This month brings so many Top 10 film lists, it makes me nostalgic for the days of media monopolies. When only a few critics had a platform, I recall more passionate debate about neglected or over-rated films. Nowadays when venues like Indiewire are polling over 100 critics, there is scarcely a film that won’t end up on somebody’s list. Sure, the proliferation of list-making spreads around more recognition. But I wonder if it carries us further away from serious reflection. Rarely, do I see critics elaborate on how they arrived at their choices. In his book “Reverse Angle,” John Simon lamented the whole enterprise:
There is something antithetical to the very notion of criticism in the concept of a ten-best list: it is almost as deplorable as reviewing a movie by meting out to it one of four stars….
Criticism at best, of course, is only a set of subjective opinions. But it is opinions expounded at some length: explained, illustrated with examples and quotations, supported with comparisons and contrasts to other works, related to certain standards of aesthetics and even ethics, and viewed in a larger context of human life.
Having aired this misgiving, I’ll now proceed to flout it with my own list. For me, half of the experience of a film is to discuss it afterwards. So, continuing my tradition from last year, I’ve adapted the exercise of list-making to recall my favorite events in 2009 where those conversations took place.
1) SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL (January) – I was privileged to be a juror for the World Documentary Competition and wrote about that experience here. Over the course of the year, STF audiences got to enjoy a few stand out titles from that section: THE GLASS HOUSE, TIBET IN SONG, and BIG RIVER MAN.
2) WILLIAM GREAVES TRIBUTE AT STF (February) – No STF show ever caused as much of a ticket frenzy as the tribute to the pioneering filmmaker William Greaves. On the Monday before the show, when there were no more tickets to be had, I spent the day fielding desperate calls from luminaries trying various means to coax or bully an extra ticket. The most tactless was a downtown festival programmer who was an exemplar of entitlement and ingratitude. Much more gracious was Steve Buscemi who expected no special treatment and purchased a ticket in advance. At one point, I answered the phone to be greeted by the voice of Sidney Poitier. For him, I would have found a ticket. But he was in Los Angeles and merely wanted to send a note to be read in his absence. The lucky ticket holders were treated to clips from several of Greaves’ works including EMERGENCY WAR, THE FIGHT and SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE, followed by a conversation with Elvis Mitchell, Orlando Bagwell and Thomas Allen Harris.
3) HANOI CINEMATHEQUE (March) – On a belated honeymoon trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, Raphaela and I set aside one night for film. Gerry Herman, an American expat who runs the excellent Hanoi Cinematheque, invited us to curate a night of STF in his space. We screened THE REAL SHAOLIN, about martial arts students in China, and enjoyed a spirited Q&A afterward.
4) CINEMA EYE HONORS (March) – The second edition of this documentary awards ceremony took place in the splendid event space of the New York Times building. The night was dominated by multiple-award winner WALTZ WITH BASHIR and the amusing acceptance speeches of artist David Polonsky. For 2010, the ceremony will move earlier on the calendar to January 15. (Photo: at Cinema Eye with Philippe Petit, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and AJ Schnack).
5) FULL FRAME’S PRESENTATION OF GARRETT SCOTT GRANT (April) – Each year, the Garrett Scott grant aims to nurture the careers of first time filmmakers by sending them to the Full Frame festival for mentoring sessions. After three years of sitting on the selection committee with Ian Olds and Rachael Rakes, I was gratified this year to see some of our past recipients distinguish themselves with completed works, including Mai Iskander’s GARBAGE DREAMS that made the Oscar shortlist; and Robin Hessman’s MY PERESTROIKA which was accepted into Sundance. The 2009 recipients were Elinyisia Mosha and Cameron Yates. Applications are now being accepted for the 2010 grants.
6) “FALLEN CHAMP” AT STF (April) – Barbara Kopple made this documentary subtitled “The Untold Story of Mike Tyson” for broadcast television in 1993. Among other achievements, her team uncovered the remarkable footage of the teenage Tyson training with Cus D’Amato. When that footage was being re-purposed for a new documentary called TYSON, it seemed fitting to take a fresh look at Kopple’s version. I was disappointed by critics who generally failed to reflect on the relationship between the two films. At least, the STF audience had the chance to compare.
7) CANNES FILM FESTIVAL (May) – Docs are rarely at the forefront in Cannes. But they increasingly have a place in sidebar initiatives such as the Doc Brunch and the American Pavilion. For me, Cannes is indispensable as a meeting ground to find films that I’ll be showing in the fall. Out of the official line-up, I was dazzled by HENRI-GEORGE CLOUZOT’S INFERNO and in the market screenings, I discovered TURTLE: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY. Both wound up in the line-up at the Toronto International Film Festival. Taking meetings along the Croissette, I first learned about VIDEOCRACY from the Swedish Film Board; and about COLONY from the Irish Film Board. Those two went on become highlights of both TIFF and STF’s fall season.
8) TRAVERSE CITY FILM FESTIVAL (Aug) – Celebrating its fifth year, this festival co-founded by Michael Moore is one of the hidden gems of the film calendar. Nestled on a bay off Lake Michigan, Traverse City makes an idyllic locale. The centerpiece facility is the gorgeous State Theater that Moore has restored into a year-round old-fashioned movie palace, complete with red velvet curtains, an organ and stars twinkling on the ceiling. At a 20th anniversary screening of ROGER & ME, Moore noted that the city of Flint looks pretty good in his first film compared to its further dissolution today.
9) TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (Sept) – In my job overseeing the documentaries at TIFF, it’s a treat to watch the first reactions to films that will keep audiences talking for a long time. Already several of these titles have entered theatrical play, including THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA; CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY; COLLAPSE; and LA DANSE. In the coming winter season, STF patrons can enjoy two more (SNOWBLIND and THE ART OF THE STEAL) and in the spring we’re hoping to bring CLEANFLIX and possibly others. You can read Raphaela’s Top 10 TIFF memories here.
10) “HOW TO FOLD A FLAG” AT STF (Nov) – Speaking of TIFF, the festival supplied numerous great titles for the fall season of STF, starting with AHEAD OF TIME on Opening Night and continuing with VIDEOCRACY, COLONY, COPYRIGHT CRIMINALS, and BASSIDJI. The culmination was the closing night screening of HOW TO FOLD A FLAG with the directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein joined by one of the former soldiers in the film Jon Powers.