Thursday, December 31, 2009

3rd Annual Tabulation of Deprivation 2009

It's the end of another year and everyone's compiling lists of the best films they've seen. But what about the films we in the Bay Area didn't get to see? That's the purpose of mounting this annual accounting – to mark the movies from the previous year (2008) which never had a Bay Area screening, never got released on Region 1 DVD, and never became available on On Demand or a (legal) streaming/download site.

This year's tabulation is shorter than 2007 and 2008 for several reasons. First, instead of making my tabulation in the summer, I've waited until the Bay Area's autumn film festivals have played themselves out. Second, I'm not including any films from this year's early festival crop like Sundance and Berlin – I've learned it's too early to get antsy about films that've been around for less than a year. Third, for the first time I'm taking into account films which have appeared on Comcast's On Demand or streaming sites like The Auteurs and Amazon Video On Demand. These are new, valid distribution models I can't ignore, and frankly, I'd rather watch a crisp image on my TV or computer monitor than a crummy big-screen digital projection at a local film festival.

And finally, the list is shorter because local film programmers have done a smashing job of bringing us what's essential in contemporary world cinema. Using Cannes as a debatable barometer, I see that 20 out of 22 films in 2008's main competition have made their way here. I'd like to give a special shout-out to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Film/Video Curator Joel Shepard, as well as the SF Film Society's Sundance Kabuki Screen, which really came into its own this year.

The following films, to the best of my knowledge, did the festival circuit in 2008 but remain unseen by Bay Area audiences. They necessarily reflect my own tastes and interests (i.e. a predilection for things French). I'd love to hear about anything I left out, as well as which of these 20 films I should be happy to have missed.

8 (France dir. Jane Campion, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jan Kounen, Mira Nair, Gaspar Noé, Abderrahmane Sissako, Gus Van Sant, Wim Wenders)
This portmanteau film premiered at last autumn's Rome Film Festival and then vanished after receiving mixed reviews. Eight directors offer up eight short films examining the eight Millennium Development Goals to halve world poverty by 2015.

99 Francs (France dir. Jan Kounen)
Before Kounen ("the Carlos Castaneda of hipster helmers," according to Variety's Lisa Nesselson) directed his segment for the above-mentioned 8, he made this hallucinatory satire of advertising and consumer culture starring the irrepressible Jean Dujardin (
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies).

Algeria, Unspoken Stories (France dir. Jean-Pierre Lledo)
This controversial three-hour doc screened at Tribeca last year. Four Algerians from
different walks of life reflect back upon the war for independence, with a particular focus upon the ill fates dealt to their Jewish and Christian friends and neighbors.

Blind Sunflowers (Spain dir. José Luis Cuerda)
At the end of the Spanish Civil War, a believed-to-be-dead left-wing schoolteacher (Javier Cámara) hides out at home, while his wife (Maribel Verdú) is pursued by a fascist-sympathizing priest in training. The film garnered so-so reviews, but was Spain's 2008 Oscar entry. Cámara, Verdú and an interest in the subject matter are three reasons why I'd check this out regardless.

Dream (South Korea, dir. Kim Ki-duk)
This is Kim's fourth feature to go unscreened in the Bay Area since he accompanied
3-Iron to the 2005 SF International Film Festival. Fortunately, 2005's The Bow and 2006's Time were released on Region 1 DVD, and I caught 2007's Breath at Palm Springs. People love him or hate him – I know I've done both – but his darkly offbeat films have never failed to engage me on some level. In his latest, a man discovers that a female somnambulist is acting out his dreams in her sleep.

Four Nights with Anna (Poland, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski)
Polish auteur Skolimowski took a 17-year sabbatical from directing, during which time he acted in everything from Tim Burton's
Mars Attacks to David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. His return film opened Cannnes 2008's Directors Fortnight and was generally well received. In a grim Polish burg, an ex-con crematorium worker drugs a nurse and sneaks into her house at night – to paint her toenails and do housework.

Inju, the Beast in the Shadow (France/Japan dir. Barbet Schroeder)
A French crime novelist (Benoît Magimel) travels to Japan to promote his latest book, which was inspired by a reclusive Japanese writer for whom imitation does not equal
flattery. A violent cat-and-mouse game set in an underground world of geishas and BDSM sex follows. Based on a novel by the acclaimed Edogawa Rampo (a Japanese phonetization of Edgar Allen Poe), this got creamed by critics when it premiered at Venice 2008. Still, the involvement of Schroeder and Magimel tells me it might be worth a look.

It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks (France dir. Daniel Leconte)
This well-received documentary details the 2007 court case against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, on trial for publishing allegedly anti-Islamic cartoons and for being an equal opportunity offender.

Linha de Passe (Brazil dir. Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas)
Despite having a name director in Salles (
Motorcylcle Diaries, Central Station) and a prize for Best Actress at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (Sandra Corveloni), this film has barely been seen in North America, let alone the Bay Area. Compared by critics to Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers, the film is about a single mother with four grown sons struggling to survive in contemporary São Paulo.

Louise-Michel (France, dir. Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine)
The same year Yolande Moreau gave her Cesar-winning performance in
Séraphine, she also starred in this anarchic satire about laid-off factory workers hiring a hitman to bump off their ex-employer. Co-starring Bouli Landers (writer/director/star of Eldorado), with music by American bipolar iconoclast Daniel Johnston.

Pandora's Box (Turkey dir. Yesim Ustaoglu)
Along with the works of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, this film gets included in any
discussion of New Turkish Cinema. Winner of Best Film and Best Actress prizes at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival, it follows three Istanbul siblings as they deal with their rural Alzheimer's-afflicted mother.

Private Lessons (Belgium/France, dir. Joachim Lafosse)
The director follows 2006's dysfunctional family feud-er
Private Property (starring Isabelle Huppert and real-life brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier) with this perverse comedy about the seduction of an aspiring teen tennis player by three adult acquaintances. Variety's Justin Chang calls it "wickedly seductive" and a "sly, superbly knowing entertainment," while an imdb user comment promises "a movie that will have you vomiting for weeks."

Revue (Russia, dir. Sergei Loznitza)
This narration-less compilation of kitschy Soviet propaganda films extolling life in the
1950s and 1960s USSR got excellent reviews during a brief NYC theatrical run last year. As a longtime Russophile recently thrilled by the 1950s Russian film musical Hipsters, I really want to see this.

Salamandra (Argentina, dir. Pablo Agüero)
2008 was a banner year for Latin American cinema. Virtually every established director put out something new, and there were a number of promising debuts like this one. At the end of Argentina's Dirty War, a young woman who's been released from prison drags her 6-year-old son to live on a Patagonian hippie commune. With Velvet Underground's John Cale in a supporting role.

The Sea Wall (France/Belgium, dir. Rithy Panh)
I'm mystified why this film has been passed over by our general interest festivals (SF
International, Mill Valley, CineQuest) and specialty festivals (Asian, French) alike. Based on a novel by Marguerite Duras, Isabelle Huppert is a widow struggling to make a go of rice farming while raising two children in 1930s Indochina. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Panh (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) directs his second narrative feature.

Two-Legged Horse (Iran, dir. Samira Makhmalbaf)
This fourth feature from the eldest daughter of the movie-making Makhmalbaf clan was dismissed as being pointlessly exploitative, but I'd still be curious to have a look. Set in Afghanistan, a poor boy is hired to act as human horse to a crippled rich boy and is treated sadistically. Written by Samira's venerated filmmaker father, Moshen Makhmalbaf

Under the Tree (Indonesia, dir. Garin Nugroho)
Nugroho's wildly imaginative
Opera Jawa was one of my ten favorite films of the decade. Unfortunately, this anticipated follow-up – a story of three contemporary Balinese women set against a backdrop of traditional song and dance – received uniformly awful reviews that accused it of being half-baked and ugly-looking. I'd be interested in seeing firsthand just what went wrong.

Unrelated (UK, dir. Johanna Hogg)
British TV director Hogg gained acclaim as a rising new talent for this UK indie about a middle-aged woman's unsettling Tuscany holiday with two upper-class families.

Who Do You Love (USA, dir. Jerry Zaks)
At the 2008 Toronto Film Festival there were two narrative features depicting the golden era of
Chicago R&B label Chess Records. Cadillac Records stole all the thunder with its star power and big push by Sony Pictures. This alternate version has garnered good reviews, and stars Alessandro Nivola as Leonard Chess and a movie-stealing Chi McBride as Willie Dixon.

With a Little Help From Myself (France, dir. Francois Dupeyron)
Dupeyron followed his 2004 international arthouse hit
Monsieur Ibrahim with this comic drama set amongst African immigrants living in Parisian public housing. On the day of her daughter's wedding, Sonia's son is arrested for drug-dealing, another daughter turns up seven months pregnant, and her husband gambles away the wedding money and then promptly dies. Starring Félicité Wouassi "in a tornado-like performance that almost defies evaluation" (Todd McCarthy, Variety).

Introductory illustration by Brian White.


Brian said...

Thanks for sharing this with your readers, Michael! These tabulations are often the first place I really sit up and take notice of a film- it's often too frustrating for me to do more than skim out-of-town festival coverage. As a Panh fan, I'm just as bewildered as you why the Sea Wall hasn't made a local appearance. Perhaps there's a pay wall- that is, a higher-than-usual or harder-to-waive screening fee that keeps it in the hands of sales agents hoping for a US distributor to bite.

As for your "shorter" tabulation, I wholeheartedly approve with your decision to take Sundance & Berlin premieres out of consideration (presumably a Berlin 2009 title can figure into your 2010 edition if it's still gon unplayed a year from now). As a habits-die-hard cinemaphile I will miss you looking out for films that deserve theatrical screenings but get written off by programmers due to their online availability, but I understand the reasoning behind it. I guess I'll have to break down and try watching movies (more than a few minutes long) online sometime.

jacqueline said...

Thanks for sharing your view. I was waiting for Inju and Resolution 819's DVD release for 2 years - in vain and in pain. Wonder why French films, even if they have DVD releases finally in french, but very few come with English subtitles - denying all non-French speaking audience all over the world a chance to watch and understand them. A great pity. Anticipating a movie for 2-3 years without any chances of even getting the DVDs. Where can we protest to?

Maya said...

That tree looks shirty to me.

Four Nights With Anna was pretty dreadful I heard.

Under the Tree was downright dreadful I know and caused my stepping down from the Global Film Initiative board of directors.

Salamandra deserved to be seen by U.S. audiences though when I spoke with Diana Sanchez at TIFF09 and asked what had happened to it, she said only France bought distribution. No one else cared. Which has made me feel very guilty that I never got around to transcribing my interview with Pablo.

I'm shocked you would want to see Two-Legged Horse as it is a child-in-peril story pushed to the nth degree. Even I who love to weep at the plight of waifs had to avoid clucking.

Why in the world Rithy Panh's A Sea Wall has never made it to the Bay Area is beyond me. I loved its colonial veneer. I've begged Susan Oxtoby at PFA to include it in a program of Panh's other films. Keep your fingers crossed.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Brian, for me it's an obsessive pleasure keeping track of new films by favorite directors and actors, as well as acclaimed prize-winners by relative unknowns -- just so I recognize them if/when they eventually show up here. I finished up 2009 with a 75-film wishlist and it'll be interesting to see how many of those we get to see in 2010 (happily, 16 of them I'll catch in Palm Springs).

As far as TV/online VOD, I used to dismiss it because I'd heard about poor image quality, pan-and-scan reformatting etc., but that has not been my experience. For better or worse, I think we going to increasing find this the only available way to see certain films, especially when you've got someone like IFC snapping up key films for their VOD-only Festival Direct outlet.

Speaking of IFC, right now Francois Ozon's RICKY is available on Comcast's On Demand. I missed seeing it at Mill Valley, it doesn't appear on Landmark's upcoming release schedule, and if/when IFC finally releases it on DVD there's an excellent chance it'll only be available at Blockbuster (thanks to IFC's aggravating 'Blockbuster Exclusive' deal). It's a film I definitely want to see, so yeah, I'm gonna catch it On Demand while I can -- either that or wait for a hypothetical Bay Area Ozon retrospective.

As far as online streaming VOD, in the last year I finally caught up with Royston Tan's 4:30 at The Auteurs (from 2007's tabulation) and Ken Loach's IT'S A FREE WORLD at Amazon VOD (from 2008's tablulation, and another IFC release you can only rent from Blockbuster). Both were satisfactory viewing experiences (it probably helps that my computer monitor is close to my bed).

Jacqueline, it sounds like we share a particular passion for French cinema. Although many new French films get a Bay Area theatrical release, turn up at our festivals or on Region 1 DVD, a far greater number do not. Imported DVDs are a possible solution, but as you say, often they do not have English subtitles. They can also be kind of expensive to buy. I've checked into cable station TV5 Monde, but was underwhelmed by their programming. I'm not sure what the solution is, apart from learning to speak French and moving to Paris.

And Michael, thanks for your comments about some of the films in this year's tabulation.