France)
Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed, USA)
I Spit on Your Grave (Steven R. Monroe, USA)
Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, USA)
Get Him to the Greek (Nicholas Stoller, USA)
MacGruber (Jorma Taccone, USA)
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, Canada)
[rec] 2 (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, Spain)

Cheryl Eddy’s Top 10 of 2010

(1) Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA)
(2) Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK/Netherlands)
(3) Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
(4) The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)
(5) True Grit (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, USA)
(6) The Two Escobars (Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist, Colombia/USA)
(7) The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev, USA)
(8) The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, France/Germany/UK)
(9) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada)
(10) Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, USA)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ top films of 2010

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches Film History at the Academy of Art University and curates-hosts the film series “Midnites for Maniacs,” which emphasizes dismissed, underrated and overlooked films in a neo-sincere way.

(1) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
(2) Another Year (Mike Leigh, UK)
(3) Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico)
(4) Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, France/UK/USA)
(5) Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA) and True Grit (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, USA)
(6) The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, USA/France)
(7) Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, USA) and The Freebie (Katie Aselton, USA)
(8) Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA) and Daddy Longlegs (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie, USA/France)
(9) Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA) and Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, USA)
(10) White Material (Claire Denis, France/Cameroon)
(11) Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, USA)
(12) Machete (Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez, USA)
(13) 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, USA/UK) and Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, Spain/USA/France)
(14) Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, USA/UK/France) and Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine, USA)
(15) Cyrus (Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, USA) and Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, USA)
(16) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada)
(17) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul,

bonus round…

(18) You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen, UK) and Film Socialism (Jean Luc Godard, France)
(19) Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, USA)
(20) Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Louis Peitzman’s Top 10 of 2010

(1) The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)
(2) Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, USA)
(3) Inception (Christopher Nolan, tk)
(4) Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, tk)
(5) Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
(6) Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, USA)
(7) The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, USA)
(8) Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, UK/USA)
(9) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, USA)
(10) The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, France/Germany/UK)

Max Goldberg’s Top Films of 2010

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, Romania)
Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Cold Weather (Aaron Katz, USA)
Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, USA)
In the Shadows (Thomas Arslan, Germany)
The Oath (Laura Poitras, USA)
The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul,
You Are All Captains (Olivier Laxe, Spain/France)
Wednesday Morning Two A.M. (Lewis Klahr, USA)/Union (Paul Clipson,
USA)/Pastourelle (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA)

Kimberly Chun’s Top 11 of 2010

True grit, girl style: Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA), Easy A (Will Gluck, USA)
True camp, with a heaving side of eye candy: Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA), Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe, France/Germany/Italy)
Indie family comedies for adults: Cyrus (Jay and Mark Duplass, USA), The Kids Are All Right, (Lisa Cholodenko, USA), Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, USA)
Indie crime family that eats its young: Animal Kingdom (David Michod, Australia)
Indie entrepreneurs run amok: The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)
“Made it, ma! Top o’ the world!” — border-crossing crime stories: A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy, 2009), Carlos (330-minute version, Olivier Assayas, France/Germany)

2000 and gone


YEAR IN FILM I will follow him. The opening moments of Pablo Stoll’s Hiroshima convey that sentiment’s dedication in a single shot, a lengthy behind-the-shoulder look at Stoll’s brother Juan Andres as he traverses a suburban street in Uruguay. Such a simple film, Hiroshima: a day-in-the-life structure; silent film intertitles instead of spoken dialogue; “only” one brother’s look at another. Yet there is passion beneath Juan Andres Stoll’s mute detachment, and grief beneath Pablo Stoll’s at times humorous familial portrait of a half-somnambulant with dark circles around his eyes. The passion is revealed in the final scene, when the film’s potent and unconventional use of music reaches a climax. The grief floats around the edges of the screen, and is locked within the closing dedication to Juan Pablo Rebella, Stoll’s co-director on 2001’s 25 Watts and 2004’s Whisky, who killed himself with a gun three years ago, at 32.

Mapping infinite negative space within the movie maze, I can’t help but see Stoll’s brother as Rebella, and connect Hiroshima’s opening shot with the last major shot of Whisky: an uncomfortably extended look at forsaken Marta (Mirella Pascual), tears streaming down her face, in the back of a taxi going who knows where. When Whisky was released, that scene might have seemed like a pale descendant of the notorious 10-minute crying jag at the end of Tsai Ming-liang’s 1994 Vive l’amour. But as time goes on, the increasingly arch Tsai’s vision of isolated sorrow seems less genuine, if not potent. In contrast, Whisky‘s farewell is some kind of transformation, a baton, both end and beginning.

Wherever he may go. Last week, rummaging through a drawer, I came across Alexis Tioseco’s card. My heart hurt more than usual. I remember when I first saw Alexis, at a screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 in Vancouver. During short breaks between segments of Rivette’s 12-hour opus, I’d wonder who he was, recognizing he was important to me before we’d even said hello. A few days later, after we’d met, I remember him walking out of an obnoxiously provocative film, and how his wasn’t an empty or dramatic gesture, just an honest decision. At the end of the festival, Alexis, the filmmaker John Torres, Chi-hui Yang, and I had dinner, and over the course of close conversation with knees touching, I realized my nascent crush was actually a matter of meeting someone extraordinary whom I admired. A month or two later, Alexis let me excerpt part of one of his best essays for the type of year-end Guardian film issue you’re reading now.

On Sept. 1, Alexis and his girlfriend and fellow writer Nika Bohinc were shot to death in their apartment in Manila. There are tributes to them online, many written by people who knew him far better than I. I’m trying now, but I can’t pay respect to Alexis yet. When I’m not feeling rage about his killing, I’m haunted by the purity of his commitment to film and his culture, and how I fall short of it. (As for most U.S. film critics, don’t get me started. The entertain-me imperial indulgence typical of them is especially disgusting in the context of Alexis’s death, a context it now lives within for me.) My failure is something I think about daily, and aim to change.

This is not sentimental. Alexis wasn’t faultless, but he was that special. I remember coming across a short entry on one of Alexis’s sites that not just pointedly but also poignantly exposed the colonialism of a Bruce Baillie film. That little piece of illustrated writing provided a counterpoint to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s valuable appreciations of Baillie. I thought about it this year through tear-blurred eyes while watching Apichatpong’s For Alexis. “The Letter I Would Love to Read to You In Person,” Alexis’s essay for Nika, is a great piece of film writing. Its title is downright painful to behold. Revolutions happen like refrains in a song, he wrote. I will follow him, wherever I may go.


Spooky-normal activity


YEAR IN FILM This year was scary enough — what with the collapsing economy, rising unemployment rate, a summer of celebrity deaths, and new lows reached by reality TV programming — that going to see a horror movie became a kind of respite from the constant feed of depressing shit plastered across news crawls, posted to blogs, and bolded in headlines. Who wouldn’t take the escapist thrills of the Saw VI‘s elaborate, Rube Goldbergian endgames over the quick, “painless” death meted out by a pink slip? Then again, Paranormal Activity reminded us that the scariest thing these days is to be a homeowner.

Hollywood, no doubt, was counting its pennies as much as the movie-going public: hence the slew of classic horror franchise remakes, resurrections, and continuations. In addition to Saw VI, the body count included The Final Destination (a.k.a. Final Destination: Death Trip 3D), the umpteenth return of Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Rob Zombie’s H2: Halloween 2, and remakes of violent classics such as The Last House on the Left, My Bloody Valentine 3D, and The Stepfather.

I admire the bald-faced cynicism of these releases, especially with canonical titles like Last House and Friday the 13th. It’s a post-Scream series world, after all. The big studios know that fresh-faced, hormonal PYTs still want to see glossy versions of themselves get butchered by roving psychopaths and Freudian straw men in masks, but with a hat tip to the fact that most audiences have seen it all before.

Films that attempted to twist the received formulas and court the same demographic of Jigsaw and Mike Meyers devotees fared with mixed results. Jennifer’s Body, which should have been the supernatural follow-up to 2004’s Mean Girls, couldn’t find the right balance between funny and scary due to the ill-fit of Megan Fox’s blandness and Diablo Cody’s overly-precious zingers. Drag Me to Hell, Sam Raimi’s PG-13 tour de force, on the other hand, offered a master class in how to elicit the perfect uneasy mix of chills and laughs with nary a disemboweling (I would include the raucous Zombieland in the same camp).

And then there is Ti West’s little indie that could, The House of the Devil, which meticulously recreates the aesthetic of the cheap video nasties of the early 1980s. The film’s spot-on production design and anticlimatic resolution shouldn’t detract from West’s considerable talents as a conductor of suspense. But it’s interesting how House returns us to the decade that spawned the very slashers that Hollywood continues to remake, and one that started out, as we are now, in a bleak recession. Timeliness aside, House offers an object lesson in how to do something new with something familiar — a lesson Hollywood would do well to study in 2010.

The year in film


YEAR IN FILM More than $10 billion in movie tickets were sold in 2009 — a new all-time high in a year stuffed with so many all-time lows, cinematic and otherwise. Many of those tickets, I’m afraid, provided entry to the garish, ghoulish Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, far and away the year’s top-grossing release, though the top 10 did include at least one movie I can recommend (Star Trek) without feeling like a sellout. Nestled at No. 5 is The Twilight Saga: New Moon, part of a cultural phenomenon so huge the movie itself seemed like an afterthought. You have to scroll all the way to the 27th slot to find the year’s true top grosser: Paranormal Activity, which earned over $100 mil off a reportedly sub-$15,000 budget (less than a third what it cost to make 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, an obvious influence).

Paranormal Activity‘s success gives me hope, though I fear its inevitable shaky-cam imitators more than unexplained bumps in the night. Where there’s a buck, Hollywood will follow. This year, big-budget movies stepped up their games, employing IMAX, 3-D, and ever-more sophisticated CG to lure crowds on opening weekend. Avatar, which uses all three to greater effect than perhaps ever before, appears to be attracting gobs of people who’re simply curious to see what the fuss is about (my take: effects good, story crap. And for the record, I actually liked 1997’s Titanic). Multiplexes, with their corporate hookups and direct lines to movie studios, are thrilled by cinemaniacs eager to binge on new technology; brisk business proves 10-foot tall alien Smurfs are alluring enough to fill seats with butts that usually spend Friday nights at home, on the couch, watching DVR’d TV on a 60-inch flat-screen.

Of course, small, independently-owned theaters that can’t afford to upgrade their projection equipment to accommodate films like Avatar just might be screwed in 2010 and beyond. Hell, even the big guys have to contend with ever-shorter time periods between theatrical and DVD releases — sometimes these events happen simultaneously — and increasingly popular video-on-demand services offered by cable companies. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between versions that can affect the experience: Norwegian chiller Dead Snow was available to home audiences in dubbed form weeks before it rolled out at the Roxie, with subtitles (FYI: Nazi zombies are far more enjoyable when subtitled).

Still, think of all the scary shit you have to put up with simply by going to the movies: incessant texters; $15 tickets; people who cart their wee ones to hard-R fare; chatterboxes; seat-kickers; teenagers; jerks who sit in the middle of the row despite their pea-sized bladders; I could go on. Can you blame people who’d rather unspool their bootlegged copies of District 9 from the comfort of their own La-Z-Boys?

Yes! I can (and will) blame ’em — because true movie magic absolutely must include a big screen, preferably one that won’t fit into your living room. Even if you fear the megaplex, in the Bay Area we have access to a huge array of rep-house, art-house, and independently-owned screening venues. In short, there are still plenty of places to kick it old-school, movie geeks. So get out there and pass the popcorn!



YEAR IN FILM The defining adjective for Woody Harrelson is hard to pin, but I’d nominate … limber. Not just because he’s a deft physical comedian — in The Late Henry Moss, a star-encrusted but not very good Sam Shepard play that premiered in San Francisco in 2000, he stole the show from the likes of Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Cheech Marin with a 20-minute bit as a cabbie stuck in a front door. But also because he undergoes gymnastic changes from one screen role to another without ever seeming to break a sweat, or lose

his essential congeniality.

He appears to be a laid-back guy, and he’s a certainly a laid-back actor — one never sees the heavy Actor Man gears rotating (unlike with Sean Penn). It all seems to be pure pleasure and/or instinct. Maybe because he makes it look so easy — and because he’s so good a goofball — Harrelson has seemed kinda taken for granted, a guy who lucked out in TV (Cheers), then movies. He’s had a haphazard career by the usual upwardly-mobile standards, mixing leads, support parts, cameos, mainstream and indie projects, network guest spots, heavy drama and low comedy. One suspects he takes work because he likes the people involved or it sounds like fun. No wonder he’s not the possessor of a screen image as carefully calibrated (and, at least until recently, lucrative) as Tom Cruise.

I’m sure there was no intentionality involved — dig the randomness of his 2008 output — but 2009 turns out a year that insisted attention be paid. Closet Harrelson fans (why would you hide that love?) emerged. How could they not? His conspiracy theorist was the sole spontaneous note in humungous idiot’s-delight 2012. He gave the sublime Steve Zahn a run for his scene-owning money in undervalued indie flop Management, as principal rival for Jennifer Aniston’s affections.

More significantly, he ruled as brokenhearted macho blowhards in two wildly different films. In Zombieland, his joyriding undead hunter has gorgeous comic rapport with Jesse Eisenberg’s shambling teen coward, improving their material considerably. That surprise box-office triumph was followed by underachiever The Messenger, in which Harrelson plays the officer who trains-partners Ben Foster in the terrible task — considered by many the military’s worst job — of informing home-front families their loved ones

have been killed.

Harrelson’s role in that was sarcastic, hostile, loutish, hilarious, tender, tragic — a tribute to director-coscenarist Oren Moverman, for sure, but especially to the actor he rightly figured as best possible choice. It’s a beautiful performance. But in a toss-up between that and Zombieland, I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite.

Yet even those movies don’t let Harrelson dominate as in Defendor, a 2009 Toronto International Film Festival premiere not due theatrically until next year. In that, he plays a near-homeless schizophrenic who imagines himself a superhero. That tricky role brings out nearly all his colors, especially the loopy, athletic, and pathos-driven ones.

It’s another small film in a career whose highlights are often under-the-radar, like his gay Southerner escort to Manhattan socialites in 2007’s The Walker; the quiet hired gun in 2007’s No Country For Old Men; guess-who in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt; the grenade recipient in 1998’s The Thin Red Line; and so forth. Not to mention such funny-farm swerves as Natural Born Killers (1994), Kingpin (1996), Wag the Dog (1997), and (in drag) Anger Management (2003).

To his credit, Harrelson has also been a high-profile spokesman for hemp, veganism, and overall greening. At his Mill Valley Festival tribute in October, he was charmingly abashed by his own success and serious about attributing achievement to others. All this overcoming a most unfortunate familial background fictionalized in fellow-Texan-turned-local-playwright Octavio Solis’ brilliant Santos & Santos.

Will he age out? Unlikely — already straddling Steve Buscemi and Matthew McConaughey terrain, he can be our next Jeff Bridges for another 30 years.

Pure war


YEAR IN FILM As the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq nears its second decade, the question of its influence on modern American cinema has been redoubled by this year’s sampling of seminal combat films. Not only were Quentin Tarantino’s epical Inglourious Basterds and Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-epic The Hurt Locker two of the best releases of 2009, they represented a startling mutation in the zeitgeist’s popular narratives of geopolitics, absenting the requisite leitmotifs of nationalism, ethic, and archive. The disappearance of a moral imperative in Inglourious‘ Holocaust revenge parable and Locker‘s chronicle of an adrenaline junkie flummoxed numerous critics who admonished them for a dangerous aestheticization of war. Having accentuated the alternative fantasies and ecstasies of military violence, Tarantino and Bigelow committed the cardinal sin of privileging the inner experience of war over its ancillary politics, or, rather, made them one in the same.

Most of the putatively titled “war on terror” pictures, solidified as a genre in the aftermath of 9/11, fulfilled one of several bog-standard paradigms: the preening, ideological propaganda of Michael Moore (2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11) and Errol Morris (2003’s The Fog of War and 2008’s Standard Operating Procedure), with its leftist moralizing thinly camouflaged as real “documents” of war; the quasi-jingoist paeans to American imperialism in Black Hawk Down (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002); and the grid-skipping, pan-global tourist thrillers Syriana (2005), The Kingdom (2007), and Body of Lies (2008). Regardless of their ideological positions, all of these war on terror films linked cinematic politics with moral engagement and the need for historicizing the truth of combat.

But Inglourious and Locker fail to follow any of the necessary formulae and are thereby excluded from the generic privilege of the modern war film. In its attempt at a sui generis retributive fantasy, Inglourious details a vicious gang of Jews who collect Nazi scalps and immolate Hitler in a third-act ejaculation as cartoonish as it is intertextual. Treading in a Pynchonian zone of alternative history, the film not only lampoons but seeks to rewrite the archive of the 20th century.

But Tarantino’s violence is not ballasted by any of the ruminative “what ifs” (what if the Holocaust could have been prevented? What if you could kill Hitler?) that have become the ethicist’s fundamental paradox. He obviates such moral concerns in favor of bloody spectacle and, in so doing, risks erasing the last, sacred vestiges of the Holocaust — namely, that it occurred. In Tarantino’s comic-book universe, fiction-making refuses to be caught in the crossfire between truth and engagement. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek alludes to as much in his recent treatise on violence when he claims “the threat today is not passivity, but the pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate.’ Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.” Such valuations are a disturbing reproach to the oft-repeated Holocaust maxim, “Never again.”

Similarly, Bigelow’s film pivots on the saga of American IED fatalities in Iraq, but celebrates as heroes morally dubious outlaws playing in the postmodern desert of the real. Locker‘s insidious epigram, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug” — lifted from Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning — sums up a picture that is as much about the sensory pleasures of combat as its horrific ugliness. While Bigelow turns to the hard-boiled Americana of Samuel Fuller and Howard Hawks for her inspiration, she has translated them through what French cultural theorist Paul Virilio might term “dromocratic” consciousness, where traditional cinematic politics have disappeared and been replaced with a hyperreal “logistics of perception.”

The result is an apolitical pleasure dome of sensory overload; guns become canons, explosions appear as living sculpture, urban war zones are makeshift playgrounds. Like Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker delights in its own ethical and political vacuum, generating fantasies of immolation without sourcing it as either a psychological grotesque (e.g. PTSD) or an ideological other (i.e. Nazis or Iraqis). When the IED experts finally reach the end of their tour, the tedious suburban lives that await them are a pathetic denouement. Is it possible, Bigelow seems to muse, that the real American dream lies on the battlefield and not the home front?


The Dobler Effect


YEAR IN FILM If 2008 was the year of the bromance, 2009 likely sounded its death knell. (The title alone of the March release I Love You, Man proves the genre blip has said everything it possibly could.) This can only mean one thing: confused hetero men-children have returned to their first loves, idealized pretty-girl ciphers who fulfill their wanton need to worship and be “understood.” This year in particular has seen a resurgence of those impossibly sensitive, crush-worthy romantic misfits. Sadly, as in the past, they usually spurn flesh-and-blood females for unattainable pseudo-goddesses.

Call it the Dobler effect, in honor of every indie girl’s sigh-inducing Valentino, Lloyd Dobler. The raw heart of Cameron Crowe’s gushy-earnest 1989 romantic dramedy, Say Anything, Lloyd (John Cusack) falls for Diane Court (Ione Skye), a brainy, humorless beauty who eventually succumbs to his potent weirdo charms. But Lloyd puts Diane on a pedestal so high it’s a wonder she can even hear his proclamations of undying devotion. For me at least, Say Anything has always posed a conundrum: if the awkward, goofball guys are all going for the gorgeous ice princesses (and getting them), who’s left for all of us — I mean, those — awkward, goofball gals?

At least Crowe made Diane a complex character in her own right, unlike Mark Webb’s creation of Summer in his clever yet ultimately trite breakout hit, (500) Days of Summer. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his lovelorn protagonist, embarks on a love affair with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free-spirited, haughty, and (according to omniscient voice-over) spellbindingly hot woman who tears out Tom’s heart like so much ribbon from the mixtape of a hated ex.

While Tom decides his idealization of Summer is the product of insidious pop romanticism, that’s not entirely the case: Summer herself is its product. She simply transforms from the personification of Tom’s need to be needed to that of his need to be free of that need. (Did I mention Tom is pretty needy?) A disingenuous apparition, she’s as workshopped as any of the insipid, sentimental slogans Tom conjures at his day job for a greeting card company. Perhaps that’s the point, but it doesn’t make her, or rather the idea of her, any more palatable.

The movie may be emblematic of the Dobler effect, but 2009 did offer some light at the end of this tunnel of one-sided love. Released early in the year and largely overlooked, James Gray’s romantic drama Two Lovers offers a stinging rebuke of the Pedestal Girl in a way (500) Days of Summer only pretends to. But in terms of romantic trope blow-ups, Charlyne Yi in Paper Heart outdoes them all. A quasi-documentary love story, the film’s meta-conceit might be wobbly, but that doesn’t make its message any less refreshing. Yes, the weirdo goofball finally gets her man. It seems in 2009, we can finally chalk one up for all the real girls.

Raison ritual


YEAR IN FILM “We could live like this forever.” Josephine, the serious young woman in Claire Denis’ gorgeous chamber drama 35 Shots of Rum, whispers this line to her father while they’re camped out on the beach. It’s unclear, however, whether she’s referring to this particular sandy spot or the rituals of home and work that structure the film. As with Chris Chong’s remarkable short, Block B, 35 Shots of Rum (a ritual in the title itself) is set in a superficially unattractive apartment complex. Beyond the concrete is an intricate network of human relations. In the republic of cinema, the Denis film descends from that great poet of routine life, Yasujiro Ozu. Daily rituals dilate exposition and emotion; the safe enclosure of home unfolds in time.

Many of the most indelible, mood-lifting moments of my sporadic year of film-going arrived in the deepened presence of ritual: two shots of espresso, in separate cups; dismantling a bomb; shaving radishes; sheering sheep; the ecstatic sweat of a Lightning Bolt concert; the murderous talk surrounding a stand-up act. The Limits of Control cracks a zen joke out of those scenes that take us to edge of plotlessness; The Hurt Locker posits them at the lip of death. Every genre has its rites, but ritual is roped off by an extraordinary and transformative act of concentration: not so much a slice of life, as the heart of it.

To begin with an imperfect example, take Funny People. The informal joke workshops are the best thing about Judd Apatow’s chef-d’oeuvre by some distance — a romantic plot is deathly flat next to the backstage lollygagging. Likewise, for all The Hurt Locker‘s amazing mappings of harm’s way and its rigorous equation of work and action, Kathryn Bigelow’s film sags in the bland passages earmarked for character development. However momentarily, both movies put the blockbuster through paces.

Rituals, as I’ve described them, give us time to think and feel, and thus crop up with greater frequency in experimental work (ritual makes the documentary-fiction divide matter less). In Heddy Honigmann’s Oblivion, political history flows from her interview subjects’ ingenious livelihoods. Representatives of the service class relay personal and national narratives at work, their gestures embodying resilience and wisdom beyond the bounds of political rhetoric.

A clarifying admiration of labor also animates Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s near-wordless immersion into a final sheep drive across Montana. Recorded with ethnographic grit and uncommon lyricism, the film counterpoints detailed sound recordings with monumental, temporal landscape photography. A peculiar mix of estrangement (the implacable animal stare) and intimacy (the last cowboys’ muttered curses), Sweetgrass packages a dying way of life as a wayward phenomenological experience — the ritual as haunting.

Rendered as cinema, there is every possibility that ritual will make for a trance. Ben Russell actively cultivates this state in his Black and White Trypps series. Excerpts of all six of these shorts, as well as a 10-minute slice of Russell’s acclaimed feature debut, Let Each One Go Where He May, are available on his Vimeo site, but seeing the third installment in 35mm at the Pacific Film Archive raised the stakes considerably. In it, Russell sends a beam of light into the teenage sprawl of a Lightning Bolt show, creating a visible field barely broad enough for one or two wild faces. The crowd’s pulse makes for an ephemeral, twisting portrait. Projected on the big screen, the baroque expanse of sound and black gave the mined portraits a distinctly transcendent aura. Russell’s Warhol-worthy idea locates solitude in collectivity and authenticity in performance. The 11-minute film also invites us to reconsider the coordinates of that other common ritual that brings us alone together in the dark — cinema.

Top films of 2009! SFBG film critics weigh in, part two


More top ten lists — and lists of other stripes as well! And don’t forget to check out our annual Year in Film issue, out Wed/30.

Jerry McDaniel in Everything Strange and New.

Dennis Harvey’s Overlooked Performances of 2009

1. Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, UK)
2. Anna Faris and Celia Weston in Observe and Report (Jody Hill, USA)
3. Steve Zahn in Management (Stephen Belber, USA)
4. Everyone in A Perfect Getaway (David Twohy, USA); Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan); Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, USA); and Everything Strange and New (Frazer Bradshaw, USA)
5. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat in Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, USA)
6. Alec Baldwin in Lymelife (Derick Martini, USA)
7. Spock (Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy) in Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, USA/Germany)
8. Michael Cera in Paper Heart (Nicholas Jasenovec, USA)
9. Kali Hawk in Couples Retreat (Peter Billingsly, USA)
10. Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, USA)
11. Zach Gilford in Dare (Adam Salky, USA)
12. Woody Harrelson in Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, USA) and 2012 (Roland Emmerich, USA/Canada)
13. Michael Shannon and John Ventimiglia, The Missing Person (Noah Buschel, USA)

A scene from Paranormal Activity.

Top films of 2009! SFBG film critics weigh in, part one


It’s that time of year again — Oscar contenders (and wannabes) are hogging the theaters, and just about every film writer who put fingers to keyboard in 2009 is making his or her top ten list. Here at the Guardian, some of us make top ten lists, and some of us make whatever kind of list we want. Check out our annual Year in Film issue, out Wed/30, and read on for our contributors’ top (and otherwise) picks.


Louis Peitzman’s Top Ten Performances of 2009

1. Colin Firth in A Single Man (Tom Ford, USA)
2. Mo’Nique in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (Lee Daniels, USA)
3. Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany)
4. Marion Cotillard in Nine (Rob Marshall, USA/Italy)
5. Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, USA)
6. Jackie Earle Haley in Watchmen (Zack Snyder, USA)
7. Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, USA/UK/France)
8. Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, USA)
9. Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia (Nora Ephron, USA)
10. Carey Mulligan in An Education (Lone Scherfig, UK)

Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds.

Erik Morse’s Top Ten Films of 2009

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)
2. The Missing Person (Noah Buschel, USA)
3. The Beaches of Agnès (Agnès Varda, France)
4. Coraline (Henry Selick, USA)
5. Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan)
6. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA)
7. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany/France/Italy)
8. Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
9. Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
10. Thirst (Chan-wook Park, South Korea)

Erik Morse’s honorable mentions: Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, USA); Revanche (Götz Spielmann, Austria); Tyson (James Toback, USA); Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, USA/Canada/Germany/France); Examined Life (Astra Taylor, Canada); Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve (Criterion Collection DVD); Rembrandt’s J’accuse (Peter Greenaway, Netherlands/Germany/Finland); Valentino: The Last Emperor (Matt Tyrnauer, USA); Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, USA)

Scene from Goodbye Solo.




Ah, bromance: an idea so mainstream that by the time you read this, the first episode of MTV’s Bromance will have aired. The concept? Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, but for dudes, as erstwhile Hills himbo Brody Jenner seeks what the homeboys of Pineapple Express would call his new BFFF — "best fuckin’ friend forever." According to MTV, "a bromance is an intense brotherly bond that makes two buddies become virtually inseparable." The prize? "The chance of a lifetime — to become best buds with Brody Jenner and live a life right out of the pages of Maxim magazine."

See how they did that? The Bromance description also dangles the possibility that contenders will get to mingle with Playboy babes. So, you know, all that male bonding is carefully balanced out with some seriously hetero skirt-chasing. Bros before hos, always — but hos are still in the equation, and are indeed a key component of any bromantic relationship. Returning to Pineapple Express: the subplot about Seth Rogen’s high school girlfriend was the film’s weakest link, in kind of the same way Step Brothers was only funny when Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly were together onscreen, and it was pretty clear that no chick at the end of any road trip could match the BFFF bond in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. (Also key: a fair amount of overly homoerotic and/or ever-so-homophobic humor, a factor in the Bromance TV show, where contestant eliminations take place in Jenner’s hot tub.)

Before you accuse me of hating on the bromance, though, I’ll admit that I enjoyed all of the above films, along with 2007’s Superbad and various other outputs of Judd Apatow’s brainpan (even 2007’s Knocked Up, which star Katherine Heigl famously branded "a little sexist.") And I’m a chick! Pineapple Express, in particular, delivered some of 2008’s funniest moments, in scenes between average-Joe type Dale (Rogen) and his pot dealer, Saul (James Franco). Just two dudes, talkin’ ’bout cross-shaped joints and weed so rare and dazzling it’s like smoking a unicorn.

Of course, the bromance has kinda been around forever. Throwback Western Appaloosa served as a reminder that oaters, along with sports films, war movies (see: Tropic Thunder), and other XY-centric genres, are crucially dependent on the concept of male bonding. The new-millennium idea is more like dude-bonding, though, and it seems to appear only in a comedic framework. The year’s big comic-book movies — The Dark Knight, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk — were macho, and straightforwardly so; ain’t nobody trying to feminize Tony Stark’s emotions, or be Batman’s BFFF.

In the bromance, masculinity is tied into the fact that men are sensitive. Totally sensitive. But their sensitivity either goes to obnoxious extremes (see: Ferrell and Reilly’s stunted-emotional-growth manchildren weeping at the dinner table when their parents announce their impending divorce) or manifests only when the situation itself is extreme — you think Dale and Saul would’ve gotten so tight were they not on the run from that angry drug kingpin? The taboos the bromance exposes, mocks, and embraces are extremely straight-male in nature — yeah, problematic, but kind of necessary to make the films as funny as they are. Everything’s amped up to ridiculous highs, allowing heartfelt connections to occur among dudes under cover of goofy desperation.

This trend appears likely to flop down on your couch, put up its dirty feet, and hog your remote awhile — Apatow can basically print his own money at this point, and he’s got the Adam Sandler-Seth Rogen bro-down Funny People set to roll out in 2009. Also on tap: Jack Black and Michael Cera as slacker hunter-gatherers in The Year One — the first-ever prehistoric bromance?


1. Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA)

2. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA)

3. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

4. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

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

6. Trouble the Water (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, USA)

7. Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, USA/UK/France)

8. Viva (Anna Biller, USA)

9. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, USA)

10. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA)

>>More Year in Film 2008

Don’t look back


› a&

Cinephilia is a malady that affects the imagination above all. As 2008’s year-end pieces roll across the blogosphere, one encounters the alluring titles and stills of films which won’t reach the Bay Area for months. Against this tempting tide, I turn to the faint echoes of those undistributed movies which lingered in mind long enough after their festival screenings to become pliable to memory. To take one powerful example, the earthiness of John Gianvito’s still frames of the monuments and graves marking American radicalism’s many resting places inflected my own perception of Obama’s soaring rhetoric. Months after seeing it, Profit motive and the whispering wind‘s contemplative chronology kept returning to me as a visual counterpoint to the "long march" of the campaign season. Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales, on the other hand, provided the punch lines to the economic meltdown before the fact. The two films have nothing in common except for prescience, but then prescience is no small thing in a year in which the news outpaced the dream factory for twists-of-fate.

An elegiac documentary like Profit motive is a tough sell in any climate, but I fully expected Go Go Tales to score theatrical distribution after catching it at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Asia Argento slobbering a Rottweiler, Sylvia Miles rasping poetic about Bed Bath and Beyond, miles of dialogue, and a depth of staging which rewards concentration and intoxication in equal kind: Ferrara’s nightlife ballad is ripe for a cult following. At the center of film’s enclosed universe is Ray (Willem Dafoe), a small-time dreamer who runs his Manhattan club on less than a shoestring. The strippers are threatening a work stoppage, the landlady (Miles) is waving her pocketbook around about turning the lease over, and Ray’s brother — a hairstylist from Staten Island known at Ray’s Paradise Lounge as the "king of coiffeuse" — is pulling his financial support from the club. Drawing together all his business acumen, Ray invests in a crooked lotto racket.

After-hours in a threadbare nightclub is an ideal stage for waning fortunes, and it does seem that Ferrara was after a certain timeliness with Go Go Tales: gadfly Danny Cash (Joseph Cortese) spins a Jersey-size yarn about a pastrami projectile hitting "Hillary ‘I Might Be Your Next President’ Clinton," a headstrong cook hawks free-range hot dogs, and the staff grouses over the new Chinese customer base. But there’s no way the director could have known what Go Go Tales augured: Lehman Brothers shareholders left holding their own equivalent of "Ray Ray Dollars," budget cuts, drunk real estate agents, Ponzi schemes, and murmurs of the sinking ship.

A comedy of teetotaling fortunes, a musical with a touch of Beckett, Go Go Tales is every bit a Depression movie. Ferrara’s style is steeped in ’70s playbacks — Robert Altman’s wandering long takes, Woody Allen’s softness for showbiz, and John Cassevetes’ own strip-club serenade, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) — but as long as we’re talking about filmmakers who love talkers, let’s not overlook the original screwball savants. The Ray’s crowd bubbles over with the same provincial clamor as Preston Sturges’ stock company in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). In Go Go Tales‘ climactic scene, Ray uncorks a brilliantly obfuscating speech before finding the winning lottery ticket in his front pocket. It’s delirium on the edge of despair and a worthy successor to Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940). Thinking about what Sturges would have done with a world in which "bailout" is Merriam Webster’s "word of the year" makes me want to cry laughing — but there I go imagining things again.


Actresses (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, France, 2007)

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France, 2007)

Foster Child (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, 2007)

Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2007)

The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, France/Italy, 2007)

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)

Myth Labs (Martha Colburn, USA)

Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito, USA, 2007)

Still Life (Jia Zhangke, China/Hong Kong, 2006)

The Witnesses (André Téchiné, France, 2007)

>>More Year in Film 2008

Top tendencies



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.

>>More Year in Film 2008

Pop hope



The "shoe-in" for my moving-image man of the year: Barack Obama or Iraqi journalist and footwear hurler Muntadhar al-Zaidi? Both have been well-lubed by YouTube and have been given a good, hard-soft spin from multiple angles by every news outlet, citizen blogger, and self-starter with iMovie. The vid that jump-cuts between Obama’s high school hoop shots and latter-day pickup games, the proliferating replays of George W. Bush’s duck-and-cover face-save (and the swelling parade of shoe-throwing online games) — all were duly devoured and disseminated. Al-Zaidi’s act of protest — captured with Rashomon-like variation, though the marks that might substantiate allegations of torture in his post-incident detention remain conveniently invisible and off-camera — was the perfect kicker to a year in which politics on film and video were given prime 24/7 eyeball time by viewers more accustomed to rolling their peepers or averting them in disgust from the White House and the evening news.

Oh, ’08 — the year that welcomed the ‘Tubing of the president-elect via the outpouring of readily replayable speeches, endorsements, and "Yes We Can" and Obama Girl clips as guilty-pleasure eye-candy respite from the workday grind. And oh, the withdrawal — assuaged only by grainy images of a shirtless Obama on Hawaiian holiday. Hollywood may have prepped America for a black president in the form of Dennis Haysbert on 24 and Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact (1998) — but this year the president elect’s cinematic corollary really seemed to be Milk, an adept, accessible, and inspirational bon mot that put its trust in viewers’ intelligence and ability to fix their attention on city supervisor meetings and California state politics.

Through a viewfinder, the parallels between Barack Obama and Harvey Milk were numerous: the change-centered career trajectory of a community activist, the against-all-odds and unique but tough-sell narrative, the bridge-building wherewithal, and the gotta-have-it charisma. Even the Milk trailer tagline, "You gotta give ’em hope," read like a direct pull from an Obama war-room session. Yet the differences also glared with the passing of Proposition 8 in ’08. Add to that the strange fact that likely more couch potatoes of every political persuasion around the country have glimpsed the lengthy Obama infomercial — and even the Obama commemorative coin or plate TV ads — than have seen Milk.

If Obama and Milk succored with romantic promise and possibility, the stumbling close of the Bush years and his party’s latest last-ditch follies provided the bitterest laughs, with doses of unexpected sympathy for the devil. The handful of movies that critiqued the overseas skullduggery committed in the name of the US of A — including the grim-faced Body of Lies and black-humored Burn After Reading — resembled the mutant brethren of Dubya, taking subtle and slapstick aim at the politics hatched by someone’s CIA-head pater familias. Also injecting considerable comedy into the country’s sad plight was, you betcha, the vice presidential candidate drummed up to succeed such-a-Dick Cheney. The tabloid-friendly talker from the Dubya school of gab first and let God sort it out later, Sarah Palin lent herself beautifully to self-skewering by way of Katie Couric and the genius sendup that followed by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live.

The politically liberal Oliver Stone’s treatment of the sitting prez himself in W. was almost kind-hearted in contrast, with Josh Brolin adding a measure of nuanced oedipal angst to the now-beyond-tiresome good-old-boy facade. You had to love the way the young W. is lensed: his mouth perpetually open and his fists full of brewskis and/or a barbecue throughout the first part of the movie. Stone’s prez is as innocent as an identity-free frat boy — even though the filmmaker does conclude with a recurring dream sequence that ends up referencing traditional horror tropes. It’s not over till the monster screams. Or is hit by a shoe.

The year closed with the ticket-clinching bookend to W., ideal for every disgraced presidential library: Frost/Nixon. Its bracing, sexy blend of meta-Medium Cool media savvy and humanizing Milk-y goodness and characterization managed to slightly sweeten the sour old manipulator, the worst US leader since our latest. Bringing more than an ounce of the creepiness cloaking his noted disco-sleaze turn in Dracula (1979), Frank Langella transformed Nixon into the most menacing and identifiable blood-sucker entangled with an all-too-human dissembler/interrogator amid this year’s Twilight and True Blood vamps. As divulged in the dark of the movie house, Frost/Nixon‘s and W.‘s rogue presidents were united in at least one thing, besides the fact that their real-life counterparts made us embarrassed to be Americans. Their backstory — their real, pathetic will to power — had little to do with public service or serving anything but their damaged, mysterious, played-out egos.


Best use of Google Earth-cam: Burn After Reading (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA/UK/France)

Best post-Planet of the Apes Statue of Liberty desecration: Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, USA)

Most phun without pharmaceuticals: Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

Best vampire-human love story: Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)

Best mix of mudflaps, hair bands, and mystery flab: The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA)

>>More Year in Film 2008

Reel leaders



1 Downloading Nancy (Johan Renck, USA) People were literally running out of the Sundance screening of this brutally honest exploration of a couple’s complacent relationship. Maria Bello and Rufus Sewell bare all, while Christopher Doyle’s camera traps them in the year’s coldest blue harshness.

2 Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, Spain/USA) After 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream, another tiny gem from the greatest living filmmaker.

3 Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA) Quiet and haunting, this follow-up to Reichardt’s wonderful Old Joy (2006) is a perfect antithesis to Sean Penn’s overly romanticized Into the Wild (2007).

4 Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France) I cried throughout this unique family drama and immediately called my parents as soon as it was over. Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) is the closest thing I can think of.

5 JCVD. (Mabrouk El Mechri, Belgium/Luxembourg/France) Jean-Claude Van Damme is a genuine genre actor and this deconstructive meta-film lovingly proves it.

6 CJ7 (Stephen Chow, Hong Kong) Overlooked by adults and kids alike, this little Furby comedy is insanity at its most brilliant!

7 Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK) Leigh’s loving tribute to teachers is a dark and lonely place. En-Ra-Ha.

8 Redbelt (David Mamet, USA) Mamet does martial arts: the metaphors are limitless.

9 Funny Games (Michael Haneke (USA/France/UK/Austria/Germany/Italy) Mean, lean and totally gene!

10 Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, USA/Germany) Sly captures American destruction and cynicism in half the time as PT Anderson’s meandering There Will Be Blood (2007).

Favorite actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler (Darren Aronfsky, USA) Ignore Aronfsky’s overly sentimental tendencies and Rourke will blow your mind. Then go watch Tsui Hark’s Double Team (1998) for the ultimate ’90s rumble: Rourke vs. Van Damme!

Favorite actress: Emmanuelle Béart, Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz, France/Belgium/UK) Wealthy white tourists will stop at nothing to colonize every corner of this planet. Watch Béart and husband Rufus Sewell (see Downloading Nancy) go absolutely nuts as they battle each other and creepy jungle kids in this hypnotic hybrid of The African Queen (1951) and Don’t Look Now (1973).

Favorite animated movie: Wall*E (Andrew Stanton, USA) This unofficial remake of Silent Running (1972) should win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Favorite mumblecore film: Baghead (Duplass Brothers, USA) The brothers continue to nail their jokes hilariously and earnestly.

Favorite trailer: The Class (Laurent Cantet, France) Tears well up every time I see the trailer for this Cannes Golden Palm winner (due in early 2009). Can’t wait.


Best pluck: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

Worst pluck: Angelina Jolie, Changeling (Clint Eastwood, USA)

Best train wreck: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, USA)

Worst train wreck: Marianna Palka, Good Dick (Marianna Palka, USA)

Best tween vampiress: Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Norway)

Worst teen vampire groupie: Kristen Stewart, Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, USA)

Worst mother in an awful movie: Julianne Moore, Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, Spain/USA/France)

Worst mother in a good movie: Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married

Best outlaw: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2007)

Worst outlaw: Angelina Jolie, Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, USA/Germany)

Best Princess Diana impression: Keira Knightly, The Duchess (Saul Dibb, UK/France/Italy)

Better than a Princess Diana impression: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA)


1 My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)

2 Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)

3 The long-awaited DVD release of Stranded in Canton (William Eggleston, USA, 1974)

4 The Man From London (Béla Tarr, France/Germany/Hungary)

5 Man on Wire (James Marsh, UK/USA)

6 Tell No One (Guillaume Canet, France)

7 The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson, UK)

8 Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia/France)

9 In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, UK/USA)

10 The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA)


1 Towelhead (Alan Ball, USA)

2 The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA)

3 Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA)

4 Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, UK/India)

5 Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, USA)

6 Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, USA, 2007)

7 Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, USA)

8 Reprise (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2006)

9 Gomorra (Matteo Garrone, Italy)

10 Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)


1 The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)

2 Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)

3 Lion’s Den (Pablo Trapero, Argentina)

4 Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy)

5 On the Assassination of the President (Adam Keker, USA)

6 United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu, Japan, 2007)

7 Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, China, 2007)

8 Observando el Cielo (Jeanne Liotta, USA, 2007)

9 Brilliant Noise (Semiconductor, USA, 2006)

10 Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria, 1999)

Jim Finn’s films include The Juche Idea, La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo, and Interkosmos.


As I’m usually absorbed in restoration and production, my film viewing is erratic, and I’m hopelessly unable to keep up with all the films I’d like to see. Thus this list is not so much a critical 10 "best" list as it is a list of new works which, having somehow cut through the clutter and pulled me to the theater, struck me as excellent — each one in a unique way. I’ve allowed it to include "film events" of 2008, enabling notable restorations and experimental works to stand alongside conventional releases.

In alphabetical order:

Absurdistan (Veit Heimer, Germany/Azerbaijan)

Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowki, Poland/France)

Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

Man on Wire (James Marsh, UK/USA)

Once Upon a Time in the West restoration (Sergio Leone, Italy/US, 1968)

The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, Mexico/Spain, 2007)

Quiet Chaos (Antonio Luigi Grimaldi, Italy/UK)

Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi, Iran)

Think of Me First as a Person restoration (George Ingmire, USA, 1975)

Untitled film projector performance (Sandra Gibson, Luis Recoder, and Olivia Block, USA)

Ross Lipman’s recent film restorations include Killer of Sheep, The Exiles, and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle.


1 Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, 2007)

2 Body ÷ Mind + 7 = Spirit (Shana Moulton, USA, 2007)

3 Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

4 Origin of the Species, (Ben Rivers, UK)

5 La France, (Serge Bozon, France, 2007)

6 False Aging (Lewis Klahr, USA)

7 Paranoid Park and Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2007 and 2008)

8 Lost, season four (Jack Bender and others, USA)

9 Singing Biscotts (Luther Price, USA)

10 The Fall (Tarsem Singh, India/UK/USA)

Michael Robinson’s films include Light Is Waiting and The General Returns From One Place to Another.


1 Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA)

For the fake political ephemera; the meticulous reconstruction of Harvey’s camera shop; DP Harris Savides’ recurring visions of San Francisco; and Sean Penn’s queer, Jew-y affectation.

2 RR (James Benning, USA, 2007)

A hypnotic structural film about railroads and the romantic landscapes they traverse, devoid of signs from contemporary life.

3 The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown, USA)

A lovingly crafted documentary about Mardi Gras traditions and race in Mobile, Alabama.

4 Happy Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

For Sally Hawkins’ stellar performance as a recklessly childlike schoolteacher, who transforms into a fearless adult.

5 Maggie in Wonderland (Mark Hammarberg, Ester Martin Bergsmark, and Beatrice Maggie Andersson, Sweden)

Swedish documentary about an African immigrant, Maggie, which mixes her poignant video diary with savvy reenactments. A fertile cross between Lukas Moodysson and Spencer Nakasako.

6 Tearoom (William E. Jones, USA, 1962/2007)

An evocative resurrection of archival police footage from the 1960s of public sex crackdowns in the Midwest.

7 Derek (Isaac Julien, UK)

Tilda Swinton’s absorbing monologue about queer-punk filmmaker Derek Jarman thrusts his radical work into the present.

8 Reprise (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2006)

A bombastic film about the literary ambitions of a group of post-punk boys in Oslo.

9 Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

The sobering alternative to the pre-recession revelry of Sex and the City: The Movie.

10 A Mother’s Promise: Barack Obama Bio Film (David Guggenheim, USA)

Romantic Barack-oganda screened during the DNC.

Matt Wolf is the director of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.


1 Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore’eda, Japan)


2 Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, USA)

One of the most unbridled films ever funded by Hollywood coffers. Thank you, Sidney Kimmel.

3 Useless (Jia Zhangke, China, 2007)

Yerba Buena Center. You know, they show films there. And usually, they’re pretty fuckin’ crucial.

4 Flight of The Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France, 2007)

A dream.

5 Phone Banking for Obama @ Four Barrel Coffee

Not cinema, but visual storytelling nonetheless: when Jeremy Tooker brought ironing boards and voter rolls into his glittering café for a few exemplary weeks, we glimpsed a version of San Francisco where shiny new things brought us together rather than separated us.

6 The Website Is Down: Sales Guy vs. Web Dude (Josh Weinberg, USA)

My favorite short of the year. Truly independent "cinema."

7 Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, Gemany/France/Israel/USA)

Animation is the ideal medium for the recollection of memories. This film proves it.

8 Che (Steven Soderbergh, Spain/France/USA)

Someday, we’ll look upon Soderbergh’s effort for the sum of its parts: RED.

9 Craig Baldwin interview with SF360 Movie Scene

The most exciting four minutes of local film-speak in all of ’08.

10 There Will Be Bud (P.O.T. Anderson, USA)

Old-school spoofing done right.

Barry Jenkins is the director of Medicine for Melancholy.

>>More Year in Film 2008

Tuneless, yet tempting


› a&

Mamma Mia! was nominated for Best Picture. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. OK, yes, the category in question is limited to comedies and musicals, and sure, the Golden Globes aren’t the most significant annual awards, but still. This is the best you could come up with, Hollywood Foreign Press Association? Meryl Streep unabashedly flailing on a rooftop? Pierce Brosnan’s nasal tones bringing new lows to the ABBA oeuvre? Best musical of the year, my ass.

Except, well, it kind of was. And I think that’s the real problem here: 2008 sucked for movie musicals. While 2007 offered Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, and Across the Universe, 2008 gave us Mamma Mia!, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, and Repo: The Genetic Opera. Is it too late for re-gifting? In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I enjoyed two of those three films. Mamma Mia! and HSM 3 both have their merits, and I won’t deny getting in on the toe-tapping fun. As movies, though, they’re pretty weak; as musicals, even worse. Don’t get me started on Repo — you know something’s wrong when Paris Hilton is the high point.

Mamma Mia! was lousy from the get-go, despite what endless lines in New York would have you believe. The flimsy story is more of a placeholder for the tunes, which you could hear performed better on ABBA Gold. (You haven’t known true horror until you’ve seen Brosnan in all-singing action — "S.O.S." is right.) Then there’s HSM 3, the guiltiest of my pleasures. Sure, I liked it, because as a fan, I can look past the overproduced songs, mediocre acting, and half-assed plot. Objectively, it’s just not an instant classic.

Finally, we come to Repo, a truly embarrassing, wannabe-cult disaster of a film. If this represents the future of the movie musical, I’ll opt for the film’s dystopian vision instead. Repossess any organs you like, just as long as I don’t have to hear Bill Moseley sing again.


1. High School Musical 3 (Kenny Ortega, USA)

2. Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, USA)

3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, USA)

4. Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, USA)

5. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, USA)

6. The X-Files: I Want to Believe (Chris Carter, USA)

7. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (Rob Cohen, USA)

8. Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, USA)

9. Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Raja Gosnell, USA)
10. The Clique (Michael Lembeck, USA)

>>More Year in Film 2008

The Year in Film 2008


Starring: the bromance. With: the political biopic, economic-crisis cinema, guilty-pleasure musicals, superheroes, Swedish vampires, and more! Plus: local critics’ and filmmakers’ top flicks picks.

2008: the year of living dude-tastically
By Cheryl Eddy

>>Don’t look back
Movies that saw hard times coming
By Max Goldberg

>>Top tendencies
Signs of life (and a death) in American cinema
By Johnny Ray Huston

>>Pop hope
Politics as entertainment –shot by shot, shoe, or screen
By Kimberly Chun

>>Tuneless, yet tempting
Assessing the year’s mu-suck-als
By Louis Peitzman

>>Play it again
Notable releases kept our Blu-Rays less than blue
By Matt Sussman

>>Is that your final answer?
Slumdog Millionaire explores class and corruption
By Kevin Langson

>>Horrible! Overlooked! Best!
A Guardian cinemaniac counts down his 2008 hours in the dark
By Dennis Harvey

>>Reel leaders
Top flick picks from critics and filmmakers
Lists, lists, lists

Video Mutants: Prince of theme parkness


>>Click here to view some Damon Packard vids


Try explaining a Damon Packard film to someone who hasn’t seen one and you will fail. The best you can achieve is a description: "It’s a sequel to Logan’s Run, kind of, but with a lot of 1984, clips from Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator, and roller skaters jamming to ‘Never Knew Love like This Before.’<0x2009>"

Seriously, can you even imagine what that’s like? Step inside 2007’s SpaceDisco One and enter the world of a filmmaker who makes movies unlike anything you’ve seen before — except for the parts you have seen before. Every time he uses nonoriginal footage, it’s worth paying extraclose attention; though Packard would rather use only his own material, his choices of appropriated footage are never random. Why else would he include a clip of Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on the original Battlestar Galactica) padding dejectedly around the British Celebrity Big Brother house in a film that pays homage to — and mourns the lost aesthetic of — 1970s sci-fi movies?

"I’m not really into mashup-type stuff," the Los Angeles–based Packard explained to me. It was New Year’s Eve eve, and we were sitting in the basement at Artists’ Television Access — a dark, chilly space crammed with TV monitors and other electronic odds and ends. "In SpaceDisco, I didn’t plan on using any [nonoriginal] footage. It’s just a case of not having the money. It takes money to go out and shoot original footage. You need actors, props, costumes, and locations. That’s the short answer to it. [The nonoriginal footage] was just replacing things that I needed — I needed some shots of spaceships and things like that. For the most part the film is all original."

SpaceDisco One, in which Hollywood’s Universal City Walk stands in for the Ministry of Truth during the film’s 1984-inspired scenes, works real news footage into its narrative. At one point, a giant screen beaming the face of radio host Alex Jones attracts the attention of SpaceDisco‘s Winston Smith character — himself a result of Packard’s interest in recontextualizing familiar or favorite characters.

"I love the idea of taking characters from other films and utilizing them in some way — taking Arthur Frayn from Zardoz [and using him in] SpaceDisco," he said. In keeping with SpaceDisco‘s positioning as a Logan’s Run sequel, several of Packard’s leads are written as the daughters of characters from that film. "And of course Smith and O’Brien from 1984 — all sort of meeting up in the same universe. I like that idea, taking characters and settings from other films and coming up with a new adventure."

Anticipating my next question, he added, "I don’t know how that will ever translate into something in the [mainstream film] world professionally, because of copyright issues."

So far Packard hasn’t run into any cinema-related problems with the law, aside from being booted from a theme park while grabbing shots for 2002’s Reflections of Evil, an epically surreal study of LA paranoia. "[My films have all been] independent films made for no money and no distribution, or very minor distribution," he said. "Once it gets to a point where I have a budget and there’s real distribution, [using copyrighted material] would be a whole different situation."

He’s also never heard a peep from his celebrity targets, specifically Steven Spielberg (his childhood idol, who might frown on Reflections‘ depiction of Schindler’s List: The Ride) or George Lucas, who’s showered with ire in 2003’s The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary. That film manipulates DVD featurettes from the newer Star Wars films, with wraparound footage (reaction shots, responses to conversations, the occasional porn snippet) adding a whole new level to the average Jedi’s beef with Lucas. It’s payback for Greedo shooting first and Jar Jar Binks, but to Packard, Lucas’s addiction to technology is symptomatic of a bigger issue — how Hollywood films have changed dramatically in the past 30 years.

"I don’t dislike Lucas," Packard noted, though a viewing of the hilarious Mockumentary might suggest otherwise. ("Angry black people became a strong inspiration for George," a faux Industrial Light and Magic animator notes while working on the schematics for a character described as Mace Windu’s streetwise brother, pointedly referencing the observation that some of Lucas’s Phantom Menace creatures seem ever so slightly racist.) "I would actually hope that he would have a good laugh at it if he ever saw it. [With Mockumentary] I was just expressing my disappointment in the new generation of Star Wars films and how Lucas has become part of that whole system of becoming obsessed with CGI and digital effects."

But Lucas is hardly alone, according to Packard. "It seems like all of the film industry is operating in this vacuum where they aren’t aware of what they’re doing. They’re out of touch with what audiences are interested in seeing — [although] maybe it’s just the reality that I’m experiencing. I don’t understand how most [mainstream] films get green-lighted; it’s just more of the same thing over and over, just variations on playing-it-safe themes, following the same formulas. Like Transformers. It was a film that I just — why? I was baffled by that film. It was kind of entertaining — I saw it in IMAX — but who would think that was a great idea? There’s nothing new or special about doing a Transformers movie."

That’s not to say Packard hates every new movie; you may have noticed he submitted a top 10 list to the Guardian‘s 2007 year in film issue, with favorites like No Country for Old Men and Paris, Je T’Aime. One of his friends in LA gave him a hard time for not including Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

"He was really upset," Packard said of the Dead fan. "He thinks it’s Sidney Lumet’s best film. I disagreed. I thought it was OK, but it doesn’t compare to his early works at all. It would have been much better if it was made in the 1970s with a sleazier cast, sleazier characters, and not [set in] a modern strip mall. The characters didn’t feel credible — they just weren’t very interesting. Things aren’t that interesting these days."

Watch a Packard film — and if you haven’t, you must; Other Cinema is working on a release of SpaceDisco One for later in 2008, and at least one version of Reflections of Evil is available at — and it’s clear he’s inspired by the 1970s and more than a little nostalgic for them. At 40, he’s too young to have been part of what he views as Hollywood’s last golden age.

"The late ’70s and early ’80s were the beginning of the downfall of cinema — the beginning of the blockbuster film and special effects. Suddenly the quality levels, the character-driven films, were diminishing [in favor of] special-effects extravaganzas," he said. "If I went back in time, it would probably be even more difficult to get into the film business [than it is now]. Still, I think it was a better time in a lot of ways. My films are always making a statement about the way things have changed for the worse."

Though he’s a YouTube user and sees the finer points of shooting on video (though he prefers film), Packard’s view of his future as a filmmaker is surprisingly old-school. Specifically, he would like to make more narratives. His dream projects are an "analog fantasy film without the overuse of CGI" and a longer version of SpaceDisco One, which now clocks in at less than an hour.

"I’ve always wanted to make big films, not small independent art movies. But my creative sensibilities seem to be so off the wavelength of the average person. The way people react to my films — they can’t understand them. They need to have something palatable," he said. He blames Hollywood — at one time a creative haven where up-and-coming directors like Robert Altman could make offbeat films like 3 Women — for creating the apathetic-audience monster. "I don’t know if there’s any hope [for the future of movies]. That should be a theme of [your] article: is there any hope? God only knows." Insert your own A New Hope wraparound — the exploding Death Star, perhaps? — here.

The Year in Film: Rest in pieces


Good-bye, movies of 2007, we hardly knew you. Auteurs to ashes, digital to dust. (Oh, wait — Dust is the title and subject of the documentary I’m most hoping to see in 2008.) Because this year brought the last days of some beloved directors (including Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Curtis Harrington), and because United States leaders and moviegoers have endorsed the American tradition of soldiering forward blindly into the future with no memory, it seems appropriate to render this year’s film issue as a memorial.

The past 12 months brought a pair of great films specifically devoted to memorials, Heddy Honigmann’s Forever and John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. Honigmann’s sublime movie is largely set in the famed Paris cemetery Père-Lachaise, where the dead from many countries receive tributes from a world of visitors. Gianvito’s feature pensively visits monuments to US activist heroes and events, finding most of them alone and ignored, some in a state of disrepair. The final moments of Gianvito’s film rally hope, but the discrepancy between these two movies is telling.

This week’s cover stars are Richard Wong and H.P. Mendoza, the director-producer and composer-star of Colma: The Musical. A musical that sings and dances through an amazing and oft-ignored Bay Area zone where the dead outnumber the living by a ratio of a thousand to one, Wong and Mendoza’s movie sparks life from death instead of ignoring mortality. No surprise, then, that its life has been a long one. After more than a year of festival travels, Colma received a national theatrical release in 2007 — a truly rare feat for a no-budget film. It’s just been released on DVD, so now the whole world can come to Colma. (Johnny Ray Huston)

The Year in Film 2007

Johnny Ray Huston’s Top 12
A dozen keepers from 2007
By Johnny Ray Huston

Cinema 2007
Top 10s, rants, and raves from some of our favorites

Tonight we dine in hell
A look back at 2007, for better and mostly worse
By Cheryl Eddy

The other side of the mirror
The year the rock biopic swelled with self-awareness
By Max Goldberg

Cartooning the war
Transformers and 300 turn the conflict into comic book blockbusters
By Kimberly Chun

Things we lost in the theater
Score one for escapism, zero for political reality
By Dennis Harvey

Number nine — with a bullet
At least the fourth-best article ever about the folly of top 10 lists
By Jason Shamai

Western promises
Back from pasture — cinema’s cowboys of 2007
By Jeffery M. Anderson

Beauty lies
A look beneath the surface splendor of 2007’s most haunting documentaries
By Kevin Langson

Year in Film: Johnny Ray Huston’s Top 12


1. En la Ciudad de Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, Spain). Pure cinema, and perhaps even lovelier than the women it watches and to whom it pays tribute.

2. You and I, Horizontal (Anthony McCall, UK) and Relaxation One and Relaxation Two (Sarah Enid, US). McCall’s installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was once-in-a-lifetime-visionary; Yayoi Kusama would be wowed. The 3-D new age relaxation videos that Enid made using equipment from a day job at Zeum are similarly brilliant, on one-hundredth of the budget.

3. Agua (Verónica Chen, Argentina). Chen’s poem to male athleticism and study of masculine interiority is breathtakingly immersive, with the best retreating long take of the year. A female answer to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait on a puny (by comparison) budget — detect a similarity with a number two pick? — it shows instead of tells. But there is a story there, one that’s as shallow as doping in sports and as deep as the pain carried in a body.

4. SpaceDisco One (Damon Packard, US). Heddy Honigmann went to Père-Lachaise, John Gianvito went to dozens of US monuments, and Damon Packard went to Universal City — to surreptitiously film a gorgeously genius, prismatic roller-skating-and-ranting sequel to Logan’s Run.

5. Useless (Jia Zhangke, China). Jia moves out of his comfort zone in this doc study of the lives and lies behind clothing and fashion, making a lovely but self-critical movie that is my favorite of his efforts to date.

6. Song Kang-ho in Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea). Best actor in the world today? In Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and The Host and now Lee’s brutal melodrama, Song has played the fool — in three entirely different ways.

7. Forever (Heddy Honigmann, Netherlands) and Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (John Gianvito, US)

8. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US) and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, US). Todd Haynes on a top 10 list? Nope, he’s not there.

9. Foster Child (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines) and It’s Only Talk (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan). It would be great if the Philippines’ Khavn de la Cruz, Lav Diaz, and Raya Martin’s inventive new wave found a place on US screens, but Mendoza’s more mainstream films this year are powerful. Cherry Pie Picache’s awe-inspiring performance in Foster Child (compared to the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Tony Rayns, who would know) is matched by Shinobu Terashima’s in a movie that reunites her with Vibrator director Hiroki, who continues to reinvent the women’s film.

10. Glue (Alexis Dos Santos, Argentina). Best teen movie in a long time, and most authentic — in tone and mood — sex scenes. Dos Santos’s movie flirts with the edges of a new generation’s bisexual freedom.

11. Honour of the Knights, a.k.a Quixotic (Albert Serra, Spain). Further proof that Spain’s best movies of the moment are all about more than Pedro Almodóvar.

12. Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (Stephen Thrower, Fab Press). The road to our cemeteries is lined with gore. Where else are you going to find out about The Deadly Spawn? *

Year in Film: Cinema 2007



I feel like I’ve only seen about 10 films this year, so my list would basically be No Country For Old Men, I’m Not There, and Beowulf (two of those movies were painful, they were so aesthetically pleasing — guess which ones). But I’m going to say Paranoid Park was a huge influence on me this year. The risks it took and its loose narrative and utter disregard for convention were extremely inspiring. I saw it in Toronto at a press screening, among all the jabbering sales agents and distribution reps, and it still managed to drop my jaw — despite the guy next to me answering his phone midway through, telling the guy on the other line how "half baked" the movie was. Afterward I talked to a fellow aspiring filmmaker about the film, and he told me how much he disliked it because he thought it was a "mess." Exactly. It feels like a rough cut, only not — a work in progress, but that’s the point. Perhaps that’s why I identified with it so much. Besides, maybe a little messiness is not such a bad thing to embrace right now.

Richard Wong is the director and producer of Colma: The Musical.


James Benning’s Ten Skies at New York’s invaluable Anthology Film Archives: with a description like a parody of avant-garde impenetrability ("Ten shots of the sky — feature length"), it sounds daunting. Instead, it was an experience of mysterious joy that brought me back to why movies are entertaining and why seeing them can be so communal. After a few restless, fidgety minutes, both audience and film hit a groove so sublime that I kept laughing with pleasure. Each sky has its revelations and dramas, each viewer "makes" their own film, but in a shared hallucination that filmmakers and venues rarely allow, much less encourage. Sure, we’ve all seen the sky before, but when’s the last time you fell in so deeply and for so long, undistracted yet free to drift, stunned by both the thing itself and the amazing mirror of moving pictures? And I love that Benning says it’s a political film, "the opposite of war."

Jem Cohen ( is the director of Instrument, Benjamin Smoke, Chain, Building a Broken Mousetrap, and other films.


So glad I live in Berlin as an expat, far away from icky, tired Los Ang, that sad, pathetic film industry towne. When I worked for the Sundance Film Festival in programming I watched what seemed like a zillion of the same kinds of films. This year I created (with the art kollective Cheap) the Cheap Gossip Studio installation as part of the Berlin Film Festival. It was housed in the atrium of the Kino Arsenal. Film historian Marc Siegel brought Callie Angel out to show some rare, seldom-screened Andy Warhol films, as well as Jerry Tartaglia, who restored Jack Smith’s noted oeuvre. I even got to meet my sexy feminist heroine, Jackie Reynal of the Zanzibar movement, and Phillip Garrel, who brought his delicious young thrombone of a son, the actor Louis Garrel.

During the year, I started a new monthly performative series at Kino Arsenal called "Rising Stars, Falling Stars." It featured experimental silent classics from filmmakers like Louis Delluc, Man Ray, and the grandmama of the avant-garde, Germaine Deluc.

A lot of filmmakers send me rough cuts of their new films hoping I will write something on my blog, which gets a million readers a day. I just saw Bruce La Bruce’s allegorical zombie flick Otto; or Up with Dead People, and it’s beyond brilliant, and I am not saying that just because I have starred in Bruce’s other films Super 8 1/2 and Hustler White or because he directed my latest performance piece, Cheap Blacky. I am harsh on my filmmaker friends. I told Bruce that he shouldn’t act in his own movies anymore, just like Woody Allen and Spike Lee shouldn’t act in theirs. I even scolded Todd Haynes that Far From Heaven was overrated, but I adored Velvet Goldmine and his latest, I’m Not There. (Though I can’t stand Cate Blanchett; after seeing her as Queen Elizabeth yet again all I could say was, "Glenda Jackson, Glenda Jackson.")

I watched Superbad twice with the 14-year-old twins of my Cheap Blacky costar Susanne Sachsee, and I even got off on the ‘roid rage of Gerard Butler in the epic 300. No one does brittle white lady like my Tales of the City costar Laura Linney in The Savages. Tony Leung is so elegant and sensuous in Lust, Caution that everyone will want a Chinese boyfriend as the hot new fashion accessory this year. And if Sweeney Todd doesn’t bring back the musical genre, nothing will.

Vaginal Davis (, who now lives in exile in Berlin, will be in the Bay Area on March 29, 2008, for the opening of her installation Present Penicative at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; it will also feature her performances "Bilitis — A Lesbian Separatist Feminist State" and "Colonize Me."


1. Absolute Wilson (Katharina Otto-Bernstein, US/Germany)

2. All in This Tea (Les Blank, US)

3. King Corn (Aaron Wolf, US)

4. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, US)

5. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada)

6. My Kid Could Paint That (Ami Bar-Lev, US)

7. No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson, US)

8. Protagonist (Jessica Yu, US)

9. Romántico (Mark Becker, US)

10. Zoo (Robinson Devor, US)


All thanks to the Internet Movie Database, without which we would remain in blessed ignorance.

Brad McGuire’s 20 Hole Weekend

5 Guy Cream Pie 29

Abominable Black Man 8

Ahh Shit! White Mama 4

Anal Chic

Apple Bottom Snow Bunnies

Be Here Now

Blondes have More Squirt!

Bore My Asshole 3

Bring’um Young 23

Campus Pizza

Catch Her in the Eye

Even More Bang for Your Buck

Go Fuck Yourself

I Scored a Soccer Mom 3

Old Geezers, Young Teasers

Seduced by a Cougar 4

Swallow My Children

Thanks for the Mammaries


You’ve Got a Mother Thing Coming

Dennis Harvey is a Guardian contributor.


1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania). This debut feature possesses a nonjudgmental flow reminiscent of a Dardenne brothers film as it follows two young women who negotiate for an illegal abortion during the final days of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime.

2. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US). Uncovering the layers of human identity has been a career-long, disturbing theme of Cronenberg’s. But with his most recent films he’s figured out how to deconstruct our psychotic and schizophrenic patriarchal society in a minimal, confrontational manner.

3. Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, US/UK). This minimasterpiece follows the downward spiral of two nice, middle-class brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell), both of whom loosen their moral codes just to better their lifestyles. Striking camera work (by Vilmos Zsigmond) encloses the characters in an unrelenting nightmare.

4. "Made in America," The Sopranos (David Chase, US). Forever you’ll be able to bust out the statement "What did you think of the end of The Sopranos?" and people will get all lit up.

5. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US). Thanks to audacious writing and powerful acting (especially by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the bittersweet sincerity is pitch-perfect.

6. Californication, season 1 (various directors, US). David Duchovny is alive and hilarious. Creator Tom Kapinos cuts right through our progressive relationship era, devilishly developing each character over 12 episodes. This is heavy-duty stuff mixed with dirty, dirty sex.

7. Year of the Dog (Mike White, US). White brings heartfelt storytelling to his directorial debut.

8. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada)

9. The Hills Have Eyes 2 (Martin Weisz, US). This Wes Craven–produced Iraq war allegory deserves more attention than Brian De Palma’s patronizing Redacted.

10. Hostel 2 (Eli Roth, US). Baddie Roth again makes social commentary on America’s xenophobic world colonization by torturing the pathetic children of the apathetic parents who make our lovely world go round.

11. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany). Reygadas updates the transcendental religious overtones of Carl Theodor Dreyer by way of a Mennonite community.

12. At Long Last Love (Peter Bogdanovich, US). Never released on VHS or DVD, this throwback to the musicals of Ernst Lubitsch — featuring Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn, and Eileen Brennan — was dismissed and despised on its only theatrical release in 1975. All of the Cole Porter musical numbers were filmed live, with the actors using their own voices. Not only are these numbers brilliantly executed (inspiring realistic musicals like Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark), but the film also attains the rapid-fire interaction and casual kookiness of late ’30s screwball comedies. Did critics really overlook the fact that this is clever cheekiness? It’s a true treasure that serves as a ’70s time capsule and should inspire future filmmakers to take their chances all the way. It may have taken 32 years, but your time has come, Mr. Bogdanovich. Thank you.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University and curates Midnites for Maniacs ( at the Castro Theatre.


0. The 70th anniversary memorial of the Nanjing Massacre in Nanjing, China, and especially survivor Xia Shuqin’s reaction to her re-created wartime house, where most of her family was raped and killed by Japanese soldiers.

1. The passing of House Resolution 121 (the "Comfort Women" resolution) on C-Span, July 30.

2. Yasukuni (Li Ying, China/Japan). The power of the shrine isn’t fully captured, but this is the closest an outsider has come to doing so that I’ve seen. All captured on a Japanese mini-DV video camera, in American NTSC.

3. Nanking (Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, US). AOL + Iris Chang = Woody Harrelson and the Nanjing Massacre.

4. A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila (various, US). The alpha and omega of Asian America. For those with the required assets and skills, Playboy and the Internet can make you, regardless of race, a bisexual American celebrity — the end and a new beginning for all the so-called angry Asian Americans.

5. Summer Special Olympics in Shanghai, China. Globalization was transformed into music by Kenny G during the opening ceremony.

6. Pride: The Moment of Destiny, or Puraido: Unmei no Toki (Shunya Ito, Japan). Finally found a good DVD copy of this, in Canada of all places. This could also be called Tojo: The Hero.

7. Inside the Brookhaven Obesity Clinic (various, US). Pride and Prejudice for the heavyset, on the Learning Channel.

8. Major League Eating’s Thanksgiving Chowdown (various, US). The purest American professional sport and the fall of Japan’s greatest hero, Takeru Kobayashi, on Spike TV.

9. Mock Up on Mu, in progress (Craig Baldwin, US)

10. Blockade (Sergey Loznitsa, Russia)

The works of San Francisco filmmaker James T. Hong ( include Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is, The Form of the Good, Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms, 731: Two Versions of Hell, and This Shall Be a Sign.


1. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands/Germany/Belgium)

2. Brand upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, Canada/US)

3. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US)

4. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/China/Taiwan/France/Austria)

5. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US)

6. In Between Days (So Yong Kim, South Korea/US/Canada)

7. Makeshift 2007 grindhouse double feature: The Hills Have Eyes 2 (Martin Weisz, US) and Black Snake Moan (Craig Brewer, US)

8. The Wire, season four (various, US)

9. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

10. Zodiac (David Fincher, US)

Jonathan L. Knapp is a Guardian contributor.


In addition to bringing some very good movies to the screen, 2007 was also a really good year for bad films. But among them all, these are the ones I feel had lack of intelligence, conservatism, and conventionality on a whole different level:

1. Hitman (Xavier Gens, France/US)

2. Good Luck Chuck (Mark Helfrich, US/Canada)

3. License to Wed (Ken Kwapis, US)

4. The Brothers Solomon (Bob Odenkirk, US)

5. Hot Rod (Akiva Schaffer, US)

6. P.S. I Love You (Richard LaGravenese, US)

7. The Final Season (David M. Evans, US)

8. The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (Jay Russell, UK/US)

9. The Perfect Holiday (Lance Rivera, US)

10. P2 (Franck Khalfoun, US)

Maria Komodore is a Guardian contributor.


With a very special mention and heavy props for the fantastic TV doc series Nimrod Nation.

1. Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) (Jason Kohn, Brazil/US)

2. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, US)

3. Summercamp (Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price, US)

4. This Filthy World (Jeff Garlin, US)

5. A Man Named Pearl (Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson, US)

6. King Corn (Aaron Wolf, US)

7. An Audience of One (Mike Jacobs, US)

8. Crazy Love (Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens, US)

9. Big Rig (Doug Pray, US)

10. Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa (Jeremy Stulberg and Randy Stulberg, US)

San Francisco filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer codirected the award-winning documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (


Go Go Tales was filmed at Cinecittà, so I had a location like I did in the ’60s. Cinecittà was thrilling. When the film premiered in Cannes, you would have thought I was the lead from the reviews. What’s her name in the New York Times gave it a wonderful review that got picked up by the International Herald Tribune.

Abel [Ferrara] got mad at Burt Young, who played my husband, and cut him out of the film. Be that as it may, we still managed to keep that story together The irony is that the rap that I do [at the end of the movie] was ad-libbed at 10 o’clock on the last night of filming. I give my all and know that something good will happen.

From what I hear, [Bernardo] Bertolucci is the one who chooses the film from Italy that gets into the New York Film Festival. Because they were renovating Alice Tully Hall, Go Go Tales had one of its screenings at the Jazz Center. It was exciting to look out my apartment window and see the lines of people outside [Frederick P.] Rose Hall waiting to see the movie. People even came to the 4 p.m. Sunday screening. At 4 p.m. on a Sunday they should have been out to tea instead of at that film!

Two-time Academy Award nominee Sylvia Miles has starred in Midnight Cowboy, Andy Warhol’s Heat, Evil Under the Sun, She-Devil, and Abel Ferrara’s soon to be released Go Go Tales.


1. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akim, Germany/Turkey)

2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

3. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)

4. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US)

5. Le Dernier des Fous (Laurent Achard, France)

6. The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, France/Italy)

7. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France/US)

8. Water Lilies (Céline Sciamma, France)

9. La Graine et le Mulet (Abdel Kechiche, France)

10. Love Songs (Christophe Honoré, France)

Actor-director Jacques Nolot’s latest film, Before I Forget John Waters’s second-favorite film of 2007 — will be released theatrically in 2008.


I have no shortage of rants about the sad state of cinema. Of the 25,000-plus films released each year, it’s impossible to keep track or be aware of anything above the overrated Oscar contenders or mindless mainstream crap that floods the market. Anything slightly worthwhile not on this list would be a smaller independent (foreign or documentary) film, such as Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter or The Life of Reilly.

1. Paris, Je T’Aime (various, France/Liechtenstein)

2. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US)

3. Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, UK)

4. Sicko (Michael Moore, US)

5. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, US)

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, US)

7. Goya’s Ghosts (Milos Forman, US/Spain)

8. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, US)

9. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, US)

10. Death Proof, driving sequences only! (Quentin Tarantino, US)

Damon Packard ( is the director of SpaceDisco One, Reflections of Evil, and other films.


1. Bug (William Friedkin, US)

2. The Kingdom trailer (Peter Berg, US; editors Colby Parker Jr. and Kevin Stitt)

3. Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, China)

4. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany)

5. Into the Wild (Sean Penn, US)

6. An Engineer’s Assistant (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Japan)

7. Saw IV (Darren Lynn Bousman, US)

8. "Made in America," The Sopranos (David Chase, US)

9. The Pastor and the Hobo (Phil Chambliss, US)

10. You and I, Horizontal (Anthony McCall, UK)

11. Kara Tai in the Front and the Back (, US)

Joel Shepard is the film and video curator at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.


1. Following Sean (Ralph Arlyck, US). Thirty years after making a legendary short film about Sean, the lawless four-year-old son of Haight-Ashbury hippies, filmmaker Arlyck reconnects with his subjects. The result is the most complicated study of baby boomers and their kin ever made.

2. Artist Statement (Daniel Barrow, Canada). Winnipeg artist Barrow uses an old-school overhead projector and layers of transparent drawings to create manual animations with music and live narration. His second US performance brought to life his imaginative, queer, literary, and delicate personal manifesto.

3. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Austria). Apichatpong’s latest radical narrative film focuses on a rural Thai hospital and its inhabitants. Among its meditative episodes is an unresolved love story between a female physician and an orchid farmer.

4. Real Housewives of Orange Country (various directors, US). Bravo’s reality television program about a contrived community of rich middle-aged women living in Coto de Caza is unexpectedly compelling. Because their lives are so boring, there’s nothing left to explore in this show except their complex emotions.

5. Zodiac (David Fincher, US). Crushworthy Jake Gyllenhaal, genius cinematography from legend-to-be Harris Savides, and incredible reconstructions of a beautiful and scary San Francisco in the 1970s.

Matt Wolf ( ) is the director of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (premiering at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival) and Smalltown Boys.

Year in Film: Tonight we dine in hell



Ah, 2007: as of this writing, the five top-grossing movies of the year were three-quels (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), a chunk of Harry Potter’s golden calf (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and the world’s flashiest ad for eBay (Transformers). That the biggest box office hit (Spidey raked in more than $336 million) was also the biggest disappointment is only fitting in a year that was characterized by new heights of hype. Did anyone really like 300 beyond its campy and mockable aspects, or did they just think they liked it because the Internet told them to?

I’ll admit I’m crabby, but I’m a victim of hype as much as anyone else. (The trailer for Iron Man and hell, even just the poster art for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are making me greet 2008 with giddy anticipation.) I probably saw more than 300 movies (including 300) this year, many from the Tinseltown factory — a place that saps originality, force-feeds us things like fat suits and the Rock, and still leaves us frantically panting for more. And when I say us, I mean me. But although the overriding trend for 2007’s mainstream movies was mediocrity and there’s a feeling as December ends that the past 12 months were full of a whole lotta nothing, there were also some thematic similarities worth noting. (Note: there might be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been eagerly awaiting Death Sentence‘s cable debut, you’ve been warned.)

BUNS IN THE OVEN As I noted in my Juno review ("Birth of a Sensation: Ellen Page and Juno," 12/12/07), that film, combined with Waitress and Knocked Up, made 2007 the year the ever-popular celebrity-baby trend jumped from the pages of US Weekly to the big screen. In Waitress an unhappily married small-town gal is impregnated by her surly hubby; she soon falls for the hunky new guy in town, who happens to be her doctor. In Knocked Up a hot, mysteriously single TV reporter decides she’ll pop out the kid of a one-night stand she can barely stand to look in the eye. And in Juno a tart-tongued high schooler — in a family way after an experimental dalliance with her best friend — plucks her kid’s adoptive parents from the PennySaver. Each of these films have unique moments: Keri Russell’s Waitress postbirth epiphany; Knocked Up‘s awkward baby-on-board sex scene; and Juno‘s simple acknowledgement of the fact that abortion is a safe, legal option for women who find themselves unprepared for motherhood. By contrast, check out Romanian import 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, opening in early February 2008. A harrowing look at the illegal abortion trade in that country’s Communist 1980s, it well earned the top prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and contains nary a hamburger phone.

WESTERNS First the pirate movie made a comeback, and now we’ve got all kinds of westerns filling up our eyeholes — including the year’s best film, No Country for Old Men, a contemporary spin on the genre that imagines the Wild West as not just a place but a state of mind. More cut-and-dried was 3:10 to Yuma, which featured good guys, bad guys, shoot-outs, stagecoach robberies, and some seriously old-school hat fetishizing. Harder to classify: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a hypnotic, arty, lengthy study of the western myth from within the myth. The title characters — portrayed in great turns by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck — are neither heroes nor villains, but rather men with guns and very few morals, those they have applying to loyalty, decency, and respect for human life. In short, fascinating.

SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE It’s true, I’m a Charles Bronson fanatic who has often and loudly praised the wonders of the Death Wish films, including my personal favorite, Death Wish 3. So I anticipated the double-decker revenge sandwich of Death Sentence and The Brave One with a certain gruesome glee. Too bad neither movie really rocked it. Death Sentence — directed by Saw‘s James Wan and starring Kevin Bacon — went the distance by offing women and (oh god, no!) children. The Brave One offers a few pleasures, namely that scene on the subway in which Jodie Foster pops a guy for, basically, getting up in her face. Mostly, though, both films spent way too much time showing how their protagonists felt after committing acts of violence: fear, guilt, elation, excitement, or otherwise.

True vengeance films don’t bother with that shit — they start with a grievous act (in Death Wish 3 it’s the senseless killing of Bronson’s military buddy, whose biggest crime is living in a crummy neighborhood overrun with cartoonish gang members) and move right into the payback’s-a-bitch phase. Cops who secretly support the good work of heavily armed vigilantes are also a traditional staple; I don’t think Terrence Howard’s sad-eyed, Foster-followin’ Brave One detective really qualified. I can see updating the vengeance film for these more sensitive times, but — wait, no I can’t. Vengeance films with morals bad. Who needs ’em?

OH YEAH, THAT WAR THING You know when you turn on the news, and you see that story that was on yesterday, and last week, and last year too, about that business going on in Iraq? Wait, you don’t watch the news? Nah, neither do moviegoers, who didn’t give two poops about movies with Iraq war themes (I’m including everything from In the Valley of Elah to The Hills Have Eyes 2 here). I suppose if Blades of Glory can’t heal a broken nation, neither can Paul Haggis.

HORROR IS DEAD I almost forgot about The Hills Have Eyes 2 until I typed it above. There was no singular horror sensation this year, or even a really good sleeper, like 2006’s The Descent. Other releases that underwhelmed the horrorati: 1408, Resident Evil: Extinction, 30 Days of Night, Halloween, The Reaping, Vacancy, 28 Weeks Later, and Saw IV (already in the works: Saw V). As usual, the best horror films were in limited release (The Last Winter) or foreign — spooky Spanish thriller The Orphanage, which pays homage to Poltergeist among others (including The Others), hits theaters Dec. 28.

THE MAGIC NUMBER? This was the year of third sequels, some already mentioned above, of which only The Bourne Ultimatum did anything interesting. The slate for 2008 is pretty much locked in — this time next year, Avatar! — and it’s choked with a fair amount of sequels. Batman, Hellboy, Harry Potter, the Mummy, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Rambo, the Narnia kids, and the Star Trek crew are all poised to lead you back into butter-flavored temptation. Now, I don’t think the fact that a film is a sequel automatically means it will suck: I’m willing to sit through just about anything, because no matter how much crap I see, or how many films start off great and veer horribly off course (here’s lookin’ at you, I Am Legend), I never give up hope for the movies. And if that makes me no better than one of 300‘s digitally enhanced Spartans facing certain doom, so be it. See you next year! *


1. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US)

2. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie, US)

3. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France/US)

4. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US)

5. Zodiac (David Fincher, US)

6. Superbad (Greg Mottola, US)

7. The Wizard of Gore (Herschell Gordon Lewis, US, 1970) with Lewis in person, Clay Theatre, Nov. 2

8. Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine, UK)

9. Control (Anton Corbijn, UK/US/Australia/Japan) and Joy Division (Grant Gee, UK, 2006)

10. SpaceDisco One (Damon Packard, US)

Year in Film: The other side of the mirror


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Is defining I’m Not There the same thing as defending it? Todd Haynes’s kaleidoscopic antibiography of, to quote the tagline, "the music and many lives of Bob Dylan" has inspired all sorts of platitudes since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, so many that it’s hard not to feel late for the party only a few months after. Still, the fact remains: from listening to Biograph cassettes in the backseat of my mom’s car to reading Greil Marcus’s visionary accounts of The Basement Tapes and "Like a Rolling Stone," I’ve had Dylan on my mind, always prepared to apprehend another side of him.

It’s hard not to feel privileged watching I’m Not There as both a Dylan enthusiast and a cinephile. You can read it between the lines of an erudite review like J. Hoberman’s — didja catch the references to Suze Rotolo and Masculine Feminine? So then, a solipsistic designation for a solipsistic movie: I’m Not There is a catalog and a critique, a hall of mirrors, multivalent and prismatic, like Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) turned inside out. It is epigrammatic rather than evocative, and made to be written about.

It is also a twisted kind of biopic, something worth noting with everyone from Ray Charles to Scott Walker getting the treatment. The fad for music biopics and documentaries isn’t unrelated to the tendency toward remakes and tie-ins now apparent everywhere in the entertainment business. Only a couple of years after Walk the Line and Ray, some biopic conventions are already brittle enough to encourage both a throwaway parody like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and a hardcore dissertation like I’m Not There (the films have more in common than you might think). Haynes takes the biopic’s tendency toward flashback-reliant storytelling, for instance, and transforms it into a looping, fractured portrait. Name-dropping is the biopic’s natural territory, but Haynes’s esoteric (Moondog in the opening credits) and cryptic (it’s alright, Ma, it’s only Ritchie Havens) references only add to his film’s foggy rendition.

This is as it should be with Dylan, the singer who at the tender age of 22 began a protest song with the lyric "Oh my name it is nothing, my age it means less." The feedback loops produced by the film’s strategy of quotation and fragmentation work to elucidate Dylan’s critical velocity, the way his different eras seem both terminal (the electric Dylan played by Cate Blanchett is shown in a morgue, and there are intimations that other versions of him are dead too) and porous. Where other music biopics seek to ground a singer’s aura in terms of biography and motif, Haynes runs in the opposite direction, prioritizing an abstract organizing principle like that of D.W. Griffith’s innovative 1916 foray into multiplanar cinematic storytelling, Intolerance.

It should be noted that Weinstein’s ad campaign pointedly undercuts Haynes’s game. Dylan only materializes twice — in text during the opening credits and in person for the movie’s final, mesmerizing close-up — but the I’m Not There poster lists the main cast with the misleading line "All are Bob Dylan."

Blatant Oscar pandering? Perhaps. But what does it say that some of my favorite sequences in I’m Not There are the most conventional? Haynes accesses the "romantic" Dylan of Blonde on BlondeNew MorningBlood on the Tracks with an interesting Russian-doll trick — Heath Ledger’s Robbie Clark is introduced as an actor portraying Jack Rollins (The Times They Are A-Changin’ Dylan, played by Christian Bale) in a biopic within the biopic titled Grain of Sand. With the exception of an Arthur Rimbaud insert, Robbie is the only Dylan facsimile who never plays a guitar, and this makes sense since the Dylan of "I Want You," "Shelter from the Storm," and "Idiot Wind" always seemed more man than musician. Meanwhile, Robbie’s thorny relationship with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) provides I’m Not There with some desperately needed warmth. A François Truffaut–ish meeting in a diner, a montage of bohemian New York, and a divorce in the late-day light of the Richard Nixon era: they’re all strands of a singular story, which is exactly what I’m Not There is not.

I felt fully prepared to dig Haynes’s panoply, and after seeing the movie three times I’m pretty sure I do. In its constant double-edged critiques and heady invocations of the nonexistent, I’m convinced the film represents one of the most energetic (and perhaps cathartic) directing performances of the year. And yet something’s lost in I’m Not There‘s reshuffling of the biopic deck. Dylan has indeed spent much of his career putting us on, but this is only one part of his impact, with the other more elemental component encompassing the sound of his voice, the exciting bite of his phrasing, and the lightning crack that opens "Like a Rolling Stone."

These sparks of electricity are, after all, the kind of thing rock biopics were made for. The brute power of cinema is such that with a Dolby soundtrack, heavy close-ups, and a gliding camera, even the hammiest dramatization can achieve moments of rock ‘n’ roll bliss. Insofar as Anton Corbijn’s portrait of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Control) prizes re-creation over fragmentation, it might fairly be seen as the polar opposite of Haynes’s broken mirror. Corbijn takes the biopic conceit of mimicry to dizzying, self-aware heights thanks to location shooting, a performer (Sam Riley) who learned to match Curtis’s every twitch, and brilliant cinematography evocative of Corbijn’s own iconic photographs of the band.

Control is very good, with excellent acting and convincing performance scenes (two things that go a long way toward making a satisfying rock biopic), though it fails where biopics typically do. Indeed, it’s always a bad sign when a voice-over is introduced more than an hour into a movie. As Curtis shuts down, Corbijn flails to unpack the singer’s psychology, and the voice-over contrivance only fudges the moment of Curtis’s maximum anguish. Still, there is at least one unforgettable scene here — when Curtis stalks the street toward his day job, the soundtrack raw with punk, a graceful camera turn revealing the back of his jacket, emblazoned in chalky white with the word "HATE" — that offers the euphoric, sexy blast that is so often lost in I’m Not There‘s complex din.

There are other forms of music biopic, including the kind that’s genuinely happy to take liberties (see: 8 Mile, Almost Famous). Kurt Cobain about a Son sounded like an interesting experiment on paper, with a soundtrack culled from Michael Azerrad’s late-night interviews with Cobain jutting up against lyrical images from the Pacific Northwest. But the film is ultimately soured by its unresolved discrepancies (it’s hard to make out what such self-consciously pretty images are doing running under Cobain’s gravely, often vitriolic voice-over) and its discussion-ending lack of original Nirvana music. Cobain relates his thrill at hearing "Love Buzz" on college radio for the first time, and we listen to … Iggy Pop?

What does it say about Cobain’s legacy that both cinematic attempts at his life (the other being Gus Van Sant’s evocative 2005 Last Days) have been narrated from such a remove? For one thing, that the slightest morsel of Kurt is good enough to buy distribution. The parade continues, leading one to compile a wish list of future biopic subjects. Arthur Russell, maybe, or perhaps Nina Simone? Cat Power, a.k.a. Chan Marshall, is certainly building toward a good one with all of those onstage breakdowns behind her, and I’d like nothing better than for Haynes to take an honest crack at Karen Dalton or Judee Sill. What of Big Star, John Fahey, Tropicália’s icons, Elizabeth Cotten, Galaxie 500 (directed by Andrew Bujalski), or the Mamas and the Papas? And won’t someone think of poor Donovan, patiently waiting his turn ever since being put down by you know who in Don’t Look Back? *



<\!s>Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, US/France)

<\!s>Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany)

<\!s>En la Ciudad de Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, Spain)

<\!s>Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas, France)

<\!s>In Between Days (Kim So-yong, US/Canada/South Korea)


<\!s>Useless (Jia Zhangke, China)

<\!s>My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)

<\!s>V.O. (William E. Jones, US)

<\!s>The Unforeseen (Laura Dunn, US)


<\!s>Zodiac (David Fincher, US)

<\!s>Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US)

<\!s>Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands/Germany/Belgium)

<\!s>No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US)