In a year when my festival road map took me to new environs (the lakeside resort of Locarno and the labyrinthine streets of Venice), I find my year in film to have been an unusual path. Having missed Toronto, skipped Vancouver, and ducked Rotterdam and Berlin, I present you with a rather eccentric list of the best of 2012. I hope that some of these find their way onto your best of 2013 list.
1) Alter Bahnhof Video Walk by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
Alter Bahnhof Video Walk by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller was an interactive sound and video piece submerged within the real experience of Kassel Germany’s Hautbanhof (train station). As you stroll through the open foyer, your narrator sets you afoot on a trail she’s created, placing a screen of filmed material in front of you, yet allowing the peripheral experience of the actual station to leak in. This blending of the real and the fictional jumps with exciting energy. At one point, it’s with great pleasure that you discover the music you think exists in the real world is actually a construction inside the monitor. A small brass band emerges as if from behind your monitor, dominated by the oomp-ing of the tuba. A young ballerina begins to twirl and just when you think you’ve entered the narrative, a camera crew joins them. You’re watching the act of creation itself, a staged performance within a staged performance. A man yells cut, and your focus is re-directed into the architecture of the frame in front of you. For 20 minutes, small narratives emerge and disappear into the artificiality of the small device, creating an awareness of the screen’s presence that is profound in its ordinariness. A cinema for the senses, this was the most immersive and richly-textured cinematic experience I had all year.
2) Tabu by Miguel Gomes
A film I’ve already described in our calendar as the best film of 2013, comes in at the #2 slot on my best of the year list. Miguel Gomes, who topped my list in 2010 with Our Beloved Month of August and whom I subsequently brought to Seattle for a career retrospective, returns with the project he was getting financing on at the time he was here. As he described it to me at that time, “I want to make a film in Black and White about a crocodile named Dundee.” With overt and subversive references to Luis Buñuel, Joseph Cornell, Jack Smith, and F.W. Murnau (whose own Tabu the title references), the film explores Portugal’s colonial past through fictions, meta-fictions, and myths. A heightened dream state surrealism that we’ve come to love in Gomes. I repeat, the best film of 2013: you’ll get to see it this February!
3) Holy Motors by Leos Carax
I’ve loved Denis Lavant ever since his turn as Anton in Tuvalu. Holy Motors is Denis Lavant x11, as he is credited at the end of the film. Using a white limo as his green room, the film offers up every genre in the history of cinema; Leo Carax tips his cap to cinema itself here. Mourning its glorious past, imaging a glorious future. Holy Motors reinvents the invented, and in the process delivers promise to cinema itself.
4) Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel
When asked what to see in Locarno this year, there was just one uttered from everyone’s tongue; Leviathan. A co-direction by Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweet Grass) and Véréna Paravel (Foreign Parts), the work is a visceral experience, leaving its audience literally drowning in the rocky North Atlantic sea. Not to be viewed in the first few rows, for fear of leaving the cinema drenched! Haunting and nauseously beautiful, look forward to this alarmingly original work in 2013.
5) American Dreams: Lost and Found by James Benning
When I pinged James Benning back in May to arrange shipment of his film small roads, he wrote me, “I’m on my way to New Orleans via Monument Valley, Las Vegas, NM, and Texas remaking Easy Rider.” (Look for that film in our American.Film.Week. program this February). That was just one of several new works Benning produced in what turned out to be an incredibly prolific year. But the film of his that makes my list is a revisiting of his 1984 work, seen in a glorious 35mm restoration in Venice this summer, a screening that included a surprise visit from about a dozen Italian naval officers, who to their credit, stayed through the entire screening. The film’s organizing principle is Milwaukee, and by that I mean three men from. Benning himself (a native), the great baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron, and Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace in 1972. Benning of course being the mastermind of the piece, inserting a collage of popular songs and public speeches recorded from 1954 to 1976, images of Aaron represented here by baseball cards, and optically-printed hand-written excerpts from Bremer’s diaries (misspellings and all)! Benning, who has become the leading landscape artist in the cinema, provides here an imaginary political landscape of a time in our own history. Overwhelmingly brilliant, I hope to share it in Seattle next year.
6) Low Tide by Roberto Minervini
Set in the badlands of Texas, Low Tide focuses upon a boy and his nearly absent mother during one long, hot summer. Newcomer Miervini crafts a Dardenne-esque portrait of a working class family; seems the Italian has a better grasp on the “real America” than many of his American counter parts. I expect this filmmaker to become a real talent.
7) Spring Breakers by Harmony Korine
Another American nightmare from Harmony Korine, this time in the form of an American nightmare: namely, the music video. From its opening slow-motion montage of gyrating bodies to its violent ending, it’s our worst fears come to the screen.
8) Something in the Air by Olivier Assayas
Assayas’ latest is a rumination on the personal and political. Called Apres Mai in France, the film looks at the generation post ’68, who were indeed influenced by the late 60s radicals, but took a more personal tone, looking specifically at the trajectory of a young art student as he navigates through the politics of the era to find himself. Consider this Assays’ Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man.
9) Memories Look at Me by Fang Song
Fang Song (who you might recognize from Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Ballon) puts her parents in the starring roles of Memories. Her mother in particular is a real discovery. A fatally aware work of cinema that conjures the intimate and melancholic memories of its characters. Touching yet restrained, Fang is a filmmaker to look out for.
10) Museum Hours by Jem Cohen
With similar restraint seen in Memories Look at Me, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours takes us inside of Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, introducing us to one of its guards, a humble, quiet man who serves as a docent to a visiting Canadian woman (not just exploring the museum, but also Vienna). The two form one of the fondest and most authentic bonds I’ve seen on the screen in years. Hoping to show this one in the spring or summer of 2013 at the Film Forum.