Posted by Susan Doll on December 14, 2009
I have always resisted making an end-of-the-year top-ten list of “best movies” as so many critics and bloggers do. There are just way too many of them, and they tend to include the same Hollywood movies and high-profile independent films. However, there are some notable exceptions, including the lists generated by my coworkers at Facets Multi-Media, who are so knowledgeable about small-scale indie films, unusual foreign films, and obscure exploitation movies that their lists are truly fun to peruse.
This year, I decided to throw my hat—or, list—into the ring but with a twist. Long noting how many splendid films do not have the same distribution and exhibition opportunities as Hollywood blockbusters or studio-supported independents, I decided to pull together a list of titles most movie-goers—even movie-lovers—will probably never see. Some of these are low-budget independents distributed by small companies that exhibit on the art-house circuit; others are foreign films that played only in cinematheques like Facets; some are Hollywood films that were overlooked because they lacked enough marketing support to create a buzz. I am lucky to live in one of three major markets for film distribution, meaning many movies regularly play in Chicago that will never play in medium-size or small markets. Chicago has a variety of alternative venues devoted to indie, foreign, and classics, including Facets, where our intrepid programmer, Charles Coleman, works hard to find meaningful films despite small budgets and no staff. Major distributors and exhibition chains that service smaller markets won’t take a chance on an independent or foreign film unless it generates buzz by winning awards. Therefore, most movie-goers won’t get the opportunity to see these movies on the big screen, and without media attention, these titles will likely go unrented on DVD.
I don’t claim that all of these films are among the ten best of the year, though if I were to do a top-ten list, a couple of them would definitely make the cut. Instead, each of these films offers something that movie lovers would appreciate, whether it is a unique style, consummate craftsmanship, high-quality performances, or a narrative too complex for Hollywood. Some of these films will be available on DVD; others never will. Here’s hoping that you find a way to see them.
1. TRUCKER. When the Independent Spirit Awards were announced, I anxiously checked the list of nominees for any mention of this film. I was sure that Michelle Monaghan would be nominated for Best Female Lead. Not only is Trucker a true independent film, written and directed by James Mottern who struggled to secure the financing for this film himself, but Monaghan is amazing in the title role as long-haul trucker Diane Ford who regularly drives an 18-wheeler cross-country. Her life is permanently disrupted when her ex-husband becomes terminally ill with colon cancer, and she has to take care of their son. The film paints a realistic portrait of working class life that is neither condescending nor demeaning. More importantly, it illustrates the challenges for contemporary women who are torn between their need for independence and the strain that motherhood puts on those needs. Hollywood seldom offers roles to actresses that are not variations on standard archetypes, and most of the time, they are rendered so superficially that they are mere stereotypes. Actresses fare better in indie films, which was why I was convinced Monaghan was a sure bet as a nominee for Best Female Lead and that Trucker was headed for multiple nominations. I was not only disappointed to find that my favorite film of the year was snubbed, but I was angered that films such as 500 Days of Summer and The Last Station were nominated for several awards. These films were distributed by major studios like Sony and Fox and benefitted from huge marketing campaigns that attracted media attention and wide distribution. These films are hardly independent in the same sense as Trucker, and I don’t find these awards to be representative of any “independent spirit.” Trucker is the film I most recommend to those who solicit my opinion because it offers a voice to working class women, who are rarely depicted fairly on film.
2. GOODBYE SOLO. Goodbye Solo was well received in Chicago, and it ran for several weeks at the city’s Landmark Century Cinema, a high-profile showcase for independent films. If it did not play in your town, you will certainly be able to rent it. Goodbye Solo takes place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and tells the story of a taxi driver from Senegal named Solo who is studying to be a flight attendant. One of his fares, an old man named William, pays him $1000 in advance to take him to a nearby national park the following week. Specifically, William wants Solo to drive him to a cliff called Blowing Rock. When Solo jokes, “What are you going to do, jump off?,” William’s lack of response suggests that this is indeed the old man’s intention. Souleymane Sy Savane, who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as Best Male Lead, costars as the genuinely charming Solo, and the film offers a nice sense of place and tells an interesting story of two people who are outsiders for different reasons. My main interest in the film is the movie’s other star, Red West, who had spent 20 years as Elvis Presley’s bodyguard and companion before becoming a terrific character actor. West trained as an actor with Jeff Corey, who taught a version of method acting. Through improvisational exercises, Corey taught students to tap into their imaginations, memories, and subconscious in order to relate to their character. Knowing what I know about West and Elvis, I am certain his powerful performance as the melancholy William is weighted with his memories of a past life filled with adventures, mistakes, and regret.
3. PRIVATE CENTURY. This series of unusual documentaries from the Czech Republic was released by Facets this year on DVD. I worked on the series, chapterizing each episode, designing the menus, and writing the booklet that was included with each DVD. It was my favorite project of the year. Private Century is an eight-episode series consisting entirely of home-movie footage from the 1920s through the 1960s. Czech documentary filmmaker Jan Sikl collected the home movies, selected the footage for the series, and then edited it down into eight 52-minute episodes. Each episode follows the private events of one extended family through the years, and in doing so, chronicles the Czech Republic in the 20th century. All of the episodes are fascinating stories of people caught up in the ebb and flow of history in different ways. The episodes are organized in a very loose chronology beginning with the era between the World Wars and ending with the 1960s, though one episode references the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The films really stress the idea that history is not cold hard facts and dates as set forth in dusty tomes in the library; it is the triumphs and tragedies of flesh-and-blood people forced to survive political turmoil they could not escape.
4 and 5. THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE and THE INFORMANT. Steven Soderbergh is one of my favorite directors, because he so easily moves back and forth between provocative independents and well-crafted Hollywood studio fare. Soderbergh understands the strengths of both types of films, which is evident in his two releases this year. As an independent, the freedom from studio interference allows him to experiment with film form and techniques as he did in The Girlfriend Experience. The title refers to the spin a high-price call girl named Chelsea puts on her profession. For an evening, she offers the “girlfriend experience” to her clients, which consists of the trappings of being in a relationship —dinner, a movie, conversation about work and problems, and then sex. It’s seems like the perfect solution for men who want the benefits of the trappings but lack the emotional depth and responsibility to put in the work for the real thing. In our consumer-based culture, even relationships have become a commodity, especially for men who use work and success as excuses to avoid emotional commitment. The nonlinear narrative consists of five days in Chelsea’s life, but the days are not presented chronologically; her fragmented life—in which she attempts to compartmentalize her clients and her personal life—is reflected in the film’s narrative structure. Chelsea is played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey, an interesting but nonetheless minor detail that dominated the discussion of the film by the critics, who, let’s face it, are largely male. It was interesting to me how male reviewers spent thousands of words on porn-star Grey but few expanded on the film’s criticisms of modern relationships and social institutions. (Not to be confused with Ileana Pietrobruno’s Girlfriend Experience.)
Soderbergh’s Hollywood film, The Informant, starred Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a real-life executive who worked for ADM, a major corporation responsible for the development of lysine. ADM was involved in illegal price-fixing, and the FBI enlisted Whitacre as an informant, who in Soderbergh’s film is not as dumb as he looks—or maybe he is actually dumber. Despite the fact that Whitacre is the protagonist, the story really unfolds from the perspective of the FBI agents, who do not fully understand their informant until the end. It’s an extremely interesting take on a main character whose true nature remains elusive till the conclusion. Typically, viewers understand the personality, strengths, and weaknesses of the protagonist from the beginning, and with each turn in the plot, we expect the character to react a certain way. This does not hold true in The Informant. Matt Damon plays against his star image in the title role as Whitacre. Working with the images of major stars as part of the fabric of the narrative is an advantage to Hollywood films that Soderbergh truly understands.
6. RED CLIFF. Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo was the darling of Hollywood in the late 1990s when he directed the action thrillers Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission Impossible II, but after the box office disappointment of The Windtalkers, a war drama about the Navajo code breakers of WWII, Woo lost his cache with the studios. The Chinese-born Woo returned to his native country to make Red Cliff, an ambitious, massively scaled historical epic that was conceived, financed, and produced in China. Red Cliff tells the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 AD between the Han Empire and the kingdoms to the West and South, a subject Hollywood producers showed little interest in. But, Woo was welcomed by mainland China and given the financial support necessary to make his dream project, which was intended to drive Chinese cinema in a more commercial direction. Woo took what he learned in Hollywood about scale, action choreography, special effects, and craftsmanship to create a mythic interpretation of this historical event, which is akin to the Trojan War for Westerners. In China, audiences flocked to the two-part, five-hour film in record numbers, making Red Cliff the biggest box office success in that country’s history. Unfortunately, American movie-goers will not see this version on the big screen. It seems we have two less-than-perfect choices: (1) We can view a heavily edited 148-minute version in the theater, though the big screen is the best way to enjoy the visual effects; or, (2) we can eventually see the full-length version on DVD, which is the only way to see the director’s version.
7. THE BEACHES OF AGNES. Agnes Varda, the only female member of the French New Wave and wife of filmmaker Jacques Demy, directed this autobiographical documentary. Her wartime childhood, social activism, and career as a photographer and New Wave filmmaker are all covered, but the film is more than a documentary with interviews and voice-overs—as befitting a cinematic giant who was once a member of cinema’s most well-known movement. Mirrors and circus performers populate her beaches; she walks backwards to suggest going back in time; she takes a boat trip to serve as a metaphor for her career evolution. As much a meditation on the nature of memory as it is an autobiography, The Beaches of Agnes is as fresh and innovative as her Cleo from 9 to 5 was in 1962.
8. SOUND OF THE SEA. I have been really slow to warm up to the computer-generated, Pixar-style animated movies in which the characters look way too much like the spin-off toys that marketers want your kids to hound you to buy. The visual styles and stories of these movies are so literal that they are devoid of artistry or imagination. And, just when someone is about to persuade me that I am hopelessly old school, and that I should embrace the warm-hearted messages of Up and Wall-E, something comes along like Disney’s A Christmas Carol, a perfectly hideous concoction directed by Robert Zemeckis using motion-capture animation—the low end of computer animation. I am sure Walt Disney’s original animators—the famous “Nine Old Men”—are rolling in their graves. In motion capture, the characters look like they are in a state of purgatory between human likeness and animation. Someone needs to inform Zemeckis that this soulless animation style is downright creepy. I caught about five minutes of his Polar Express on television over the weekend, and the motion-capture version of Tom Hanks with its lifeless features and dead eyes gave me nightmares that night. Such films remind me to stand my ground in support of 2-D animation based on the graphic properties of illustration and painting. Sound of the Sea was produced in 2007, but it was released in America this year as part of the Festival of New Spanish Cinema, which played at Facets in November. Not only is the film an example of 2-D animation, it is rendered in the style of paintings in the richest, most vibrant colors since Disney’s Fantasia. Graphic novelist Miguelanxo Prado wrote and directed Sound of the Sea based on his own oil paintings, drawings, and acrylics. The story chronicles a painter who takes a dreamlike underwater journey after his fishing boat capsizes during a storm. The visual style is evocative, lyrical, painterly, and imaginative—everything that the major studios have drained from American animation.
9. LOOK. Look was written and directed by Adam Rifkin, who works mostly as a scriptwriter on such commercial Hollywood fare as Underdog and Mousehunt. The gimmick of this film is about as far from Underdog as you can get. The entire film is shot from the perspective of surveillance or security cameras and focuses on several diverse characters in a handful of loosely intertwined stories. The point is to illustrate our complete lack of privacy in contemporary life. I recommend Look because of its distinct visual style, which was based on the conceit that all footage came from security cameras, and because of the way the scenes unfold in extended long takes, giving the film a peculiar but mesmerizing rhythm. However, the characters are truly unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly. It is difficult to put up with them for the duration of the movie. Also, one story thread is particularly immature and offensive. Two oversexed teenage girls intentionally plot to seduce a teacher in order to get him fired. Not only is the depiction of these girls like something out of a porn film, the idea that underage girls are to blame for teachers’ indiscretions is distasteful. If you are able to rent this film, beware of the weaknesses.
10. VISUAL ACOUSTICS. Julius Shulman, who was alive when this documentary was made but died this past summer, was considered by many to be the world’s greatest architectural photographer. He was devoted to capturing the work of Southern California’s modernist movement, including the houses of Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Pierre Koenig. I knew nothing of Shulman and this movement in architecture, but this documentary informed me of both in an entertaining and informative style. I was particularly interested in Shulman’s influence on film directors and cinematographers, and in one section Dante Spinotti, who works a great deal with director Michael Mann, tries to recreate on film the look and atmosphere of Shulman’s most famous photograph. My favorite moment comes when Shulman talks of his disgust with the postmodernist movement in art and architecture. He went into semi-retirement rather than be forced to photograph architecture he found meaningless and superficial. I don’t know enough about architecture to care either way about postmodernism, but I can certainly relate to Shulman’s passionate convictions about what constitutes worthy art. (See Sound of the Sea above!).
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