by Walter ChawTwo things in 2014. Well, one in 2013 and one in 2014. The first was the Telluride Film Festival, which occurs on Labour Day Weekend and which I attended for the first time in a decade in 2013. The second was a conversation I had with a friend over Skype earlier this year, around the time of my 41st birthday. They led me, those two things, to change my life over from one of quiet desperation to one of perpetual stimulation and challenge. I left a major corporation and a job that provided security and some measure of stability to become general manager of the Alamo Drafthouse in my home state of Colorado. As someone who tends towards depression, it's hardly hyperbole to say that it was a decision that probably saved my life.
by Walter ChawSearching for themes in 2013, you come upon the obvious ones first: the frustrations of the forty-five percenters; the growing income gap; and the death of the middle-class, encapsulated in brat-taculars like The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers and prestige pics like Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, David O. Russell's American Hustle, and, um, Michael Bay's Pain & Gain. You see this preoccupation with the economy in Nebraska's quest for a million-dollar Clearinghouse payday, and in Frances Halladay's desire for a place to sleep and a career that can subsidize it (see also: To the Wonder and Byzantium). It's there in the identity theft of Identity Theft and the motivations of the prefab family from We're the Millers, paid off with picket fences in an ending with echoes of My Blue Heaven and Goodfellas. Consider All is Lost, an allegory for pensioners who've lost everything to the wolves of Wall Street, adrift on a limitless span, taking on water but plucky, damnit. Too plucky, in the case of Redford's Everyman hero--who, frankly, would've better served his allegory had he drowned with salvation in sight.
Walter Chaw I wish To the Wonder
released this year--Take Shelter, too. The one
because I love Terrence
Malick and I'm excited that he's working so much, the other because I fear
Shelter is the last time Michael Shannon will anchor a
being instantly Christopher Walken-ized. It's his The Dead
he's amazing in a movie that takes big risks and pays off in a
if he were to star in it now, I think it would be
for camp. I also wish I'd seen Margaret in time
for my 2011 list. Alas, local publicity has never been terribly
in my participation. Nevertheless, thanks mostly to Netflix
screeners, I saw a great many great films this year.
Editor's Note, December 24, 2012: Again, this material is pretty stale. Mostly reposting it for posterity, something I can't always bring myself to do when it comes to the early reviews.
The following Ten Best list reflects only the opinions of Bill Chambers--FILM FREAK CENTRAL's webmaster--and not necessarily those of this site's other contributors.
1. The Ice Storm- Suburbia in most films is portrayed as a white picket fence surrounding a dozen Addams families. The Ice Storm is less eager to impress us with quirky kinfolk--it places two neighbouring, dysfunctional families under a microscope. Witty without being jokey, sad without being blatantly tearjerking, this is that sort of film so unforgiving that audiences stayed away in droves.
Editor's Note, December 24, 2012: I didn't make a list in 1999. And Life is Beautiful? Sheesh. The prose here is also a particularly embarrassing shade of purple.
The following Ten Best list reflects only the opinions of Bill Chambers--Film Freak Central's webmaster--and not necessarily those of this site's other contributors.
10. Henry Fool
Hal Hartley movies never make Top 10 lists; they're considered pompous and pretentious by people who are just those things. Simon's metamorphosis from garbage man to renowned author under the tutelage of worldly Henry Fool was one of this year's most thoughtful character studies; Hartley, ever the pop intellectual, mines issues of classism and censorship in a grunge landscape like some poet of the street.
Even though 2001 began like 2000 ended (poorly) and had a summer that could only count as its highlights a film so bad it became a handy satire of summer movies (The Mummy Returns) and two silly anachronistic pieces that got points for using David Bowie songs well (A Knight's Tale, Moulin Rouge!), the cinematic year resolved itself by the end as one of the strongest in memory.
Love stories were the rule of the day for the year that was 2002. Sprung love stories, twisted love stories, emotionally devastating love stories flavoured by entropy and nihilism. The films that seem to fall out of that purview, About Schmidt and Morvern Callar, show themselves ultimately to be pictures moved by the deaths of a loved one or, as with Wendigo, studies of the dynamics of family from surface ideal to subversive schism. Romance is the prism through which identity and normalcy are redefined--a certain celluloid co-dependency that made 2002 (and 2001) the best years for film, and American film in particular, since the heyday of American cinema in the 1970s.
January 1, 2004|Stained by the twin horrors of school shootings and 9/11, the films of 2003 (many of the best of which are actually 2002 films that didn't find a release slot until this year) are interested in listlessness and languor, in addressing what appears to be a national ennui where the worst are filled with passionate intensity and the rest of us are spectators. Declared the worst year in memory at the Cannes Film Festival by any number of wags, 2003 was instead, I'd offer, deadened by a sort of fatalistic nihilism that bleaches our entertainments with a grey wash, making it difficult to muster much in the way of enthusiasm on the one hand and comfort on the other. The splashiest of the year's best films, in fact, are about revenge and noble sacrifice, while a trio of strong pictures (Dogville, The True Meaning of Pictures, Rhinoceros Eyes) have been pushed back to 2004, transforming this year's wrap-up into something of a patchwork creature. Stepping back, it seems only right that it be that way.-Walter Chaw
January 1, 2005|There's a wonderful, haunted Dan Simmons short story called "The River Styx Runs Upstream" in which technology has made the resurrection of beloved family members possible, though the resurrected are barely recognizable as human. It's an iteration of the W.W. Jacobs story "The Monkey's Paw", of course, a fictionalized platitude of watching what you wish for, and the tale's melancholic tone--its themes of surfacing and being unable to let go of the past--colour the best films of 2004.
January 9, 2006|After a year, 2004, wherein we indulged in the fantasy that we could forget our recent past in favour of better tomorrows, 2005 finds us obsessed with the things we've lost (especially children), the things we deny, and the difficulty of living with ghosts. It was a reflection of our political landscape split starkly into a Yeatsian twain between the worst, with their passionate intensity, and the best, lacking all conviction--the ultra-conservatives producing more of the same old tired, divisive hate (The Island showed that even Old Scratch could be predictable and boring) and the ultra-liberals producing high-minded garbage that either studiously avoided a point-of-view (The Interpreter, The Constant Gardener, Kingdom of Heaven, Syriana) or was so clearly left-wing proselytizing that it jettisoned context and energy in favour of bland political allegory (Good Night, and Good Luck.). The reason Bush Jr. won a second term is that he ran unopposed--and after the disastrous year the Grand Old Party had under him as their fearless leader, the real tragedy is that there's still no strong message in any opposing party to fill the void. Which explains, I guess, why the most ambivalent, overtly politicized films of the year were not only ultimately mediocre, but also made by a guy who taught himself how to finally direct an almost-passable film on the trial-and-mostly-error backs of three of the most highly-anticipated films of all time (George Lucas and Revenge of the Sith) and the king of everything for everyone (Steven Spielberg and his War of the Worldsand Munich). The blatant exceptions were Christopher Nolan's genre Munich (Batman Begins) and David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, a film that says volumes about vengeance and the delusions of the righteous while trapped in the body of a good old American, sexy dames and guns-a-blazing, neo-noir.
January 2, 2007|I think the start of 2006 held so much promise mainly because it heralded the end of 2005. Not a doomsayer by any stretch, I find myself, at least in my own head, defending the state of film against facile diagnoses. "Books are always better than the movies based on them" and "They don't make good movies anymore" are the common phrases trotted out to simulate critical thought--better yet is the carrying around of the cross of "You just don't like anything." The truth is that books are only superior to the movies made from them about half the time (consider that almost all of Hitchcock's films are based on shitty literature); that good movies are no rarer than usual; and that disliking Blood Diamond, Dreamgirls, and The Holiday doesn't mean I don't like anything. Still, I admit to taking short rides with those facile phrases over the years, trying them on for size, seeing if and how far they will fly.
Well the road is out before me
and the moon is shining bright
what I want you to remember
as I disappear tonight
today is grey skies
tomorrow is tears
you'll have to wait 'til yesterday is here.
-Tom Waits, "Yesterday Is Here"
Break it down: 2007 resets the early days of the New American Cinema--the last years of the Apollo space program (and sure enough, we have a documentary about the remaining Apollo astronauts in David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon) and Watergate, the death twitches of the 1960s gradually revealing themselves in pictures. Whether this leads to another Golden Age or merely another stutter-step on the road of our grief remains to be seen, but past the halfway point of the first decade of the new millennium (and six years after 9/11 hit its own reset button), the 2000s have already established themselves with the usual single-minded purpose. At the least, celebrate the resurgence of American cinema--the mainstream re-establishing itself as not just a dream factory, but a garden of auteur delights as well. 2007, above anything else, heralds a banner year for the auteur theory (Paul Thomas Anderson, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Coens, Tarantino, Sean Penn, Cronenberg, Brad Bird, Kim Ki-duk, David Fincher, Ken Loach, Ang Lee, Brian DePalma--and flicks I didn't catch by guys like Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Tsai Ming-liang, John Sayles, and so on), with the films, like Sweeney's razors, functioning as extensions of the directors' biological selves.
I'm going to call 2008 a "down" year, but not because there were fewer masterpieces produced--only because the theme that resonated for me the most was this sense of a cycle completing. If it's true that every generation flatters itself as the last one, it's equally true that every decade of film nears its completion with its full measure of anticipation/regret (liebestraum as zeitgeist, no?) in its eighth, sometimes ninth, year. Even films that on the surface seem filled with the fruit of human ambition and desire--like James Marsh's ebullient Man on Wire, in which the World Trade Center appears as the phantom lover of highwire artist Philippe Petit--take place, after all, at the ground zero of this epoch. What's dying throughout 2006 and 2007, all this sussing through father issues and the cult of masculinity and love and the courage of children, is dead now. It's not nihilism anymore, it's pragmatism. The dream is over, the insect is awake.