An Experimental Decade, the Features: 30 Films of a Fortunate Man

The thirty best avant-garde feature films of the decade, the selection of which presents a challenge of access, sensibility, and privilege.
Michael Sicinski
At least once a decade since, I don't know, the 1960s, someone has declared the End of Cinema, sometimes with an air of triumph, occasionally a sense of relief, but usually a general tone of defeat. As we should have learned by now, cinema is resilient, not unlike the flu. It mutates, but it doesn't ever really go away. And as a specific subset of Cinema writ large, experimental film (and video? Do we still need to stipulate that?) has had its basic DNA rewritten dozens of times since the supposed heyday of the genre, the sixties-into-seventies sweet spot where autobiographical expressionism evolved into formalist rigor. The avant-garde, with its battered but still pulsating community ethos, and its inherent since of opposition (be it latent / aesthetic or blatant / political), has managed to keep on keeping on, even through the dim years of 1985–1993. Someone's always cooking up something good.
Reviewing a decade in the life of any artform is, of course, an arbitrary way of seeing where things are at. I was teaching an art history course this past term, and I was trying to get my students to see how particular canvases displayed transitional effects between the Renaissance and the Baroque, reminding them that there was no bowler-hatted Art Bureau who showed up in 1520 to announce, "okay, Renaissance is over, pack it up." These things are frayed along the edges, and we only pretend otherwise for convenience's sake. So attempting to assess the finest achievements in cinematic art between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019, is perhaps even more absurd.
This is only exacerbated, of course, by the fact that defining "experimental film" is notoriously dicey. It's a subjective process, of course, but not entirely. I refer above to a community ethos, and I don't think I'm alone in using this idea as a yardstick for making some of these difficult category rulings. Experimental cinema, in the "classic" sense, has been artisanal, operating mostly in the "one man/woman band" vein, as opposed to the industrial production crew style. Once, it was a bit easier, using 35mm as the cutoff between "us" and "them," but now that celluloid is as quaint as a rotary telephone, more and more experimentalists have access to 35mm and even 70mm. Obsolescence has turned out to be an advantage, just like it was for 8mm and 16mm before.
There are also tricky distinctions between genres: experimental documentaries, slow cinema, and the like. So in terms of deciding on thirty key experimental feature films of the decade, I decided to abide by this possibly outdated but at least semi-objective metric. Films that circulate in the not-for-profit co-op channels of distribution, and tend to be made by a single artistic entity with the possible help of a few friends, would serve as the basic definition of "experimental." So this ruled out films like Tsai Ming-lang's Journey to the West, Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson, Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book, Maddin / Johnson / Johnson's The Forbidden Room, and a few other films that straddle the line between artisanal and industrial, a line that digital production is gradually obliterating.
But enough about the films that are not on the list.
One thing I will say about the final thirty I came up with is that the ranking gets a bit shakier and less defensible as the numbers get higher. At the end of the year, and the decade, we are inundated with lists, and as such we are implicitly asked to ponder the vagaries of taste. There is often a lot of agreement on these lists, and this has to do with institutional factors as much as anything else: which films played what festival, who got how much grant support, and which films were championed by critics, myself included. We'd be deluding ourselves if we chalked widespread agreement simply up to meritocracy.
But on the other hand, there are certain artists who have earned the support they've received by consistently showing us something unexpected, taking the medium in directions we didn't even realize that it needed to go. The films on this list by David Gatten, Jodie Mack, Blake Williams, Heinz Emigholz, and Lewis Klahr, for example, are all instances of established artists, all at varying points in their careers, taking up their skill sets and breaking off into a distinctly new direction. For some, such as Williams, Michael Robinson, Ben Rivers, and Isiah Medina, it was a first-time move into feature-length, which involved the broader articulation of their previous concerns. In other cases, it was a question of research and exploration, bringing their particular methods to bear on new concerns, like global capitalism (Jodie Mack), autobiography (Heinz Emigholz), or the tactility of video versus film (David Gatten).
Other key films of the decade marked the emergence of major new voices in experimental cinema, perhaps none more forcefully than Ja'Tovia Gary, whose previous films only hinted at the intellectual depth and emotional expansiveness of The Giverny Document. But the decade also witnessed the wider emergence of artists such as Khalik Allah, Stephen Broomer, Soda_Jerk, and the long-overdue acknowledgement of Kevin Jerome Everson and Deborah Stratman as modern masters.
Meanwhile, some of the very same individuals associated with that late 60s / early 70s avant-garde golden age remained active during the last decade, making work that easily compares with anything they've previously produced in terms of quality and scope. For the most part, we have the turn to digital filmmaking to thank for this. Of course, Ken Jacobs has long been indefatigable, and his Eternalism method has spawned another period of intense productivity. But the embrace of digital tools has also provided a flurry of significant new work from James Benning, Ernie Gehr, and Dan Barnett. And even Peter Hutton embraced the new technology for his final film, before his untimely death.
Apart from all this, it seems as though one should look for defining commonalities, as a way to locate some sort of Zeitgeist. It has, of course, been a turbulent ten years: a global refugee crisis; the rise of right-wing politics; greater evidence of pending environmental disaster and the immediate rise of catastrophic weather; and the rather sudden drop of the benevolent ideological mask of American hegemony, in favor of open and unapologetic white supremacy. But if all I've articulated above means anything, it's that I, my taste, and my relation to cinema itself does not stand outside of those relationships, nor do the films themselves somehow simplistically express them.
Rather, the thirty films I've chosen are a triangulation of my own interests and perceptions vis-à-vis the decade of crisis, as well as my frequent need to seek refuge from it in the realm of the abstract. Your thirty films would, of course, be different than mine based on what you have seen that I haven't. (I never saw Betzy Bromberg's films, for example.) But more importantly, your thirty would differ based on how engaged you are able to remain in the ugly immanence of the world, and for how long, and to what extent your subject position allows you to slip away or forces you to stay in the fight.
As we know, these are problems of situation and history, written on the body, and they are not the same for all of us. Which is why we're all in this mess—because our differences are freighted with power or its lack. Here are thirty films as seen by a very fortunate man, who has a lot of room for ruminative beauty alongside the necessary rage.
1. The Extravagant Shadows (David Gatten, U.S., 2012)
2. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack, U.S., 2018)
3. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (Ja'Tovia Gary, U.S. / France, 2019)
4. PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams, Canada, 2017)
5. Differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France, 2012)
6. Streetscapes [Dialogue] (Heinz Emigholz, Germany, 2017)
7. Sixty Six (Lewis Klahr, U.S., 2015)
8. Park Lanes (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S., 2015)
9. American Colour (Joshua Bonnetta, Canada / U.S, 2011)
10. Episode of the Sea (Lonnie van Brummelen, Siebren de Haan, and the inhabitants of Urk, Netherlands, 2014)
11. Field Niggas (Khalik Allah, U.S., 2015)
12. The Realist (Scott Stark, U.S., 2013)
13. Watching the Detectives (Chris Kennedy, Canada, 2017)
14. Terror Nullius (Soda_Jerk, Australia, 2018)
15. American Falls (Phil Solomon, U.S., 2012)
16. Daredevils (Stephanie Barber, U.S., 2013)
17. The Lanthanide Series (Erin Espelie, U.S., 2014)
18. The Illinois Parables (Deborah Stratman, U.S., 2016)
19. Tondal's Vision (Stephen Broomer, Canada, 2018)
20. Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs, U.S., 2011)
21. Easy Rider (James Benning, U.S., 2012)
22. Science Without Substance (Daniel Barnett, U.S., 2019)
23. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2011)
24. Invention (Mark Lewis, Canada / U.K, 2015)
25. Three Landscapes (Peter Hutton, U.S., 2013)
26. 88:88 (Isiah Medina, Canada, 2015)
27. The Royal Road (Jenni Olson, U.S., 2015)
28. Circle in the Sand (Michael Robinson, U.S., 2012)
29. Ouroboros (Basma Alsharif, Palestine / Qatar / France / Belgium, 2017)
30. Where the Chocolate Mountains (Pat O'Neill, U.S., 2015)
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