Monday, July 25, 2011

2011 Progress Report

As I returned home from my trip out East I was thinking now would be a good time to take a look at 2011 in film and try in some way to make heads or tails out of it. If you’ll excuse the diversion from the ancient history of cinema for at least one blog entry, that particular project is being a little more difficult to complete than I thought.

Every year the goal is 50 films, a magic number that says “I’ve seen enough”, or at the very least a number that’s good enough to start the argument. It would make sense then that at the midway point of the year (or in this case slightly after the middle of the year) I’d have already seen 25 or more films. My friends I wish that was the case. Turns out I’ve only seen about 12 films this year. Now that doesn’t mean I’ve only watched 12 films, just that only 12 of the films I’ve watched would count as a 2011 release.

Things have not been too easy when it comes to getting to the show. Some films are sitting on my computer waiting to be seen. A few probably would have been seen previously if certain people were more reliable, but this is the way it always is year after year. So let’s start with the big boys, Marvel.

This year in preparation for the upcoming Avengers movie, and perhaps to make up for the lack of Marvel features last year we’ve seen three come out in successive months. Now I’m not complaining for a second, the newest release Captain America is a very decent film. Perhaps I’m still feeling the hangover from X-Men: First Class that this film naturally seems like a slight disappointment, but that’s not to say it’s bad.

I’d like to believe after the output of subpar Marvel films (Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Ghost Rider) that those days are over. Now that everything is coming from one studio the production values have gone up, and they’re trying a little harder. The problem is sometimes that can turn into trying too hard. Let’s face it there is not much need for CGI in a Captain America movie, he’s a steroid injected patriot out to kick some Nazi ass. However in today’s Hollywood that film couldn’t be made for under 200 million, and that serum needs to be tweaked a little to not sound completely like anabolic steroids. So a lot of crappy and unnecessary computer effects are the burden we have to put up with. Like Thor this film was made in 3-D, or converted, so there are a few of those blatantly overdone shots designed to make you say “glad I saw this in 3-D”, but makes the rest of us just think that it’s irrelevant.

There were good and bad moments about Captain America but at the end it really just seemed like their way of saying “just wait until the Avengers”. X-Men was the only one of the three releases this year that I think can hold it’s own as a just plain great film. The other two have to be viewed as a good-for-that-character or I’m-glad-they-didn’t-ruin-it type. More good fun than anything else. The X-Men have been extremely popular for the last few decades because of the nature of their powers and the inherent parallels that go with it. Their characters are complex, fleshed out for a long time by Chris Clairemont and others. Both Thor and Cap’ represent perhaps a more simplified “corny” era for comics. They haven’t had the necessary “gritty reboot” to make them seem more relevant today. Not to say that both characters don’t have their own excellent runs in comics. Just for pure character, you can’t really beat the X-Men when it comes to Marvel. Perhaps Tony Stark/Iron Man is the only possible exception which is why that would probably rank alongside First Class as the best films Marvel has put out.

Regardless this newest Cap film has helped erase the memory of that god awful 1990 straight to video release, as well as the even worse made for TV movies from the late seventies (that’s right there were two of them). The age of seeing our favorite super heroes on the big screen is well upon us, and the bigger the budget it seems the less chances filmmakers are willing to take. I’m looking forward to the upcoming Avengers movie in a big way, although I’m already prepared for Joss Whedon to kill at least one character off, because that’s what he does.

Now let’s go a little more artsy.

When the year rolls over most of the films coming out in theaters are either Oscar holdovers that are expanding from their select release, or a lot of crap that studios dump in the first quarter never to be heard from again. Somewhere in between these two extremes are the oddball independent and foreign films that were made a year or so earlier but failed to get distribution. This is why you’ll see a lot of films on a top ten list that were made the year before, sometimes as much as 5 years earlier.

So a good barometer to judge what films to look out for in the coming year is to find a best undistributed film list. Where might you find this? Well since you asked, Film Comment usually puts out a small list of the best undistributed films every year along with their regular poll. These are the movies seen at festivals and special screenings that didn’t get an official release. Sometimes even the films that did get official releases (like Manoel de Oliveira’s Strange Case of Angelica or Pedro Costa’s Ne Change Rien) are impossible to find though.

Thanks to the wonder of the internet though many times these undistributed films have already gotten a DVD release in another country. When Abbas Kiarostami’s The Certified Copy was getting rave reviews at some film festivals last year I was able to find a DVD quality print of the film online months before it got it’s official Chicago release. So checking out this undistributed list is a nice way to get a head start on the next year’s features, and you just may hear of a film you would have easily missed if it got one of those quiet select screen releases.

Topping Film Comment’s list of undistributed films last year was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I have not found another filmmaker who makes movies anything like Apichatpong, and critics absolutely adore this. I think his films have gotten better with each release and although I’ve still only seen Uncle Boonmee once, this might be his best film yet. Since I’ve seen all of his other films at least twice, I’ll hold off on making an official decree just yet. Describing this film is tough, especially if you haven’t seen any of his films before. If you have this fits into the interconnected world that all his films inhabit but with a slightly more metaphysical quality. It’s profound and mesmerizing the way the best art house films should be, which might make it slow, boring, and confusing for someone not quite willing to invest themselves fully in it. Eye of the beholder for sure, but this was the first solid masterpiece I saw from this year.

Next on Film Comment’s list was good old Jean Luc Godard’s (yep he’s still making movies) Film Socialism. There was a time when a new Godard feature happened every couple of months, but the last decade that output has slowed dramatically. This is only his third feature film since 2000. That said it would seem a big deal. I was personally disappointed in it, which happens sometimes when you wait too long. However I was disappointed because I’m simply tired of Godard’s modern style. I often just wish he’d make something remotely coherent and then he can go back to his video editing self indulgent tirades. This film just seems like he doesn’t even have a clue what it’s about or what the hell all his trademark dejected people spouting radical political rhetoric are talking about. It feels like he ran out of things to rebel against but just isn’t quite willing to admit it. Perhaps another 40 viewings of this and it might make some sense, but if you expecting some great return to form from the master, you’re in for a disappointment.

Speaking of director’s who make the same film repeatedly, Woody Allen’s latest Midnight in Paris has gotten stellar reviews and seems to be that period Allen film that comes out every few years that people randomly decide to like. Sometimes it seems exhausting to keep up with Woody Allen especially when you more or less know what to expect. I wouldn’t recommend sitting through every one of his films, but please consult a known authority before you start blindly sitting through Anything Else. I’m still working on seeing this most recent release so I’ll have to fill you in later whether it deserves the extra attention.

Now the last film I’d like to talk about is another from an older director. This one makes films so rarely that it seems impossible that any of his films can live up to the outrageous expectations. That director is Terrence Mallick, and his newest film Tree of Life might very well be the best film I’ve seen in a decade. Mallick has always favored a looser narrative, he’s employed internal monologues quite a bit and dabbled with continuity in his previous four features, but nothing like what he did here. This is downright avant-garde nearly non-narrative and a film that dares to be so profound to question the very origin of all creation. The trailer which first was shown before The Black Swan, made little sense, watching the movie it did a perfect job of setting things up. If this doesn’t win a best cinematography Oscar there truly is no god. I know it’d be foolish to think Academy voters can give Mallick his long overdue Oscar for a film that did so little at the box office.

The fact that this film was given a good budget, a major studio backing, and even a few a-listers in the cast boggles my mind, like it’s a holdover from the glory days of the 70s when studios trusted their directors. Perhaps Mallick is just the guy whose earned it. The man makes about one movie a decade, so needless to say he’ll have a ready audience. That said you know he isn’t going to make a film he’s not completely committed to. Whereas The New World was cut down, I have not heard anything about that happening to Tree of Life. It seems like Mallick got to do exactly what he wanted and the result is simply incredible.

I feel apprehensive recommending this film to people because it can completely go over your head. This is the type of film that will either change how you view films forever or make you never listen to one of my recommendations again. Even though the projection of the film got messed up and they never fixed the lights my opinion of this film wasn’t dimmed. I don’t often get that excited about a new film in the theater, but well Mallick doesn’t make a new movie very often, and on first inspection this is his finest work. I’d be positively amazed if another film comes out this year that I have a stronger reaction to.

So hopefully I can pick up the pace so I’m not rushing to finish 50 films on New Year’s Eve again.

Cliffnotes version - see Tree of Life