The 2012 Sundance Film Festival | Preparations

January. The annual trip to Park City, UT for the Sundance Film Festival. I have attended Sundance since 1998, with a few years’ absence here and there, and I consider it the most important business trip I make all year. By now it is news to no one that the entire independent film business descends upon (or ascends, I guess) Park City for the festival and because of that critical mass, Sundance serves as a sort of convention for the low budget film business, a cold, exhausting convention full of familiar faces and heavy competition among buyers, critics, film programmers and festival organizers for access and the top films at the festival.

This year, I will be covering Sundance on the Filmmaker Magazine blog, so I hope you’ll follow me over there; you can find Filmmaker on Twitter by following @FilmmakerMag, which I assume will post updates. I’ll also be tweeting from my @BRM account.

As for the blog here, I hope to use this as a home for the pictures I’ll be taking; I’ll have my camera in tow and hope to get some great shots of life at Sundance. I doubt you’ll see any celebrities on here, but I hope to post pictures often. The Twitter feed is updated by this blog, so you can grab the RSS Feed or simply follow me on Twitter to keep up with goings on here.

Off to stuff clothes into a bag. Flight in the morning. The adventure begins….again…

Notebook: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the latest film from Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, opens with a shot of an obscured pane of glass, a dirty window leaking light and motion onto its greasy surface. Focus pulls us past the hazy façade and inside the kitchen of an auto repair shop; three men sit together, enjoying a joke and eating some dinner. Outside, a dog barks, drawing one of the men outside with a plate of bones. As the dog enjoys his treat, storm clouds gather overhead, threatening. The sense of dread is palpable; despite the good humor, nothing good will come of this. And nothing does.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a remarkable film and, in my estimation, a contender to be remembered as a masterpiece, the second contender I have seen at this year’s New York Film Festival. ‘Masterpiece’ is a word I do not use lightly, and one I reserve for films that have shaken me to my core and displayed a depth of artistry and feeling that is incredibly rare. Yes, we live in an age of hyperbole and yes, the thrill of the new can sometimes overwhelm our ability to recognize what will last, but there is something about Ceylan’s work that transcends. Here, and not for the first time, Ceylan’s incredible gifts as an image maker are put to the service of a complex, multifaceted story that is surprising for the simplicity of its premise and the vast richness of its execution.

Like the filthy glass of the opening shot, the men who populate Ceylan’s latest film are external surfaces betrayed by the complexity that escapes from within them, unconsciously and with tremendous force. Masculinity has always been a crucial subject for Ceylan; from the impossibility of male communication in Distant, to the callous, violent sexual vanity on display in Climates, to the corruption of the individual by his duty that sets the fates in motion in Three Monkeys, Ceylan has always understood the emasculating brutality of power and the impact it has on the lives of men who desire and feel bound to its tropes.

After its ominous prologue, the film continues with the first in a series of expansive widescreen shots of the Turkish countryside; from a distance, we see the headlights of cars as they wind their way along the narrow road. Soon, they arrive at their destination and their purpose becomes clear; there has been a murder and the police, coroner and prosecutor are accompanying the confessed killers in search of the body. Told over the course of a single night and morning, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia spends its time in search of both a body and something far more intangible: the nature of masculinity and its corruption.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is bursting with examples that range from the haunting to the hilarious, the mystical to the mundane. In one fleeting but prescient moment, lightning reveals ancient faces carved in the rock, frightening totems of forgotten men who once populated the now barren landscape; in another, the prosecutor, describing the scene of the crime, compares the face of murder victim to that of Clark Gable before a flood of (clearly anticipated) compliments come flooding back his way, bringing a blush to his cheek. Each of the men in Ceylan’s party seemingly want to be someone else, want to be free from the ties that bind them.

This might seem a simplification, but gratefully, Ceylan is far too gifted a filmmaker to simply lay his cards on the table. Instead, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is sculpted magnificently by the passing of time, by desire. As the night moves forward, into the gloaming of the pre-dawn hours, the disorientation of the search manifests itself in a small village where the party seeks respite. Here, the mayor of the town welcomes the men, allowing his beautiful daughter to serve them tea during an unexpected blackout; as the men drift in and out of sleep, ghosts begin to appear and the daughter begins to haunt their dreams. This loosening of time and its disorienting effect on the party allows them to begin opening up to one another, to begin making confessions, to transform their relationships. It is a bravura sequence, full of hallucination and feeling, that sends the film hurtling toward its heartbreaking conclusion.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Structurally, Ceylan has filled his film with rhyming moments and symbolic images and gestures, none more important than the windows that constantly frame and disconnect people from one another. A pane of glass is a potent symbol for a filmmaker (and, in Ceylan’s case, a photographer) seeking to capture the complexity of life from one side of a lens, and Ceylan uses the divisive power of the window as a way to restrain his characters to hold them back from reaching what they truly want. The film’s final shot brings it home in an immensely moving way; as the coroner looks out the window of his operating room, he watches a mother and her young son walking down a path. Children play in a schoolyard and the boy seeks to pull away and join in the fun. A reversal of the film’s opening shot, the camera generously pulls us in, but the action offers another thought; a sense of loss, of regret and what may be to come.

Like all great art, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia seems to be operating on a million levels all at once; the film clearly deals with class, with the corrupting power and self-delusion of authority, with urban and rural cultural expectations, with the narrow distance between a murderer and a man whose narcissism causes a death of its own. Ceylan has made great films before; perhaps, like me, you feel he has made them exclusively. But with each new movie, his mastery of the form seems to expand, enriching his cinema with an otherworldly, poetic power that I find absolutely gripping. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia stands alongside the finest work in contemporary cinema, a thrilling example of a director in full command of his copious gifts.

The 2011 Toronto Film Festival | Interview: Frederick Wiseman (CRAZY HORSE)

Created over a career that spans six decades, Frederick Wiseman’s brand of non-fiction filmmaking is notable for both its breadth of subject and its disciplined style; no interviews, no narration, just a strict mandate to capture human interactions and then craft them into dramatic stories in the editing suite. If you were looking for a map of human activity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you could do much worse than looking at Wiseman’s portraits of our social institutions. His new film Crazy Horse played at this year’s New York and Toronto Film Festivals. I sat down with Wiseman in Toronto, where we met to discuss the film and his career.

Frederick Wiseman (photo by John Ewing)

BRM: To begin, I’m interested to know how you got involved with The Crazy Horse nightclub. I know you’ve made a lot of films in Paris and have spent some time there; what attracted you about that institution or made you want to address it?

Frederick Wiseman: A couple of things really. I’m interested in dance; if you count Boxing Gym, which is at least in part a dance movie, this is the fourth dance movie I’ve made. Ballet, La Danse, Boxing Gym and now Crazy Horse. It’s also another excuse to stay in Paris and that’s not an incidental reason, but in terms of the films that I’ve done, a lot of my films, in one way or another, have a particular emphasis on aspects of the body. Obviously, any movie is about the body; the monastery movie I made Essene is in part about the denial of the body, Hospital and Near Death are about the wasting of the body through illness, disease and ultimately death, Domestic Violence I &II are about the abuse of the body, Boxing Gym is about controlled violence toward the body, Maneuver, Basic Training and Missile, the three military films, are about the body in the service of the state, used to protect the interest of the state, Model is about the aestheticization of the body to sell commercial products, The Store is about the adornment of the body– so, in an abstract way, the various uses of the body is a theme that cuts across a lot of movies. Crazy Horse is at least in part about the eroticization of the body in order to make money.

BRM: Yes, and that’s a real, political thing. In a lot of the films you mentioned just now, there is a very intense political subtext. Even though the films do not set out to beat you over the head with politics or make specific points–

Wiseman: No, I hope not–

BRM:–no, not at all. But you mentioned that the films have this recognition of violence underneath them. In Crazy Horse, there is a lot of fragmentation of the women and their bodies and the way we look at them.

Wiseman: Exactly.

BRM: So I’m wondering, what do you know going into this situation about how you will articulate this subtext?

Wiseman: Well, I don’t know going in, because I have no idea what I’m going to find. I was at The Crazy Horse twice before the shooting started, so the themes of the movie emerged as a consequence of the period of editing. In this case, it was a year. But, there’s an advantage you have in doing movies about plays or dances that you don’t have in ordinary films; in a performance movie like La Danse or Ballet, there are going to be rehearsals, and then there are going to be performances. So, you can shoot the same thing, pretty much done the same way, a number of times and in a number of ways. Whereas, if you take a movie like Welfare, you see an interesting sequence going on, you have one shot to get it and you have to think about the cut aways and the wide shots, while at the same time shooting it to make the content clear. That’s not true in these performance or dance movies. What I tried to do during the course of the shooting was to accumulate sequences I was interested in, shot in as many different ways as possible, so I would have choices in the editing room. For example, there’s a sequence in the movie called Baby Buns; The Crazy Horse is open seven night a week, two shows a night, except Saturday, which is three shows–fifteen shows a week. So, you can shoot Baby Buns one time as a wide shot, one time from the left hand side of the stage, another night from the right, another night of just close-ups, etc. so that six months later when you’re in the editing room and you want to make a sequence out of Baby Buns, you can do it and you can cut it as if it was staged for a movie that way, even though it wasn’t. Because the event is a repetitive one, you can create choices for yourself.

Crazy Horse

BRM: And that performative aspect is different in so many ways from what people traditionally think of with a lot of your films.

Wiseman: And correctly, because in most of the film, that opportunity doesn’t exist. The only film that that exists in prior to the dance films was Meat, and I’m not making any comparisons between an abattoir and a ballet company, but with 3000 head of cattle and 1500 sheep killed every day, you had the opportunity to follow that process and shoot it different ways.

BRM: Is there something about France or Paris in particular that draws you to their creative community?

Wiseman: I don’t think it’s about their creative community per se; I was a student in Paris years ago and it was great and the food’s good. It’s a beautiful place to live, I like walking around there, I have a lot of friends there. I’m not the sole person to think this way (laughs). In a cultural sense, its no different than living in New York; in New York you have a great choice of music, theater and dance. The same in Paris. It’s a comfortable place to live and it’s small; it’s only 2,000,000 people. And it’s beautiful, the center of the city is similar to the way it was a long time ago and they have the good sense to keep it that way. So, it’s fun.

BRM: Do you feel you have an outsider’s perspective there that you don’t have in the U.S.?

Wiseman: That’s an interesting question. It’s complicated by what you mean by “outsider.” When I went to a welfare center in New York or a public housing project in Chicago, I was an outsider because the experiences of the clients of those places were not my experience, either as a child or an adult. On the other hand, everyone was speaking the same language and the references–cultural, political, sports, movies, music– you assume, correctly or incorrectly, that in your own society, you understand the cultural cues. In France, and my French is good but far from perfect, there’s always the risk that I’m going to misinterpret a cultural cue– not that there isn’t a risk of misinterpreting something in America too, that’s certainly the case. But it’s a greater risk when you’re working outside of the culture you grew up in because you take it for granted, and maybe it’s pretentious, but you can deceive yourself into thinking you understand your own culture better. I’m more cautious about making judgements, but that caution comes up more in the editing than the shooting, because in the shooting, you have to make up your mind very quickly. Often, if you miss the first 30 seconds, you miss the basic aspect of the encounter from which the rest of the sequence unfolds. I don’t think being an outsider has been a problem, more that you have to be aware of that and deal with it.

BRM: It’s tough to say your films are objective; you’re making choices and omitting information just like anyone else in order to tell a story. But people tend to draw strong conclusions from your films based on what they bring to the experience. Your films have a very steady perspective; I’m wondering how that impacts your access to a place like The Crazy Horse or other institutions you are trying to approach. Once they go back and look at your work, do you run into roadblocks from potential subjects over how they experience your previous films?

Wiseman: I always present the person or institution that I am interested in a list and description of my previous films and tell them that I can make any of these films available to them. In the case of The Crazy Horse, both the dancers and the administration saw La Comédie-Française and La Danse, some of them watched Welfare, there were five or six films circulating among the 50 or 60 people working at The Crazy Horse. It’s very important to me to make that offer and I always hope people will take me up on it. Often, I make the offer and people don’t ask for anything. I want them to, because I want the process and the way I work to be transparent. I don’t want someone to say to me after working on a film for a year “You didn’t tell me there was no narration!” or “I thought I was going to be interviewed!” I also make that clear in a letter that I write before the shooting starts; although I don’t form a legal contract, I always write a letter in advance summarizing my understanding of our situation. The letter says basically that it’s a maximum period of ten weeks, we have to have access to everything that is going on, if there is a sequence someone doesn’t want shot, all they have to do is say no and that’s the end of it, that I have complete editorial control, that the film will be shown on Public television and theatrically, it may be shown in other countries, I own the rights in perpetuity, etc. I try to anticipate anything that might subsequently be an issue, and then I ask them to either acknowledge receipt of it or sign a copy of it and send it back to me. So, in effect its a contract where all of the potential divisive issues have been resolved.

BRM: Once you’ve started, I guess you’re alive to the moments as they are happening; I’m wondering about how surprise works in your filmmaking. With this film, were there surprises that were bigger than most of your films? How do you integrate that sense of surprise into your process?

Wiseman: Well, there’s always surprise because when I start, I basically know nothing about these places. In some ways I feel I know nothing about them in the end, too. In a sense, the shooting of the film is the research. I’m always surprised because I like to think I’m learning something. One of the interesting things for me, coming out of the experience of being at The Crazy Horse, is what constitutes eroticism and sensuality? For some people, the rehearsals may be more erotic than the performances, because in the rehearsals, the women act more naturally; there’s no makeup, they have halters on, they’re not wearing wigs– they’re just a group of attractive women dancing and rehearsing. In the show, it’s more performance oriented, often multiple women have the same makeup and clothing, and so it’s less personal. It may be more aesthetic in the formal sense– there isn’t much lighting in the rehearsals. But much of the film is asking, in an abstract way, what is beauty, what is eroticism, how do women maintain their beauty, etc.

BRM: And interestingly here, the decision makers, on the creative side anyway, are primarily men, which sets up a real question about the dynamics of power here. Also, It was surprising to see how seriously they take this work; you think of cabaret or striptease as being “low culture,” but here, the subjects treat their work as “high culture.”

Wiseman: The choreographer Philippe Decouflé is a very famous choreographer, not in the classical ballet world, but popular dance and he has his own modern dance company. He has a very good sense of humor; he was the choreographer for the French Winter Olympics. He’s a very accomplished man and the choreography in the film reflects that. It’s not Swan Lake, but it’s technically complicated and imaginative.

BRM: And he’s got a rival, in a way, which again, was a surprise to see the institution giving the keys to the super fan and allowing him to subvert Decouflé in a lot of ways. When you see something like that going on, does the hair on your neck stand up?

Wiseman: Well, my big ears do prick up. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be good for the film or not, but I concluded it would be. Some of the scenes between them, with their different styles of expression, provide some of the important aspects of the structure of the film.

BRM: What about the decision not to go outside of the club? In any of your films–

Wiseman: Right, it doesn’t happen in any of my films. In Welfare we don’t visit people in welfare hotels or in welfare apartments. My films are about the place; it’s usually one building or a very limited geographical area. These limitations serve the same function for me as the lines do on a tennis court. In other, words, what takes place in the geographical space of the building is good. Anything outside? Out of bounds.

BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your appreciation of dance? What draws you to dance as a form?

Wiseman: I’ve been a ballet fan for years. When I was in law school, I used to go in to New York City and go see the New York City Ballet in the 1950’s. I’ve been in New York a lot over the years– I was teaching a class in New York, have friends in New York– so I’ve been to the ballet a lot. In 1995, I made La Comédie-Française and was in Paris for about six months, so I started going to the ballet in France. And for the reasons I stated earlier, I wanted to make another movie in France, so I got in touch with the Paris Opera Ballet, went to see them and again, they said yes right away. That was one of the great experiences of my life making that film. The Crazy Horse idea came up by chance; I was having dinner with a French friend and she said “have you thought about making a movie about a Parisian nightclub?” and I said “Yeah, but I haven’t gotten around to it,” and she said “Decouflé is doing a new show at the Crazy Horse, maybe they’d be interested?” So, the next night we went to The Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse

BRM: What was that experience like for you?

Wiseman: Well, I had been to The Crazy Horse once before, in 1957 with my father-in-law and I hadn’t been back. I did see the potential filmic value when I went back to see the show, so I went in the next day and they said okay.

BRM: They use a lot of cinematic techniques in the show itself. It’s a very cinematic show. How much did you draw from that when you were making decisions during the shoot?

Wiseman: Some of the sequences in the film are me filming the movies that are a part of the show. Sometimes you don’t know if its a silhouette shot of the dancers behind the screen or a movie that’s being projected for the audience at the club. I knew when I saw the show that this could have great potential value for the movie I wanted to make, but i didn’t have any idea specifically of how I wanted to use it.

BRM: Can you talk about the decision to break up the performances in the editing? When you’re cutting the film, there’s got to some really tough decisions about how you’re going to assemble these sequences without violating the spirit of the pieces being performed.

Wiseman: Well, it’s very hard. In a sense, it’s harder to do it with that kind of performance than with dialogue–

BRM: Absolutely. You’d think talking would be bracketed by the natural flow of conversation–

Wiseman: Yes, you can edit a talking sequence so that it appears that it took place the way you’re seeing it in the movie. It doesn’t make any difference that the three and a half minutes of dialogue in the film came from 40 minutes of rushes that come from 50 minutes of real time. But here, unlike the ballet where an act may be 45 minutes or an hour, the acts at The Crazy Horse are four or five minutes, a couple of them maybe six minutes tops. So, it’s a question of not only finding a place where you can cut into the music, but also finding a place where you can cut into the movement so that, without suggesting you’re seeing the whole number, it doesn’t violate the spirit of the number. That was not easy, and it was further complicated by the fact, and in a problem that doesn’t exist in a non-performance film, where you have so much music. In a talk film, you can cut from one conversation or one scene to another, as long as they’ve got a visual or thematic connection. But it’s very difficult to cross fade music, because the music at the end of one scene can really screw up the new music in the next scene. One of the issues in the editing is to find little transition shots so that the music of the sequence that is finishing can fade out and you don’t have to cut– it’s terrible when you cut music abruptly. It either has to end naturally or you have to fade it so it appears to end naturally and then you need a pause, not more than a second or two, before you can begin to fade in music for the next sequence. It’s an interesting problem, and because the sequences are shorter, it was more of a problem on Crazy Horse.

BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your work process? I mean filming, editing, film festivals, starting again, shooting editing. I assume you’re making every decision on these films–

Wiseman: Yes.

BRM: — so, maybe this is not an interesting question, but your work schedule must be outrageous.

Wiseman: Well, it is outrageous. I have a knack for picking places that are open all the time. At The Crazy Horse, we’d shoot a thirteen hour day. So, it’s a long day and after shooting, we’d have to watch rushes. One of the things I like about making movies like this is that it makes demands of every aspect of your being. You’ve got to stay in shape because it’s a sport; if you’re not in shape, you can’t run around with the equipment all day and be reasonably alert to make choices and get the quality you need. It’s often, depending on the subject matter, very emotionally demanding; in a movie like Near Death or Hospital, I mean, making movies is a decent defense but you’re seeing some pretty difficult situations. And, intellectually speaking, working like this is extremely stimulating because you have to think your way through the experience in order to make the choices that make the movie. The movie is made up of hundreds of thousands of choices. During the shooting, there’s no time for analysis; you have to act instinctively and one of the reasons you shoot a lot of film is, it’s better to shoot and be wrong than not shoot and say “Oh shit, I missed it.” I always err on the side of shooting to much, because I’d rather get the sequence. All of these sequences are found sequences. You’d have to be a genius writer to invent some of these sequences, but if you’re lucky enough to be there when they happen and to recognize them for what they are, you can use them in order to construct the film. So much of making these movies is not about filming and film technique per se, it has to do with asking yourself and answering for yourself the question “why?” Why are these words being used? Why is this person moving his head one way or the other? Why is he asking for a cigarette at this point? Why isn’t he looking someone in the ye? Why did she walk away?

BRM: Do you allow yourself emotional involvement in all of this?

Wiseman: I try not to. The work is so demanding, it’s not a serious problem. There’s the joke about not crossing the line when you’re making a movie about a modeling agency or The Crazy Horse, but it’s completely unprofessional. I found myself in some movies, like Hospital, Near Death, Welfare or Public Housing or Titticut Follies, of being extremely moved and emotionally involved, but because you’re there to make a film and the equipment is a kind of defense, it’s not as if you’re there just watching; you’re there to make a movie. So, you can’t indulge personal feelings. You don’t have time, even if you wanted to. And you also know you can’t intervene.

Titicut Follies

BRM: A final question, completely different topic. You’re kind of a pioneer of self-distribution. One of things that’s fascinating now, with video-on-demand and the internet, is that filmmakers now have a real chance to put out their own movies and create strategies to control their own content. You’ve done an amazing job over the course of your career of setting up a business around your work. How has that impacted your ability to make films and are you passionate about the control you retain over your films?

Wiseman: To answer the last part first, I am passionate. I own the rights to all of my movies. A couple of the French movies, I have a French partner, but otherwise, I own them. I’ve done that from the beginning. I have complete control over my own work. I set up my own distribution company in 1971 really because I had no alternative. I got screwed so badly by Grove Press on the first two movies I did, Titicut Follies and High School; they made money on them and I never saw any money and I had to sue Grove Press. I figured there is 100% margin of error, so if mistakes are made from then on they would be my mistakes and if money came in, I got to keep it. My distribution company has been in existence now for 40 years and one person has run it for me for the last 30. She’s terrific, it’s her and one assistant and the two of them run it. Originally, it was a production company but that’s just a matter of making a budget and getting permission; she does the budgets now and I get the permissions. That aspect is not that demanding. But it was originally 16mm, then video and now DVD. I was late getting my movies out in America on DVD because nobody made me an offer and I thought it was going to be a real hassle and I just avoided doing it. Then we just decided it was time, let’s get them out and it’s been fantastically successful. I got offered peanuts by some of the big DVD distribution companies, I mean, it was such a minuscule, pitiful offer, I couldn’t take it seriously. So, for a minimal investment on our part, it’s been extremely successful and it’s all internet. I was never much of a techie and I didn’t understand the viral nature of it, but my God, it was terrific. We put out a small internet press release, bloggers and people who are interested in movies started to write about it, we had a website and the orders started coming in and they’re still coming in. I’m going to do the same thing on VOD now.

BRM: Has this empowered your filmmaking in any way?

Wiseman: Well, it’s made it possible for me to eat (laughs). I’ve always enjoyed being independent, but its made my independence possible because it’s harder to raise money now than it was twenty years ago. There isn’t as much money around for this stuff and there are more people who want to make movies. A lot of people assume I have a very easy time raising money and it’s murderous.

BRM: Thank you very much for you time.

Wiseman: It was a very good interview. Thank you very much.

–Tom Hall

My Top Ten Cinematic Experiences of 2011

It’s list time. I voted in the 2011 IndieWire poll, but that list is only for films that were “released” in 2011, so films that I saw in 2010 (for example, Cristi Puiu’s amazing Aurora or Mike Mills’ Beginners) are included there whereas several films that I saw this year that are coming to screens in 2012 were ineligible. It’s the same problem every year, so every year I create this list of my favorite film “experiences,” a list which includes not only films, but personal moments and obsessions that may orbit cinematic culture but which were a big part of my own thinking. You could cut the subjectivity of this list with a cheese knife so, knowing all of the caveats, let’s get on with it.

10. Rampart At The Toronto Film Festival


This year saw the launch of a new phase in my professional life; for the first time ever, I was invited to rough cut screenings of films to give feedback. It was, by far, the most rewarding screening experience of the year. I was allowed to use my role as a viewer to think about films in a few way, not just analyzing what they are, but also thinking about what they might still be, which is incredibly exciting. I took the responsibility very seriously and did my best. The first of these screenings was for Oren Moverman’s Rampart, which inspired me on so many levels. having seen that cut and then being on hand to see the final cut at Toronto was incredibly rewarding, like seeing a chiseled stone of a film become a full fledged sculpture. That the film itself is one of the best performance vehicles of the year is a testament to Oren Moverman’s skill and generosity and Woody Harrelson’s gifts, but having seen and given my thoughts on this film was a very encouraging process, allowing me the confidence to attend later screenings and support the work of artists I admire.

9. Tuesday, After Christmas on a DVD screener

Tuesday After Christmas

There are moments that galvanize you as a film programmer, and one of them is being handed a screener by a colleague and being told that you will “love” a film. Suddenly, things are put on the line; will I really love it? What does it mean about my relationship with my colleague if I don’t respond? In this instance, my trust was validated; from the first shot of a naked couple lying on a bed, I was absolutely smitten with Tuesday, After Christmas, a terribly under-seen relationship drama from Romanian director Radu Muntean. I type a variation on the following sentence every year, but it remains invariably true; the Romanian National Center for Cinematography is probably the greatest cinematic institution in the world right now, generating more great films and filmmakers per capita (and in less than ideal circumstances) than anywhere else. Tuesday, After Christmas is a scalding movie, featuring one of the great scenes of the year; a breathtaking, heartbreaking fifteen minute tour de force between a husband and wife that reconfigures the entire film. This film is available now on Netflix; don’t miss it.

8. Take Shelter</b and Martha Marcy May Marlene at Sundance

Take Shelter

I love Sundance. I love the snow, I love the altitude, I love peeing every five minutes, I love the Press & Industry venues, I love catching up with colleagues, I love the early mornings and the late nights. It is a great film festival, primarily because, of all of the festivals in the USA, it bears the heaviest burden for discovering new talent. Sundance will never be my favorite festival, mostly because it can’t compete with the quality of selections in a “best of” festival like New York or the fact that it has a different mission (and far bigger program) than the international auteur focus of Cannes, but the ratio of good to bad is incredible considering how much brand new work is on display. And no festival anywhere launches a wider variety of good movies, including documentary and micro-budget cinema, than Sundance. It remains one of two festivals in the USA (the other being SXSW, which I never can attend due to its proximity to my own event) that truly takes massive risks in what it chooses to feature. 2011 featured a lot of good work, but two films remain stuck in my mind; Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, two American independent films that blew the doors off of most of what the studio system could muster. If this were the 1970’s, Sean and Jeff would be rolling up their sleeves on their studio debuts right now. Instead, it is 2012 and, after the modest commercial appeal of both films, who knows. I expect both filmmakers to continue to do great things in the coming years, but how is it that both of these movies were not a part of the national conversation?

7. The Tree Of Life at BAM

This makes the list not just because I loved Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life , but because seeing it in a packed public screening on a Saturday night in the biggest theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is about as close to an ideal screening situation as you can get. The movie more than delivered, but so did the feeling of communion in the room, the solidarity among the audience that this film was an event to be taken seriously, to be discussed and debated, a movie worthy of collective focus. You could have heard a pin drop in that theater; no cell phones were on, no one was Tweeting or texting, barely a whisper between people. It was really beautiful to me. My favorite film critic Kent Jones once wrote something along the lines of stating that the difference between film critics and non-professional film writers and bloggers is that, often, the amateurs conflate the experience of going to movies with the movies themselves, and in my case, he’s 100% right. I can’t help but be swayed by the magic of the movie theater and this experience was, for me, one of the best public screenings ever. People with their prejudices can cry “hipster” all they want , but this was Brooklyn all the way. It felt like home, like being alive in the right place at the right time.

6. ALPS at The Toronto Film Festival

This is an interesting choice for me, not because I didn’t absolutely love this film, which I did, but because the screening itself was a relatively unremarkable experience for me at the Toronto Film Festival. For some reason, coming off of a lot of attention at Venice and given the relative popularity of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film Dogtooth, Toronto scheduled the industry screening of ALPS in a relatively small theater, causing the annual bout of shouting and shoving among those not able to make it in. It happens every year at the weirdest films; I remember the absolute frenzy among an industry crowd trying to get in to Lucas Moodyson’s A Hole In My Heart which, in retrospect, is crazy. Anyway, I made it in, barely; squeezed in near the front, but happy as a clam.

The film itself was one of my favorite of the year and, as is the case with my own Sarasota Film Festival, there is a perverse pleasure to be taken from seeing a film like ALPS in a multiplex environment; big screen, terrific sound, stadium seating. I was at Toronto on my first Press pass, and I wrote about the film for my now more frequent home, Hammer To Nail. There, I wrote:

“If Dogtooth is anything, it is a literalization of familial role playing, of the hierarchies and power at play in our foundational social unit; the film is no more absurd or perverse in exposing our faith in the family than our general adherence to that faith itself. But where Dogtooth drafted its formal boundaries around an isolated family compound, Lanthimos’ new film ALPS redraws the lines, circumscribing the social response to death and loss as another game of self-denial and role-playing.”

Can’t get enough of that.

5. The Turin Horse, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and A Separation At The New York Film Festival

This year’s New York Film Festival, to be clear, my favorite film festival, featured not one, not two, but three stone cold masterpieces that essentially defined my year. Of the three, only Asghar Farhadi’s tormented family drama A Separation saw a release in 2011 (on the penultimate day of the year, no less.) 2012 will see the release of both Bela Tarr’s incredible The Turin Horse and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s brilliant Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, both from the good people at The Cinema Guild. All three of these films, viewed in the ideal environment at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, took me to the heights that only great cinema can deliver. I wrote about Tarr and Ceylan’s films already, but the blog migration has not helped things. I will re-post those pieces here asap. In the meantime…

On The Turin Horse:

“…a statement on the suffering of others that is at once as profoundly moving as it is formally rigorous. And although the film does feature a horse, a beautiful animal whose vulnerable physicality dominates every scene in which it appears, the anecdote that begins the film may not necessarily relate to the animal alone, but to the human beings who, in concert with the horse, suffer at the hands of a relentlessly unforgiving universe. This is a movie that openly grieves for the state of the world…”

On Once Upon A Time In Anatolia:

“Like the filthy glass of the opening shot, the men who populate Ceylan’s latest film are external surfaces betrayed by the complexity that escapes from within them, unconsciously and with tremendous force. Masculinity has always been a crucial subject for Ceylan; from the impossibility of male communication in Distant, to the callous, violent sexual vanity on display in Climates, to the corruption of the individual by his duty that sets the fates in motion in Three Monkeys, Ceylan has always understood the emasculating brutality of power and the impact it has on the lives of men who desire and feel bound to its tropes.”

More on all of these soon, but incredible films all.

4. Netflix


Nothing inspired both pleasure and derision in equal measure as did my experience with Netflix. On the one hand, as a loyal customer of their Blu-ray and Streaming, I fell in love with the integrated streaming service on my PlayStation 3. I found so many great films on there, suddenly available in incredibly high quality HD streams, that i could not keep up. Couple that with a steady stream of “get to them when I can” DVDs, and I had more film viewing at my finger tips than I could ever hope to complete. Netflix is an incredible service, one to which I am happy to subscribe, a service to which I hope to stay loyal for years to come.

And then there was the company’s disastrous decision to change its pricing structure, which alienated a huge swath of the customer base, followed by an even worse decision to separate the streaming and DVD functions into two websites that would not integrate user data. The launch and near-immediate demise of Qwikster remains one of the worst ideas in the history of the internet age, and it cost the company dearly, sending Netflix stock into a downward spiral that propelled it from a high of $293.73 at the close of the market on July 13 to a low of $63.86 on November 11, a loss of $230 a share. The stock has only recovered roughly $5 since.

In July, I was kicking myself for not buying shares in the company, but by September 15th, when the stock took a huge nosedive, I was kicking myself for not shorting it. Watching Netflix lose billions of dollars in market capitalization was not pleasurable, especially since I assume it will limit the ability of the service to deliver its best to customers like me. Still, I couldn’t help but almost take secret delight in the fact that such terrible corporate decisions came home to roost in a meaningful way. May all content providers learn the lesson of Netflix in 2011; the customer experience is king and if your internal strategy doesn’t serve to make it better, you’re going to bear a heavy cost.

3. The Color Wheel on a DVD screener

The Color Wheel

Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel was one of my favorite movies of the year, a pure moment of discovery that will go down as one of the best programming experiences I’ll likely have. Discretion prevents me from telling the full story of how it came to be that the DVD screener for this film, which languished in my programming pile as I wormed my way toward it over the course of several weeks, finally found its way into my laptop and how, after watching the film, I sent a frantic email to Perry declaring my unconditional love for the movie and how, given how good it was and where my own Sarasota Film Festival falls on the calendar, we ended up World Premiering the film at Sarasota (which is incredibly rare for us), but needless to say I’ve never been luckier to find a movie in my life than I was when I got that screener of The Color Wheel. You live for moments like this as a programmer and this year, I got mine. Contentment.

The closing credits of The Color Wheel feature this lovely number… enjoy!

2. Margaret at The Fox Screening Room


No movie blew me out of my seat like Margaret. I don’t admire it because of the film’s now legendary problems in post-production, the lawsuits and recriminations that followed, the almost invisible theatrical release it received, the online campaign among admirers, know as Team Margaret, to get the film back in theaters. I am not looking for wounded, precious films to love. I love Margaret because, even in its imperfect form (I’ve read the screenplay, which features even more complexity and depth), it is the apex of American film this year. Yes, it’s been setting on an Avid for a few years as the machinations of the film business failed to sort themselves out, but given how alive it still feels all these years later only confirms its mastery. It is a messy film, full of problems, but even at its most problematic, it retains a humanism and a depth of feeling and meaning in tune with its structure that is transcendent. No one in American film is making movies like this anymore. I give all credit to Kenneth Lonergan for battling for his vision and, having had a look at the 180+ page script, it is clear to me that, as a friend said “it’s all on the page… he knew exactly what he was doing.”

Which brings me to my all-time pet peeve, this contractual and cultural obsession with the run times of films. The main issue behind Margaret’s relative invisibility and its essential demise at the box office is the battle over Lonergan’s inability to turn in a cut under three hours. Meanwhile, film after film comes into theaters well over two and a half hours, none of them as alive from moment to moment as the incomplete Margaret. Squeezing in four instead of three shows a day makes commercial sense, but four vs three of what? Who would look at Lonergan’s script and think about cutting it down? Do the scenes on the cutting room floor simply not work? To my eyes, they seem vital to the story being told. The length of a movie is irrelevant to everything but its maximum commercial delivery; I land on the side of the story, of the film, of making what you clearly set out to make. Margaret is not only a case of what gloriously is, but what mind-blowingly might have been. I hope to one day see it in its intended glory, tucked into my couch with all the time in the world to take it in.

1. Christopher Plummer and David Edelstein In Conversation at The Sarasota Film Festival

If you look up the word “panache” in the dictionary, you will not find a picture of Christopher Plummer, but by all accounts, you should. I have never met anyone more comfortable in their own skin, more aware of their own presence in the room, more generous and wise about the business of acting. At the Sarasota Film Festival this year, we hosted a conversation with Plummer, moderated by David Edelstein, in celebration of our Tribute to Plummer and our Closing Night Film Beginners. David took the opportunity and ran with it, conducting a sprawling 90 minute discussion with Plummer that covered almost every phase of his career. To watch David’s deep knowledge go toe-to-toe with Plummer’s amazing storytelling ability was the highlight of my year. The conversation was so good, the whole thing was licensed by BBC America, who made it a stand-alone bonus DVD on their release of Plummer’s long-unseen Hamlet At Elsinore, the restoration of which we premiered at the festival (it’s great!). Grab a copy of that disc and see if the conversation between Plummer and Edelstein doesn’t stack up against any you’ve ever seen.