Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The King of Cannes

May 25, 2012

In the early pages of Geoff Dyer’s Zona, the author’s attempt to unpack the mysteries of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, author Geoff Dyer makes humorous reference to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 20Image02 film, Distant (Uzak).

Ceylan’s film tells the story of Mahmut, a photographer in Istanbul, and his unemployed cousin Yusuf, who comes to stay with Mahmut. In one sequence, the two men watch a justly famous, wordless sequence from Stalker, a tribute from the Turkish Ceylan to the revered Russian poet of contemplative cinema.

It’s a cinema that Ceylan himself has advanced with Distant and his two subsequent films, Climates and Three Monkeys. The films haven’t exactly burned up the box office in North America. Distant grossed $96,293, Climates $119,958, and Three Monkeys $41,393. Turkish art house films in the United States are a tough business case, apparently, even when the films arrive on these shores adorned with international awards from major film festivals.

If Ceylan could name his film festival of choice, surely it would be Cannes. Not only the world’s most revered film festival, Cannes has heaped praise upon Ceylan’s oeuvre, giving Distant its Jury Prize and having both leads share the Best Actor award at that year’s featival; awarding Climates its FIPRESCI critics prize; and giving Ceylan its Best Director award for Three Monkeys. Last year’s Cannes festival gave its Jury Prize again to Ceylan, for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. At this year’s festival, Ceylan received the Directors’ Fortnight Carrosse d’Or prize.

Dyer cites Distant as an example of “films where bits of other films are seen, glimpsed or watched, either at a drive-in, on TV or in the cinema,” referencing Distant‘s use of a Stalker scene that features, in Dyer’s words, “three men on a trolley as they sit there and the blurry landscape clangs past”:Image

This sequence in Stalker is used to brilliant effect in Uzak (Distant, 2002) by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. [Mahmut and Yusuf] may be from the same village but they’re worlds apart, and Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay. So when we see them at home, feet up, watching TV, it’s not Top Gear or Turkey’s Got Talent they’re watching; it’s Stalker, the trolley sequence. The two of them are slumped and stretched out in their chairs, in a torpor of concentration and boredom. Mahmut is eating nuts, pistachios presumably. Cousin Yusuf has nodded off. One can hardly blame him; even the most boring night in the village cannot compare with the depths of tedium being plumbed here.

That’s funny. Offensive to Stalker fans? No. Dyer is, of course, a huge fan of Stalker, as am I. He’s paying a compliment to Tarkovsky’s film, to the Ceylan film that makes use of it and to the concentration required by viewers to enjoy either film, or both.

Dyer concludes his description of this strange, shifting passage from Distant with this:

If you wanted a definition of deadpan you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate your point. In fact, thinking about it, this sequence is probably the most deadpan I have ever seen in a film. It’s so deadpan that you have to be a real cinephile to find it funny, and even then you don’t actually laugh out loud. You just sit there on the sofa with your feet up, munching pistachios, watching, snickering.

Dyer’s passage came to mind as I watched Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film opened at Landmark’s E St. theater in Washington, D.C., in mid-May and was cut to two showtimes a day during its second week. Its total North American box-office take, as of the May 11–13, 2012, weekend, was just $118,194, with the film having never played on more than 6 screens at a time (usually just one screen per week).

ImageA dark film—literally, the film is shot and takes place largely in the dark of night, with car headlights being its only source of illumination in several scenes—with several discussions about mortality and ethics, Anatolia, like Distant, includes several moments of humor, deadpan or otherwise, beginning with a discussion about yogurt between detectives who are trying to locate a crime scene. As the men argue about all things dairy, Ceylan slowly zooms in on the pained face of a confessed murderer in the back seat. The tedium of the surrounding conversation generates sympathy for the killer.

But the film’s main story is deadly serious. As the cops search for a body of a murder victim, one says they’re “riding on the road to hell,” where facts and evidence are only part of the equation. Anatolia has been compared to U.S. police procedurals such as CSI, but it’s less interested in solving a crime than it is in what motivates the human heart to acts of cruelty—and kindness. To get to the bottom of what Anatolia is exploring, you “need to be less a prosecutor and more an astrologer,” as one character says.

“Why did God pick us?” wonders the wife of the dead man, in one of the film’s allusions to faith in the face of trials. (During an earlier shot of a windswept landscape, I couldn’t help but think of John 3:8).

“There’s a reason for everything,” says another character. “Everyone suffers for what they do, but kids suffer for the sins of adults.” It’s a truth—a cruel truth—that comes toward the end of a long discourse between the doctor and prosecutor about a woman’s death, likely by suicide. The movie suggests that rationality and science can be cold and cruel in the face of human suffering. What are we to do with difficult facts? Is it compassionate to tell less than one knows? How much ugliness can the human soul tolerate? How does our reaction to wickedness alleviate, or compound that wickedness?

“They shouldn’t be treated like humans!” shouts one angry investigator after discovering that a murder victim had his limbs bound before death. “They should be tied up like him!” But the man stands alone in his reaction. Others struggle with what they’re learning about the crime, and with the toll a lifetime of thinking about the mechanics of death has taken on them.

In a film with striking widescreen imagery that bests the most arresting shots in Distant (which was photographed by Ceylan himself; his subsequent films, including Anatolia, have been shot by Gokhan Tiryaki), Ceylan takes a particular interest in the human body: those male figures crowded into a small car; the shimmering, lit face of a beautiful young woman; an exposed ear that leads to a buried corpse; a naked body on an autopsy table; the profile of a doctor’s face as heImage makes a pivotal decision.

Ceylan’s triumphant film shows that light can break through the darkest night, and it holds out the possibility that discretion in disseminating information is sometimes more important than the information itself, especially for the youngest among us.

In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, truth is always hiding, just below the surface.



Changes at the Top for the Arts & Faith Top 100

February 14, 2011

The Arts & Faith Top 100 list has been updated for 2011—and there’s a new title atop our list!

Unseating Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Ordet is another Dreyer film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ordet has dropped to number 3, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev rises to second place.

Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow blasts onto the list at number 6, the only English-language film in the top 10. The next highest-ranked English-language film on the list, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, comes in at number 16. John Ford’s The Searchers, two places lower, rounds out the English-language titles in the Top 20.

The most recent films on the list are 2008’s Summer Hours (2008) and five films from 2007: Munyurangabo at number 27, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days at number 41, Heartbeat Detector at number 58, Silent Light at number 66 and There Will Be Blood at number 92.

The Arts and Faith Top 100 is determined by 65 film critics, writers and watchers who participate at the discussion board.

WAFCA Winners!

December 6, 2010

The Washington Area Film Critics Association has named The Social Network as best picture of 2010 and David Fincher best director.

The Supporting Actor and Actress awards went to Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, respectively, for The Fighter. Leo triumphed in the category despite being nominated against her co-star Amy Adams.

The full list of nominees appears below, with winners in bold and my choices indicated by an asterisk. My own choice for the best film of the year, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, was nominated only for Best Original Screenplay — an odd category considering Leigh’s working methods (based on what I know of them, from what I’ve read over the years). I did vote for the film as a gesture of my enthusiasm for the final product.

I also voted for Black Swan in several technical categories, even though I tipped negative on the film overall. It didn’t matter: The film was shut out of our awards.

Best Film:
Black Swan
127 Hours
*The Social Network
Toy Story 3

Best Director:
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
Danny Boyle (127 Hours)
Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)
*David Fincher (The Social Network)
Christopher Nolan (Inception)

Best Actor:
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
*Robert Duvall (Get Low)
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)
James Franco (127 Hours)

Best Actress:
Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
*Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Best Supporting Actor:
Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
*Sam Rockwell (Conviction)
Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech)

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams (The Fighter)
Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech)
*Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

Best Acting Ensemble:
*The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The Social Network
The Town

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours)
*Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)
Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)
Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini (Winter’s Bone)

Best Original Screenplay:
*Mike Leigh (Another Year)
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin (Black Swan)
Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right)
David Seidler (The King’s Speech)

Best Animated Feature:
Despicable Me
*How to Train Your Dragon
Toy Story 3

Best Documentary:
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Inside Job
The Tillman Story
Waiting for ‘Superman’

Best Foreign Language Film:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I Am Love
White Material

Best Art Direction:
Alice in Wonderland
*Black Swan
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
True Grit

Best Cinematography:
*Black Swan
127 Hours
The Social Network
True Grit

Best Score:
*Clint Mansell (Black Swan)
Hans Zimmer (Inception)
A.R. Rahman (127 Hours)
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network)
Carter Burwell (True Grit)

WAFCA Voting: Which Films and Performances Are the Best of 2010?

December 3, 2010

This Sunday, the Washington Area Film Critics Association will announce the results of its votes for the best films and performances of 2010. Stay tuned for results!

Memories of a Film Distribution Internship

August 2, 2010

It was 1990. I was 19 years old, and had just finished my sophomore year at Virginia Tech as a Communications major, with an emphasis in Film/Popular Culture. Summer arrived, and I headed home to Northern Virginia.

Aspiring to a career in film and needing a three-credit internship, I turned my attention to the one D.C.-based film shop I knew of: Circle Releasing Corp. Ted and Jim Pedas ran Circle, which had owned several local movie theaters and had also tried its hand at film production. In the early 1980s, Circle had bankrolled a small film called Blood Simple, by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Blood Simple was a success, but in D.C., its local connection qualified the film a mini-sensation. Arch Campbell, the movie reviewer on D.C.’s NBC affiliate, raved about the film, which I managed to see at a packed screening at the AMC Skyline 6 theaters. It was my first exposure to modern film noir, and the Coens’ dark humor was instantly appealing.

Then, in 1987, came Raising Arizona. I declared it my favorite film after first viewing, and it held that slot for several years. If it’s not still at the top—I’m not sure which film is—it’s close. Twentieth Century Fox distributed the film, which was financed, again, by Circle.

Two wildly diverse films, both outstanding, and unlike every other big-filmmakers-in-the-making stories of that era, Washington, D.C., played a critical role. Any student with film-related goals but too intimidated to move to New York or Los Angeles had one avenue—Circle. It was all or nothing.

So, late in my sophomore year, I decided to look up the number of Circle Releasing Corp. It wasn’t the production arm of Circle. I wasn’t sure exactly what Circle Releasing Corp. released, given that the Coens’ films were being distributed by Fox. There was no Internet, no easy way to research the company, but I knew it was part of Circle, it was film-related, and it was the only thing that interested me as a possible summer internship.

I cold-called, introduced myself to the woman who ran the operation, Fran Speilman, and asked if an internship would be possible during the summer months. I figured it was the longest of long shots, and braced myself for the inevitable “no.”

Instead, Fran, in her husky voice, quickly agreed to take me on as an intern. I was thrilled!

The summer of 1990 was an interesting one for Circle. If I had to choose a word to describe the day-to-day business environment there, it would be “slow.” My internship progress report, which I recently came across and which inspired this post (pictured at left, although the pic isn’t really legible), indicates that I spent 13.5 hours a week at Circle. If memory serves, that was three 4.5-hour days each week. I would take the Metro into town but, because I left late in the morning, never had a chance of finding parking in the Metro lot. Instead, I had to park more than half a mile from the local station and hoof it in the summer heat.

Years of staying at home, watching movies and generally nurturing a lack of physical activity had caught up with me. Add to that the “freshman 15” I put on a year earlier, and the walk to the train, as well as the walk from the destination station to Circle Releasing HQ, always left me sweaty and, I’m quite certain, smelly. The Circle employees never mentioned my overheated appearance, and if I stunk up the place, they never said anything about it.

My days consisted of sitting in Fran’s office, reading Variety and the Hollywood Reporter cover to cover, and listening to any conversation I could between Fran and the company’s full-time employees. There was Bruce, Hap, Liz and Carolyn. An accountant from another area of the office would sometimes stop in to chat with Fran. I once heard him say that Raising Arizona had, that very summer, finally broken even as an investment for Circle.

The distributor wasn’t having lots of success with its films that summer. Releases that had opened earlier in the year were played out. At least that’s my memory. IMDB is telling me that some of the movies I thought had opened and closed by the summer of 1990 didn’t release in the U.S. until late summer of that year, or until the following year. IMDB has been known to screw up sometimes, but so has my memory, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

A Gabriel Byrne/Nick Broomfield movie called Dark Obsession has received some notoriety because of a sex scene that led to an NC-17 rating, but the film hadn’t done much business. Bye Bye Blues, from director Ann Wheeler, had received some decent reviews but not much attention from audiences. A Polish drama, Interrogation, included a stunning lead performance and had yet to be released. I was able to see some of these films, as well as earlier Circle releases like Guy Maddin’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital and Vincent Ward’s The Navigator on videocassette, after Fran flattered me by asking for a “young man’s opinion” of some of the distributor’s titles.

My biggest “get,” however, was finding a copy of the Coen’s screenplay for Barton Fink, and reading it well before that film released. My love of the Coens had reached fever pitch that summer, and the most memorable aspect of that internship was being invited to the D.C.-area premiere of Miller’s Crossing at a local theater. Although it has strong competition, Miller’s Crossing to this day remains my favorite Coen Brothers film, no doubt in part because of the circumstances in which I first saw the film. If memory serves, the premiere took place an evening or two after the film had premiered at the New York Film Festival, and after it had been reviewed negatively by Vincent Canby in the New York Times. I can still picture the man introducing the film at the D.C. premiere, who mentioned that the film had received “almost unanimous praise” from critics who had seen it.

The Coen films were perks—opportunities to see Circle productions that, as far as I understood, Circle Releasing Corp. had no hand in distributing. But the distribution arm had its own treat to come that summer: The national release of John Woo’s The Killer. Woo was a favorite of those who had managed to see bootleg videotapes of his Hong Kong action films, but the rest of us had to wait for a legitimate release of his work. I had just completed a course at school on the Western genre, and was at the apex of my admiration for Sam Peckinpah’s stylized violence—a style that Woo had said in interviews that he was attempting to emulate with The Killer.

My experience watching The Killer did not approach Miller’s Crossing-level ecstasy. I saw a videotape version of the film, panned-and-scanned, and, sadly, dubbed! That was the way Circle planned to release the film in a test market in Texas: Dubbed, and aimed at the action-movie crowd.

I protested. Woo’s movie was full of action, but his reputation was that of an auteur, and his natural audience were arthouse film fans who might be willing to give a bloody gangster film a shot, as long as it wasn’t dubbed. That, I argued, would be the kiss of death.

But what did I know? Circle was hoping to find a broader audience for The Killer. To reach that audience, two poster designs were assembled. Mr. Pedas brought the two into the office, and asked the employees what they thought. I chose the artsy-fartsy design, with a silhouette image of a man with a gun. Mr. Pedas preferred the other image, which depicted the Asian protagonist. “This one shows you what you’re getting,” he remarked to Fran and the others. I started to object, “But the other one is more evocative…”

That was when Fran pulled me aside. “Chris,” she said, quietly but sternly, “the decision has been made.”

And, indeed, it had been.

The film played in that Texas market, but the first-week grosses were squat. I recall a second week, which showed the usual dropoff in attendance. After that, I don’t recall what happened. I think the distributor pulled the film and rethought its strategy. My internship progress report notes, “We eventually released the film in a dubbed and subtitled format,” but also that the film “never took off quite the way we hoped it would.” I do remember that as soon as Criterion issued the title on laserdisc years later, I bought it, laying out a cool $100 for the film. (And that was 20% off retail! Those were the days, weren’t they?)

One of the highlights of my time at Circle was being given the task of comparing the newly struck subtitles for The Killer to the dubbed version, making sure no dialogue was left out of the subtitles. Why the dubbed version should have been the basis for this I can’t quite figure—maybe the dubbed version left off sections of dialogue in the original language!—but that’s what my internship progress report states: “Before we made the subtitle band, I was asked to compare the dialogue from the dubbed version with what we were going to print on the subtitle band. This was done to check for any continuity errors or breaks in the film’s action.” The report also reminds me that I helped to send out 500 letters to exhibitors across the country alerting them to the days and times The Killer would be screened.

I helped find and clip reviews of Circle films for the films’ respective press kits. I answered telephones. I helped set up “opinion-maker screenings” for Winter of ’54, a film about which I remember nothing at all. I also did some filing, a task I cited as “least beneficial” in my progress report. A lowlight was once taking a call for producer Ben Barenholtz, and trying, unsuccessfully, to transfer the call from my office to Barenholtz’s. I stared at the flashing line for several seconds after completing—or so I thought—the transfer, only to see a shadow fall over the phone and then see the hand of Barenholtz himself reach down as he said, “No,” and completed the transfer himself.

So, what came out of the internship? What did it all amount to? It helped me earn my college’s award for Outstanding Achievement in my area of study (my film professor cited the internship when presenting me with the award), but no job came of the experience. Fran had written on my report that “we would be happy to hire this student, should there be a job opening,” and that “His personality is such that it would be a pleasure having him in our group.” However, when I called Circle Releasing Corp. after graduating to see if there were any openings, the person then running the company—a budding author by the name of George Pelecanos—politely told me the company had no position to offer me at that time. A few months later, I called again. Pelecanos again told me—politely—that the company still had no openings.

I fell out of touch with everyone at Circle Releasing Corp., although in recent years I’ve briefly reconnected with one who’s now managing a local movie theater. I’m left with memories, mostly positive, of my brief fling in the film industry. It led to my only academic award, and it earned me those three credit hours I needed to graduate. And now it’s been the subject of this lengthy blog post.

Film Festival Programming Do’s and Don’ts. Actually, Just One Big Don’t

April 15, 2010

I’m a movie lover and struggling film critic, but I’m not a “festival-goer.” I don’t buy plane tickets each year and try to get credentials to cover the major film festivals in Cannes or (let’s be a bit more realistic) Toronto. I’ve never bothered to travel to major festivals in New York or Colorado for the film festivals that take place there each year.

I keep up with those events by reading the ever increasing number of articles speculating on which films will be selected to screen at the major festivals, followed by articles about how those screenings went, followed again by which distributor picked up which film. Then I forget everything I’ve read and eventually, months or years later, sit down in a theater and am reminded that the film I’m about to see won this or that accolade at some festival or other. Sometimes that’s exciting news, sometimes it elicits nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders.

But I’m not completely immune to the lure of film festivals. In fact, I try to attend at least one screening each year in the fall at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Va., and each spring at FilmFestDC, with venues that are just a subway trip or car ride from my work place and home in Northern Virginia. So, in a sense, I am a festival-goer. But just ask anyone who seriously attends film fests and they’ll let you know that people like me don’t count.

This year’s FilmFestDC starts tonight, April 15, and continues through next weekend. I hope to get to one screening (two screenings is to dream) before the festival wraps. I’ve seen several fantastic films at FilmFestDC over the years. Hawaii, Oslo, Silent Light, Opera Jawa – each was among the best films I saw in the respective years they screened at FilmFestDC.

However, that final entry, Opera Jawa, was nearly sunk by the nasty surprise that greeted me and the other screening attendees at FilmFest DC a couple of years ago: The film started with a black screen and a hard-to-ignore “PLAY” icon in the upper left of the screen. Clearly we weren’t watching a film; we were watching a projected DVD.

Forget that the imagery of Opera Jawa was lush enough and suitably fascinating to override my concerns about the presentation during the film’s running time. Just what was the festival thinking in screening a DVD at a film festival?

I left the screening conflicted. Opera Jawa was great, but there had been no announcement of the film being screened on DVD, and nothing was said to us on the way out by the festival volunteers. An e-mail sent to the FilmFestDC staff the next day went unanswered. Did anyone on the staff care?

That experience was still smarting when I set off for the Virginia Film Festival in the fall of 2009. On tap: A screening of Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! with the director in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. And once again, the film was projected on DVD. Jewison noted during the discussion that the “print” we’d seen had been recently restored, but he never mentioned that the “print” had been transferred to video before we viewed it.

Outside the theater, I questioned a volunteer who had no idea whether the film had been projected on video. I walked to the festival office, where yet another staffer looked stunned and confused when I asked her to confirm that the Jewison film had been projected off DVD. Only later, before  a screening of the low-budget film “Corked!” did a festival worker confirm that the Jewison film was a DVD projection. But “Corked!” wouldn’t be, he assured me.

The Corked! screening was a DVD projection. Although the film’s slight ambition and talking-heads mockumentary style doesn’t demand 35mm film-print treatment, the fact that I had been assured it would be projected on film was the most upsetting betrayal of the event.

I fired off an e-mail to Jody Kielbasa, who was overseeing the festival for the first time in 2009.

 Hi, John. I came to festival last Friday for a couple of screenings and wanted to share a concern I shared with a couple of festival volunteers, in hopes that someone in a position of authority will respond.Northern Virginia for the film festival, both movies I screened were projected DVDs, not films. This bugs me. I feel cheated.Washington Area Film Critics Association

After driving more than two hours from

During Friday’s screening of The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, I recognized that I was watching a projected DVD and approached a festival staffer afterward who admitted that was the case because efforts to get a quality print had fallen through.

I understand that this happens sometimes, but no effort was made to publicly explain the situation in either case. This was doubly odd because the staffer introducing the screening had apologized for the film’s lack of subtitles for the Russian dialogue. However, he said nothing about the actual medium of the source material! So you located a DVD for the screening, but one without subtitles? I guess it wasn’t from the local Blockbuster.

After the screening, Norman Jewison, who was a featured guest, mentioned that the reason the film looked so “good” was because it a recently struck print to honor Eva Marie Saint, who stars in the film. He didn’t mention that what we’d just seen was a projection of a DVD of that new film print. The staffer acknowledged that fact to me and was apologetic, saying the festival should do more to make it publicly known. When I asked if my later screening of Corked! would be film or DVD, he assured me it would be film. I stopped by the festival offices and asked another woman working there about the DVD projection. She was surprised and seemed taken aback that the earlier feature was a DVD projection, but she, too, assured me that Corked! would be a film print.

It wasn’t. I was unable to confirm this — a volunteer usher said he couldn’t confirm the details and didn’t offer to get the projectionist — but the black bars above and below the image (on a standard size film screen) looked very much like a video. Because the film is a “mockumentary” with a low-budget, I wouldn’t have expected it to look all that sharp on film, but it was definitely soft in spots.

This would’ve really irritated me if I’d seen films that were more notable for their visuals. When I attend something called a Film Festival, that’s what I expect: film. It’s not the Virginia Projected DVD Festival. In any case, to be told by two festival volunteers that I’d definitely be watching a film, not a video, for my second screening suggests that they were either misinformed themselves, or that they deliberately lied. Neither option is acceptable, in my opinion.

In the future, I would suggest that you the source of each film print (I hope the films will be film prints, not videos) be listed in the online festival program, so that those few of us who still care about these things can make more informed judgments about which films we choose to see.

Thank you for reading.

Christian Hamaker
Film Critic,

 To his credit, Kielbasa replied. His is a model response, relaying everything I had hoped Kielbasa would say.

 Dear Christian,

I apologize in advance for taking the wind out of your sails, but I agree with you wholeheartedly. I am committed to screening on film whenever possible. Unfortunately, with CORKED it was only offered on DV CAM. Either they have not struck a print or they were unwilling to part with one. There were other challenges with THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! as well that did not allow us to screen it on 35mm. That being said, I hope to fix these issues moving forward and you are well within your rights to express your dismay at not having been notified in advance.

 I assure you the volunteers did not lie. They just did not have the proper information. I should have made this clear in advance to them and made sure it was posted on the website before you journeyed here. I can only throw myself on the mercy of the court and say that with just five short months since my hire I’m glad that we were able to pull a program together and hope that you will believe that we will iron out these wrinkles next year.

 Again, My sincere apologies for the inconvenience and you have my promise we will do better next year.

 Very Best Regards,


Jody Kielbasa


Virginia Film Festival

So, FilmFestDC officials, take a lesson: That’s how it’s done. No refunds are required—just an apology. I understand that there are no guarantees in life, and that prints sometimes don’t show up, or can’t be located in time. But surely you understand that the expectation of a film festival-goer is that he’ll be seeing a projected film and not a DVD — and you could make an effort to at least alert screening attendees to what they’ll be watching before the lights go down.

 It’s good to know that the director of the Virginia Film Festival cares about these things. I’ll certainly be returning to the Virginia event in the future.

 And if I do make it to a FilmFestDC screening this week, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed.

The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films List

March 1, 2010

I’m honored to announce the Arts and Faith Top 100 Films—a list I had a hand in creating, and of which I am immensely proud. (Is it OK for a Christian to feel pride?)

Arts and Faith is an online community of mostly Christian film critics and movie lovers. I’ve been part of the community since 2001. The board has gone through a couple of iterations during that time, changing administrators and owners. It’s now run by the folks at Image, and they’ve done a wonderful job with the site. The update of the Arts and Faith 100 list, which has been published twice before, is their biggest undertaking so far, and they’ve pulled it off during a time when Image has been facing significant financial and staffing challenges. I honor their commitment to the Arts and Faith site and their dedication in pulling together this new list of top films.

So, what about the list? Take a look at it. It’s amazing. Sure, there are immediate questions on first look: Why is Ozu’s Early Summer ranked higher than Ozu’s Floating Weeds, and why are both ranked above the director’s Tokyo Story, which, on one list of the best movies of all time, supplanted Citizen Kane in the top slot? Why is the top-ranked English language film number 22? Are we just a bunch of foreign-film snobs? Why is the list tilted toward recent releases?

All legitimate questions, with answers that boil down to the personal preferences of a select group of passionate advocates of worldwide cinema that stirs the spirit. The voting was open to all registered participants of

You might be wondering what the criteria were for ranking the films. Great question. This has been debated among the board participants for years. What makes our viewpoint unique? We’re a group of religious individuals who are moved by soul-stirring cinema. Some would describe “soul-stirring” as films that deal with overt spiritual themes; others would say that great cinema touches the soul regardless of whether or not the films deal explicitly with spiritual themes. Some look for uplifting, hopeful messages, while others find depictions of destructive behaviors instructive, illuminating and helpful. The criteria have never been settled.

This year, a group of films were nominated (several were grandfathered in from previous Arts and Faith 100 lists) and rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing the strongest films, and a 1 the least strong, among the nominees.

A few things jumped out at me about the new list. The Dardennes brothers are all over it—and deservedly so. They have consistently made the most thought-provoking cinema of the last several years. Their film Lorna’s Silence, which got a raw deal from several critics but which placed at number 2 on my own Top 10 list for 2009, comes in here at number 67, while the film that topped my list last year, a remarkable French film called Summer Hours, is number 74. Not so many comedies on the list—that’s unfortunate—but Jacque Tati’s delightful Playtime comes in at number 37. And Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Ordet continues its lock on the number 1 spot.

Take a look at the list and post any thoughts or questions you might have. Then, if you’re interested in joining the conversation at the board, register for the site. You’ll be involved in some great discussion—and you’ll get to contribute to the next revision of the Arts and Faith 100.

Light Reading

February 10, 2010
My current book stack, consisting of nearly every book on my gift lists from last year:

“The Night Gardener,” George Pelecanos;

“Pops,” Terry Teachout;

“Robert Altman,” Mitchell Zuckoff;

Two volumes of “American Fantastic Tales,” Peter Straub (ed.);

“Zeitoun,” Dave Eggers;

“American Movie Critics,” Phillip Lopate (ed.);

A new Thelonious Monk biography;

and, ummm, “Real Food for Mother and Baby,” Nina Planck, which my wife added to the stack!

Why I Voted for Inglourious Basterds as Best Film of the Year

December 10, 2009

The Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), of which I have been a member the past three years, last week announced the winners of its 2009 year-end voting. Up in the Air took Best Film. It’s a good film, maybe better than I give it credit for, but it stirred not one ounce of passion within me as I watched it. It’s very well performed, often breezy in tone despite its sober subject matter (a corporate downsizer flies from city to city, laying off employees at firms that hire him to deliver the bad news to their employees), and doesn’t provide a pat happy ending. For that, I appreciate the film and don’t resent its victories in the Best Picture, Best Actor (for George Clooney) and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.

Still, I could’t help but feel a sense of deflation in seeing the film score its big wins. I saw two foreign-language films—Summer Hours and Lorna’s Silence—that top my personal Best of 2009 list, but never expected either of those films to receive enough votes during the nomination process in the Best Picture category to qualify as one of the five finalists. I also saw, shortly before the voting deadline and via screener DVD, Spike Lee’s wonderful Passing Strange, but in talking with fellow Washington Area Film Critics Association members, realized that not enough people had viewed the screener to garner the film any momentum going into the voting. I counted Passing Strange a regrettable lost cause when it came to our vote.

That was OK, because the best English-language film I saw in 2009, Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, had been championed by some of these same critics, and I was confident it would nab one of the five Best Picture slots.

It didn’t make the cut. WAFCA’s five Best Picture finalists were:

The Hurt Locker | Summit Entertainment
Inglourious Basterds | Weinstein Company
Precious | Lionsgate
Up | Walt Disney
Up in the Air | Paramount

There’s a problem with these choices. Each has its strengths, but, unlike A Serious Man, each has pronounced weaknesses. Did a ny of the five films deserve Best Picture? Even The Hurt Locker, much acclaimed upon its release, too often felt like a series of expertly staged set pieces—well choreographed action scenes, full of tension, but missing something at its emotional core. It’s a fine, even award-worthy film, very well directed, but in no way a lock for Best Picture of the year.

Similarly, Up is wonderful in stretches, but its conventional aspects—quirky animal character, interminable chase scenes—place it in the middle of the Pixar pack. Precious is an astonishing film in many ways, and amidst the controversy over whether or not it’s a story of value for the African-American community or for any other segment of the population, it hasn’t received enough credit for its striking visuals. The film’s critics, however, have pointed out that the story of dysfunction, incest and buried potential is in some ways too familiar—we’ve seen these themes played out too many times before to justify the grimmer aspects of Precious. I’m not entirely on board with that reasoning, but I take the point. I count myself a fan of the film, but no more than I’m a fan of WAFCA’s other Best Picture selections.

One Choice Left

I was left with one choice for Best Picture. Inglourious Basterds is flawed choice, a flawed film—A Serious Man bests it, as do several other films released this year. But those films weren’t nominated for Best Picture, and Inglourious Basterds was. I cast my vote for the film as Best Picture, and for Quentin Tarantino as Best Director.

 I never had any regrets about doing so, and in the days since casting the vote, have only hardened in my judgment that Inglourious Basterds deserved my vote. I wish it had won, and not just because it’s superior to the other four WAFCA Best Picture nominees.

 My rationale boils down a word mentioned in the lead of this piece: passion. I felt none for Up in the Air, or for The Hurt Locker. Precious and Up have their merits, too, but am I passionate about either one? No.

 You might be guessing that I’m about to announce my passion for Inglourious Basterds. The truth is, I greeted the film with decided ambivalence. Going into it, I expected to have a strong aversion to the film. The scars from having to endure last year’s Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas still haven’t healed, and I wasn’t keen to see another film that might use the Holocaust to make some supposedly vital point that comes across as misguided. In this case, the point would be revenge, and I’ve simply tired of revenge as a central element of any story. It not only bores me; it offends me.

So I was surprised to find my reactions as I watched Basterds running the gamut from delight (loved those first 20 minutes) to distaste at the violence (which wasn’t quite as hard to stomach as I’d imagined, the final scene excepted) and frustration about the film’s formal aspects. I thought the framing, in particular, was disappointingly cluttered in spots, particularly in the tavern sequence (which goes on far too long, in my estimation, although the film’s fans think it’s spot on). Tarantino had Robert Richardson, a master, behind the camera, and this is what he came up with?

As a fan of camera movement, I felt a thrill when Tarantino’s camera finally circled the two principal characters. It was electrifying! I waited for the rest of the film to deliver on the aesthetic promise of that moment, but it was not to be. I like static shots as much as the next cinephile when they’re well composed, but with Tarantino I expect more razzle-dazzle camera movement. The fact that he doesn’t go this route may be a sign of maturity on his part, but it thwarted my expectations, which were in part fueled by Tarantino himself during the opening segment.

Still Not Settled

I expect to be able to re-evaluate these concerns on subsequent viewing of Tarantino’s film. I fully expected to receive a screener DVD that I could watch again ahead of awards voting—if ever there was a film that demanded a second viewing, it’s this one—but the Weinstein Co. decided not to send screeners to WAFCA members. So my thoughts on this film are based on a single viewing several months ago. Future viewings will help me figure out what works in Basterds, what doesn’t, and why. I hope the film’s fans who read this will cut me some slack: I’m more with you than against you.

It’s important to stress that my reasons for voting for Inglourious Basterds weren’t entirely negative. I didn’t think it was simply the least flawed of WAFCA’s five Best Picture nominees. Indeed, the film has something going for it that none of the others, with the exception of Precious, can approach: It has sparked the most stimulating — the most passionate — film writing of the year. The pleasure of reading the back-and-forth over the film’s merits, or lack thereof, was a highlight of the past 12 months. It certainly influenced my selection.

Since the film’s release, provocative, informative posts on the film have been written by:

Jeffrey Wells

Glenn Kenny

Dennis Cozzalio and Bill Ryan

Chris Stangl  

David Bordwell

and Steven Boone 

I appreciate that the film has its critics (see Jordana Horn and Steve Santos), but the best films often are the ones that stir the loudest debates, and on that score, nothing this year tops Inglourious Basterds. I was more than satisfied to vote for it as the year’s best picture. Maybe, one day, after subsequent viewings, I’ll actually believe it was.

Sarris 101: A Film Critic’s Politics

August 13, 2009
The title of this post is, perhaps, more ambitious than its content permits. Andrew Sarris’ career can’t be encapsulated in a few hundred words, and even if it could be, I’m not the guy to do so. I’m at the front end of “Sarris 101”—first day of class, one lesson in.

Back on July 12, Michael Powell wrote a nice tribute piece to Sarris’ longevity, and provided a well-timed primer for those of us who have wondered where to start when it comes to Sarris’ writings and thoughts. “A Survivor of Film Criticism’s Heroic Age” includes the perspective of Sarris himself on his career, and his career-defining battles, chiefly with Pauline Kael. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much,” he says. It still does, but as Sarris says, the battles reached a fever pitch back in the 1960s. The article provides more details.

Sarris and Lopate, marked with sticky notes

Sarris and Lopate, marked with sticky notes

It’s worth noting that American film criticism didn’t, of course, start with Sarris. That’s why I’m delving into Phillip Lopate’s wonderful collection, “American Film Critics: From the Silents Until Now,” while simultaneously venturing into Sarris’ “The American Cinema.” I picked up both books from the library, and marked them as I read (see picture), but I’ve subsequently ordered my own copy of “The American Cinema.” The Lopate collection is a keeper, too, once I can scrape the funds together (and other priorities aren’t pressing—although they always do press).

Those marked pages in the pictured Sarris book highlight multiple passages that surprised me in the early going of “The American Cinema.” Several times, Sarris refers, derisively, to “the Left.” I’d always figured Sarris for a left-of-center type; his New York Observer reviews in recent years have included sometimes morose, resigned statements about the effects of the George W. Bush presidency. Therefore, I had assumed Sarris, like most every other film critic I’ve heard express their political views, was no Republican.

So what was I to make of Sarris when he writes, in his chapter on John Ford: “The Left has always been puritanical, but never more so than in thirties when Hollywood’s boy-girl theology threatened to paralyze the class struggle.”

Or later, when he writes, “Ford can never become fashionable again for the rigid ideological critics of the Left.”

Or later still, In his chapter on D.W. Griffith, where Sarris writes about how D.W. Griffith is treated as an anachronism by “the liberal, technological, or Marxist historians who have embraced a theory of Progress in contradistinction to all other arts.”

I found Sarris’ comments unexpected in their general agreement with what might be today’s “conservative” view of Ford and Griffith. I imagine conservatives would nod their heads as Sarris attacks “the Left.” But I imagined Sarris would be mortified to hear me say as much. How had these definitions changed since Sarris wrote?

I guessed that at the time Sarris wrote “The American Cinema” (published in 1969, a year before I was born), there may have been intramural battles among those who were left of center, and that Sarris was therefore engaging in a debate among those who were on his side of the political aisle. Similar to the skepticism with which self-labeled “progressives” viewed other, DLC-type Democrats during the Clinton/Obama primary battles, maybe Sarris had a bone to pick with people to his left.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a Republican.

Such a label is no scandal to me. I consider myself right-of-center—something that has put distance between me and other film lovers. But more on my politics in a future post.

I put the question about Sarris to two men whose insight into Sarris far exceeds my own: Stephen Prince, film professor at Virginia Tech (my alma mater) and author of several books on film; and Gerald Peary, director of “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism.”

And then I sent the question to Sarris himself. It was a long shot.

He got back to me through Molly Haskell, his wife and fellow film critic. Read on for the details.

First, here’s Prince, who didn’t mince words in laying out the playing field, and Sarris’ place on it. “To a large extent, Sarris is setting up straw figures (that he calls ‘The Left’) so he can knock them down,” Prince told me. ”He’d have three points of reference when writing in the late’60s and 1970s—the old American left of the 1930s (New Dealers, anti-fascists, trade unionists, communists), the New Left that coalesced around Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, and the intellectual left as embodied in ’70s-era film theory/criticism and select filmmakers like Godard. Seeing himself as not an ideologue, Sarris disassociates himself from all these by taking the critical positions in the remarks you excerpted. I think he comes off sounding rather silly.”

Peary, whose film highlights the Sarris/Kael spats of several decades ago, referenced Sarris’ political philosophy as expounded in “For the Love of Movies.”

“There’s a little bit in my film in which Sarris explains how he and Kael were both ‘centrists’ politically,” Peary told me. “Sarris came from a working-class Greek family in Queens, and, coming into the city, he became a moderate liberal, quite a stretch from his background. But, in his view, the Village Voice in the late ’60s was filled with rich, spoiled, bratty, trust-fund babies who considered themselves holier-than-thou radicals and looked down on his views. And Molly Haskell was seen by some as a “bourgeois feminist” (that was the term), who didn’t connect middle-class women’s issues with the oppression of blacks, working-class, etc. It was a very incendiary time, and they both were bitter about it, a bit paranoid.”

Peary, who lived through that time, told me he considered himself “a leftish agitator” in those days. “The ‘Left’ of the ’60s was more visionary, cultural revolutionist , sex-drugs-rock’n’roll, far more socialist-anarchist than Communist,” he explained.

Having heard from Prince and Peary, and of Sarris’ own explanation of his background in “For the Love of Movies,” I sent the question to Sarris himself, hoping for confirmation or clarification of his politics. Who better to ask?

Haskell responded for Sarris, who had no access to a computer but communicated his thoughts to his wife. She told me that I was on to something in my distinction between factions among the Left, but that the issue was “complicated.” “He was brought up (parents Greek monarchists) on the right, then moved to the center. Most of the time battling far left critics,” Haskell wrote.

But Sarris “has become more liberal since college,” she wrote. “Best description: a liberal anti-communist.”

She concluded, “The Nouvelle Vague was considered apolitical, or even rght-wing by left critics. Godard considered almost a fascist before he was radicalized.”

There’s obviously much more to the story—more than I can figure out now. But Sarris has left a line of communication open to me, if and when I feel competent enough to follow up with him.

It was a thrill to hear from Sarris himself, as well as from Prince and Peary. I’m honored that they participated in this budding blog, and look forward to building on what they’ve told me as I pursue this project.