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Issue 136


The best motion pictures and moving images of 2010

BY Katie Kitamura in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 11

Olivier Assayas, Carlos, 2010. Film Still. Courtesy: IFC Films.

Katie Kitamura
Her first novel, The Longshot, was published in 2009. She lives in New York and is currently working on her second book.

Some of the year’s best films fell into two camps: those that are about, in one way or another, obsolescence (Olivier Assayas’ epic Carlos, Claire Denis’ White Material, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers), and those that are frenetically of the moment (David Fincher’s The Social Network, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo, Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth).

Both groups could be said to be responding to a growing anxiety about the relevance of cinema in an environment awash with social media and online content; that anxiety is both commercial (the collapse of the current film distribution model has been well documented) and somewhat existential. The anxiety of relevance resulted in a number of films that felt as if they had been ripped – with varying degrees of graphicness – directly from newspaper headlines.

The Social Network was widely greeted as a ‘generational movie’, a facile tagline that caught on in part because the film wears its cultural relevance on its sleeve. One of Fincher’s more audacious moves is to stage an origins myth for a still-developing phenomenon. The film uses the minutiae of algorithms and percentages to create a classic narrative of jealousy and ambition, even as it explores the way social media will continue to alter our sense of how human relationships function.

By contrast, Restrepo is a fragment from the war in Afghanistan, whose meaning (or lack thereof) is wrapped up precisely in the ongoing nature of its subject matter. Where The Social Network employs an omniscient narration, Restrepo offers neither judgment nor prognosis. Instead, it presents the war as terminally open and unending, a situation that makes meaning – in particular that ascribed to a soldier’s death, or to the bombing of a village – impossible to locate.

In Dogtooth, a chamber drama that recalls the Josef Fritzl case, a family is imprisoned by a violent and obscene father. Like Restropo, it plays with fragmentation and meaning (marooned as they are, the three children have only a partial knowledge of the world; their inability to comprehend meaning is emphasized by the nonsense language they are taught by their mother). In the trajectory between The Social Network and Restrepo, Dogtooth offers even less of a god’s eye view, but it also functions as a reminder of the dangers of retreating from the messy contingent reality of the world ‘out there’, whether we understand it or not.

In contrast to these films, works by three established auteurs – Assayas, Denis, Korine – were striking in that they were essentially nostalgic. Each records the passing of a singular historical moment, and the detritus of the superseded; the extraordinary White Material is a fragmented portrait of the last days of colonialism, while Carlos finds its emotional core in the gradual slip into irrelevance of the once towering figure of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal (played by Edgar Ramirez). Trash Humpers is a film about outdated technology. It is Korine’s most radical film to date, a deranged fantasia on violence in the suburbs, but it also feels most nostalgic. Shot on VHS, the film eschews narrative and is deliberately provocative; at the same time, it manipulates the VHS format much in the way David Lynch uses digital film in Inland Empire (2006), to create blurred and degraded images that are almost painterly in nature, and easily identifiable as ‘cinematic’.

While The Social Network, Dogtooth and Restrepo retain fairly conventional (if staggeringly skilful) modes of story telling, Denis and Korine (and, to a lesser extent, Assayas) employ a more elliptical form of narration, one that makes sense given the extent to which their films mimic the structure of memories – unordered flashes, fragmented remains of a time that has gone or is going.

‘I would be fine if it was projected into a toilet bowl,’ Korine said of Trash Humpers. ‘I didn’t even want this to be viewed in traditional cinematic terms. This is more like an artefact […] This is something that is more, like, unearthed, a found object.’ The use of the word ‘artefact’ may be the most telling sign of where Korine positions himself on the divide between creating art by way of loss and nostalgia, and carrying on with the business of trying to organize and create narratives for an increasingly disparate contemporary time. Whether that divide need exist, of course, is another question entirely.

Giorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth, 2009. Film Still. Courtesy: Verve Pictures. 

Mike Sperlinger
Assistant director of lux, London.

In 2010, as far as moving images went, in London we went back to school – or, in the case of Raven Row’s outstanding exhibition, to the ‘Polytechnic’. Artist Richard Grayson curated a show that asked us to re-examine what British art – and Britain generally – looked like in the late 1970s and early ’80s, leaning heavily on the video practice of artists including John Adams, Catherine Elwes and Stuart Marshall. In common with many of the year’s best moving-image-related shows and screenings, ‘Polytechnic’ taught us how much we still have to learn about the history of film and video’s dialogues with the other arts.

A series of screenings at Tate Modern, ‘Invocations and Evocations: Queer and Surreal’, upset some different historical apple-carts, tracing Surrealism’s effects on 20th-century queer filmmakers from Gregory Markopoulos through to Derek Jarman and Barbara Hammer. I’m ashamed to say I had never seen James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus (1971), surely the most lavish and lyrical film ever shot in one apartment, and also the single most extraordinary film I saw all year. Also at Tate, Shanay Jhaveri presented ‘Outsider Films on India’, a landmark series that charted an alternative vision of India to the usual Bollywood and masala movie clichés; he followed this up by curating an Indian video art programme for the cinema tent at Frieze Art Fair. The Otolith Group, as part of their Turner Prize 2010 exhibition, have chosen to display 13 episodes of a little-seen Chris Marker television series, The Owl’s Legacy (1989). For the sheer volume of historical salvage, though, it was hard to top ‘Infermental’ at Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea, based around an archive of the eponymous ‘first international magazine on videocassettes’, developed by Hungarian filmmaker Gábor Bódy in the 1980s: a 20-odd hour time-capsule of eye-watering chroma-keyed imagery.

Alongside these epic archival presentations, there seemed to be growing interest in non-academic courses offering introductions to artists’ film and video, with audiences apparently hungry to engage with these new histories while the ink is still wet. Evening classes at lux and no.w.here in London were oversubscribed, while at Smart Project Space in Amsterdam a popular series of screenings and talks was structured around Jacques Rancière’s book Film Fables (2006). London is also now host to a huge variety of semi-regular small-scale screening activities, which have sprung up in the vacuum left by the almost total death of repertory cinema in the city, with lively programmes run by venues such as FormContent, Close Up, South London Gallery, the Serpentine and even the beleaguered Institute of Contemporary Arts.

It took the curating students of the Royal College of Art to give influential British filmmaker John Smith a long overdue retrospective; it opened just before his most recent film Flag Mountain won the arte Prize at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival. Irish filmmaker Vivienne Dick also saw her 30-year oeuvre showcased at Tate in London and Artists Space in New York, while revered Los Angeles artist Morgan Fisher had a retrospective at Courtisane Festival in Ghent. There were also a number of significant solo shows by younger artists including Rosa Barba at Tate Modern, who demonstrated the variety and subtlety of her sculptural engagement with 16mm film, and Jarman Award winner Emily Wardill’s impressive exhibition at De Appel in Amsterdam. Two very different artists were acclaimed for works drawing on Greek myth: Claire Hooper won the Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel with her Berlin U-bahn odyssey NYX, while John Akomfrah’s feature film The Nine Muses was shortlisted for the Orizzonte Prize at the Venice Film Festival (which notably also included artists’ short films for the first time). Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; and the well-received British Art Show 7, ‘In the Days of the Comet’, which opened at Nottingham Contemporary in October, is packed full of moving-image work by the likes of Luke Fowler, Christian Marclay, Simon Martin and Elizabeth Price.

The UK Film Council was axed by the incoming Con-Dem coalition government, although the funding repercussions for filmmakers are not yet clear. It was notable, though, that 2010 witnessed a number of higher-budget features by artists (several of them supported by the Film Council), including The Nine Muses, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Andrew Kotting’s Ivul, Gillian Wearing’s Self Made and Patrick Keiller’s welcome return with Robinson in Ruins. The move towards long-form work seems to be a more general trend too, reflected in recent films by artists including Shezad Dawood, Beatrice Gibson, and Anja Kirschner and David Panos.

At a talk as part of ‘Polytechnic’, Susan Hiller recalled getting one of her videos screened in the 1980s on Channel 4 by turning up at reception with a tape; it’s a tale from a very different time. Television, on its terrestrial death-bed, also seems to be the focus of serious artistic archaeology, whether in historical shows like ‘Are You Ready for TV?’ at MACBA, Barcelona, or in Melanie Gilligan’s TV drama-formatted work Popular Unrest (winner of the Present-Future prize at Artissima in Turin). It was interesting to see YouTube, fashioned as the platform for the post-television era, launch a glitzy ‘Biennial of Creative Video’ in collaboration with the Guggenheim. But a final honourable mention must go to documentary doyen Adam Curtis’ blog in which he lovingly picks over the bones of television’s past, posting startling fragments from the BBC’s vaults (my favourite: the 1970s Hell’s Angels on a great British holiday).