Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: Best of the Fests

Here in New York, the entire world comes to us, via some of the nation’s best film festivals. It isn’t always pretty though. Indeed, the world is a messy place, where respect for freedom under constitutional law is all too rare. However, such crucibles often produce significant films that deserve a theatrical life after screening on the festival circuit. The following is perhaps a provocative list of the ten best films of the 2010 fests that have yet have a regular theatrical run in New York, submitted for your debating pleasure.

Call it a fanboy pick, but Lê Thanh Son’s Clash was easily the best of Tribeca’s Cinemania (formerly Midnight Movies) selections and one of the best of the fest overall. Amped up and dripping with style, it delivers the action goods and there is no arguing with the star power of Ngô Thanh Vân (a.k.a. Veronica Ngô, a.k.a. NTV), kicking butt as the beautiful and mysterious Phoenix. Word has it this could be coming to screens next year, which seems like a no-brainer.

If there was a better film in 2010 than Tetsuya Nakashima’s jaw-dropping, hyper-realistic drama Confessions, than this will rank with 1939 as one of the all time great year’s for film. A joint selection of the Japan Cuts and New York Asian Film Festivals since submitted by Japan for best foreign language Oscar consideration, Confessions tells its story of middle school murder and revenge with devastating power. Its opening twenty minute sequence alone packs more punch than a month of boxing pictures.

A nasty little crime thriller in the best sense of the term, Wojtek Smarzowski’s cleverly constructed The Dark House also offered some pointed insights into the unsavory nature of the Martial Law-era Communist regime when it screened at the Brooklyn International Film Festival.

How such an endearing and accessible film as Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife by-passed theaters heading straight to domestic DVD is a real head-scratcher. A truly heartfelt tale of chaste love between a Bengali man and his Japanese pen pal “wife,” Sen’s film can make grown men bawl like babies. Indeed, there were plenty of sniffles after its screening at this year’s Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival (MIAAC).

The irony that Pakistan’s former cottage Pashto film industry was based in a Taliban stronghold brought Australian filmmaker George Gittoes over for a look-see. The results seen in The Miscreants of Taliwood are simply jaw-dropping, including a frank examination of widespread Islamist homosexuality on the down-low, culminating with Gittoes’s own production of two zero-budget Pashto action programmers. With Gittoes literally putting his life on the line, Miscreants is one of the few documentaries that can legitimately be described as bold. It was also a fairly gutsy selection for MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight.

2010 saw many long, multi-installment films screening in art theaters. Though not quite as long as Carlos, Raúl Ruiz’s epic film adaption of Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon was even more satisfying when it screened at the 48th New York Film Festival. A rich, old fashioned tale of intrigue and romance filmed with a modern sensibility, Lisbon is a beautiful and ambitious film well worth the 272 minute investment.

Sadly, with the recent conviction of Russian industrialist Mikhail Khodorkovsky on dubious charges for his real crime of not towing Putin’s line, Cathryn Collins’s Vlast (Power) is even timelier now then when it screened during MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight. A first-time documentarian, Collins is admirably even-handed, providing helpful context to understand both the Kremlin’s campaign against Khodorkovsky and the state of Russia in general.

Sometimes not being political is construed as a political act in and of itself. Such is partly the case with filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi who have recently been sentenced to six years in Hellish Iranian prisons on specious “propaganda” charges. Their recent collaboration, The White Meadows, directed by Rasoulof and edited by Panahi only too appropriately uses the collection of tears as its driving plot device. A visually arresting fable whose allegorical implications were wisely kept veiled (but evidently not obscure enough), Meadows was rightly hailed at Tribeca. The only good news in this story so far is that the Global Film Initiative has selected their film for the 2011 Global Lens film program, which will provide American audiences the screening opportunities denied to Iranians.

1934 was an inconvenient year for ideologues. The Stalinist purges were in full swing and even word of their anti-Semitic nature was starting to get out. The closing film of the New York Jewish Film Festival, Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind captures the tenor of those dark times quite effectively, vividly recreating the persecution of Soviet academic Evgenia Ginzburg. In addition to its brutal honesty, Whirlwind is also notable for showcasing the great German actor Ulrich Tukur in a rare English language role, bringing dignity and humanity to horrifying historical episode.

Finally, Axelle Ropert’s The Wolberg Family easily could have been a cloying connection of quirky family clichés. Instead, it is deeply humanistic portrayal of family and impending mortality, executed with unfailing grace. Deceptively simple, it was an unexpected highlight of this year’s French Rendezvous.

Thousands of films screen at New York festivals and then disappear from sight. All ten of these films deserve a better fate. The Academy’s foreign language division could ensure a future audience for Confessions should they heed these subtle recommendations.