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Issue 144


The best movies and artists’ films of 2011

BY Thomas Beard AND Emilie Bickerton in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 12

Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris, 1951, film still. Courtesy MGM/The Kobal Collection

Thomas Beard
Founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in New York, USA. He is currently working on the film programme for the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

The end was nigh in 2011, at least at the cinema. An apocalyptic mood pervaded Béla Tarr’s latest, The Turin Horse, in which an ageing farmer and his daughter eke out a meagre existence against the backdrop of a landscape battered by relentless, howling windstorms. The possibility is raised that their homestead is the last remaining outpost of an otherwise fallen world – ‘Everything’s in ruins,’ a visiting neighbour informs them, ‘Everything’s been degraded.’ – and Tarr managed to construct one of cinema’s great eschatological inquiries through a series of his unflinching long takes.

Tarr was one of the artists Susan Sontag singled out as exceptional in ‘A Century of Cinema’, her infamous 1995 essay about the decline of film, and rumours of the medium’s death (though greatly exaggerated) have continued to surface perennially, with every year offering up a fresh set of lamentations. Labs are closing, film stocks are discontinued and now 35mm movie cameras are no longer being manufactured. The prognosis for celluloid, it would seem, is bleak. And yet film culture, in its ever-shifting permutations, continues to thrive.

Invigorated repertory programmes remind us that cinema’s competing historical narratives remain ripe for revision. In the US, alternative film form on the West Coast, for instance, was thoroughly re-evaluated by two major curatorial initiatives. Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s ‘Radical Light’ traced the genealogy of independent cinema in the Bay Area, from Christopher Maclaine to Ant Farm to Greta Snider. Meanwhile, with shows such as ‘LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema’, at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the mega-exhibition ‘Pacific Standard Time’ helped give context to radical practices that flowered in the shadow of Hollywood, a project further enhanced by the publication of William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself. A collection of writings by and about Fred Halsted – rivalled only by Wakefield Poole as gay porn’s most formally idiosyncratic auteur – Jones’s much-needed monograph charts a course through queer cinema’s outer limits.

In New York, new venues con­tinue to proliferate. Spectacle, housed in a former bodega in Williamsburg, is the most notable of these, screening bootleg gems plundered from the depths of many a file-sharing network. At the city’s stalwart cinematheques, I was particularly taken with Anthology Film Archives’ survey of Herschell Gordon-Lewis – who established new vanguards for bad taste with cheapo gore classics like Blood Feast (1963) – and BAM’s ‘Complete Vincente Minnelli’. The latter series provided a chance to revel in Minnelli’s next-level mise-en-scène (‘The star of that picture,’ Lauren Bacall once wryly observed of Designing Woman, 1957, ‘was the drapes’) and see rarities including his final film, the Liza-led A Matter of Time (1976). Re-cut by the studio against the director’s wishes, it’s possessed of a ruined majesty peculiar to works disowned by their makers.

Film’s status as a subversive art was nowhere more apparent last year than in Jafar Panahi’s In film nist (This is Not a Film), another case where authorship was cast off, though for entirely different reasons. Sentenced to a six-year prison term and a 20-year ban from filmmaking by the Iranian government for allegedly ‘acting against national security’ and producing ‘propaganda against the regime’, Panahi collaborated with Mojtaba Mir Tahmaseb to produce this captivating record of his time spent awaiting an appeals verdict while under house arrest in his Tehran apartment. Contraband, the work had to be smuggled into the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a USB drive stuffed inside a cake.

Still, despite cinema’s enduring vitality, celluloid’s demise remains on the horizon. Consider, how­ever, an artist like Ben Rivers and his new feature-length film, Two Years at Sea, whose hand-processed images heave and sigh with aesthetic possibility, even as their parent material enters its twilight; or Luther Price, whose practice provides a dramatic counter-narrative to the mawkish sentimentalizing of film and its endangered state. In a recent suite of 16mm pieces, he coats elaborately abraded emulsion with dense layers of dye and ink that rub off on the projector’s insides as the work snakes through the machine; elsewhere, he’s sandwiched slender ribbons of 8mm between clear celluloid of a larger gauge, resulting in film so thick it can barely make its way to the take-up reel. Since each of these works is unique, not a print, they are slowly destroyed with every presentation. Courting a deliberate antagonism between object and apparatus, Price’s work screams across the projector gate. His is a cinema that embraces its death drive so as to achieve maximum potency. A violent paroxysm, spasms of light – what a way to go.

Wim Wenders, Pina, 2011. Courtesy © Neue Road Movies FmbH; photograph: Donata Wenders

Emilie Bickerton
Writer based in Hong Kong. The paperback edition of her book A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma (2009) has just been published by Verso.

Directors have always found new ways to deal with art’s ongoing conundrum of condensing time: in the shifts from silent to sound, from the studio to the street, from 35mm to digital. More recently the focus has been on 3D, CGI or motion-capture promising to replace 2D, human actors and artists’ drawings for animation. The industry has generated much of the excitement, as producers and multiplex owners eye opportunities to rekindle an audience’s desire to leave home to see a film.

With Wim Wenders’ Pina, it transpired that 2011 was a more significant year for 3D than 2009, when Avatar was released. The films by both Wenders and James Cameron are part of the latest re-launch of the technology, which has existed since the 1950s and periodically returned, most notably when IMAX opened their vast cinemas in the 1980s and ’90s. Wenders’s film is important in part for its timing: his documentary about Pina Bausch is a soberingreminder that 3D need not be about emulating the blue alien standard. Wenders, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, uses technology to explore and expand cinema’s own space. As a documentary on Bausch, Pina is no masterwork: the Tanztheater Wuppertal’s dancers are beautiful movers but they offer platitudes about their teacher. The film succeeds as an expression of its subject’s spirit: Bausch dependedessentially on the body in space to communicate her ideas. Wenders selected specific locations for the dancers to perform in: a tram is normally a space of confinement, as is a patch of grass amidst the traffic, but in Pina they become sites of liberation.

In terms of fiction films in 2011, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s Jodái-e Náder az Simin (Náder and Simin: A Separation) – which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival – stands out for its bold and compelling representation of modern life in contemporary Iran. But there was also something disarming about the way in which Farhadi maintained the film’s mystery to the end. When what really happened in those few moments at the top of the staircase is revealed – was the woman pushed, did she fall, does the little girl know everything? – it feels deceptive, because Farhadi relies too heavily on editing to conceal the truth, giving his audience no chance to work out the mystery.

In cinema, words are secondary to the primary means of communication – the moving image. In 2011, a number of films made this point in an unspectacular but uncompromising fashion: they included French director Bruno Dumont’s austere, near-mute film Hors Satan (Outside Satan); the Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s newest installment in their growing oeuvre of moral tales, Le gamin au vélo (The Kid on the Bike); and Pierre Schöller’s L’exercice de l’État (The Minister), a French film that, finally, considers the nature of politics without being self-consciously political. Dispensing with the spoken word altogether, The Artist, by French director Michel Hazanavicius, is a silent film set in Hollywood in 1927 that borrows from early cinema and, in so doing, manages to be totally contemporary.

From spoken word to the still image, it’s worth mentioning the strange tale of the disappearing Black Swan posters. Designed by British studio La Boca for Darren Aronofsky’s otherwise ordinary film about the troubled mind of a ballerina, the original posters were inspired by a combination of Art Deco with Polish and Czech film posters from the 1960s and ’70s. They were, however, pulled before the film’s general release and replaced by a banal close-up of Natalie Portman’s face. Why? Because you have to tell the public that an A-list actress is in the movie or else what does it matter?

Rather a lot, if your film is good enough. Mistérios de Lisboa (Mysteries of Lisbon) proves as much.The four-hour Portuguese film by Chilean director Raoul Ruiz – who died in August – was one of the year’s critical and popular hits. To conclude with an ending that also promises the future, Ruiz’s final film did well at the box office despite epitomizing everything that it conventionally rejects. This briefly hushes the familiar refrain that independent producers have no money, big budgets are allocated to the safest projects, and there is nothing left for the rest. To all that unbearable logic there is Ruiz, and his audience.

Emilie Bickerton is a writer based in Hong Kong. The paperback edition of her book A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma (2009) has just been published by Verso.