Hi everyone - sorry to be late to the party. I just got back from Japan, where I got to sample a bit of the local film culture: I sampled a morning double feature of vintage Nikkatsu new wave porn movies at the CinemaVera retro house near Shibuya. I didn't catch their titles (the films were unsubbed and the catalogs were in Japanese), but a really memorable one involved a porn director who specializes in sound design, incorporating recordings of animals and industrial noises to enhance his sex scenes. He comes across a recording of a woman at the dentist whose during oral surgery inspire the director to seek her out. Kind of a cross between DePalma's Blow Out and the Phil and Ronnie Spector story (he married her because of her voice).
I think this makes a good segue to the current topic of local film culture. I don't make it to the theater nearly as often as I used to, whether the new releases at the cineplex or the retro arthouses. For the last couple of years my theatrical movie going doubles around the time of the New York Film Festival, a venue that I think has survived the threat of being outmaneuvered by the Tribeca Film Festival. Andrew might have a better take on Tribeca since he goes to more of its screenings than I do, but I think it has peaked, and all the money that American Express has thrown at it has done little to distinguish it as a marquee venue, sandwiched as it is between Sundance, Berlin and Cannes on the festival calendar. It significantly reduced its schedule this year, and possibly as a result it was more restrictive towards the press, which didn't earn it much goodwill among people covering the festival. I think the recession will also have a noticeable effect on quieting the festival this year, as it seems to have with Sundance, from the reports I've heard.
Living in New Jersey gives me close proximity to a fascinating subculture of cinephilia, cineplexes that feature new Bollywood releases. On New Year's Day I explored this world for the first time. A half hour's walk in the opposite direction from New York City lands me at the Columbia Park Stadium 12, which devotes two screens to Bollywood movies for a sizeable South Asian audience; the day I went was packed with families, friends and couples. They sell pakoras and chaat next to the popcorn and nachos. That day I watched Ghajini, the Bollywood musical version of Memento, which was a lot of fun, especially with the enhanced soundtrack provided by the audience.
Another interesting development, which caused a bit of confusion for me and my local colleagues when we were putting together end of year lists, was the increase of traditionally non-first run theaters putting out limited first-run releases. Anthology Film Archives, one of the best places to watch both rare vintage and new low-budget independent works, has been giving one or two week releases to top ten-worthy releases for at least a couple years now: among their noteworthy offerings last year were Wang Bing's Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, and Jose Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia. The Museum of Modern Art began to do something similar this year, giving a weeklong run to Terrence Davies' Of Time and the City and Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, among others. It's great that these films are able to see some kind of release in New York; I just wish the local mainstream and even alternative press would do a better job of giving them coverage, since these venues aren't always on their radar. Then again, the local film press itself is in shambles these days, but that's another story.
The saddest and most significant NYC cinephile news item for me in 2008 wasn't among the theatrical venues, but in the dying industry of video rental. Once seen as a threat to the life of moviehouses, ironically it seems that even art house theaters are destined to outlive the brick-and-mortar rental store like Blockbuster or Hollywood video, as those activities are migrating to online mail order DVD, video-on-demand services and file sharing. Sadly, Kim's Video, the first place I would turn to for hard-to-find films that Blockbuster or even Netflix didn't carry, shut its doors after over 15 years in the business. The parting insult was the collection of over 55,000 titles being shipped off to the town of Sacile, Sicily, apparently the only institution willing to adopt the entire collection and make it available to the public.
Now that I have time to visit the first topic of favorite underexposed new films, here are some favorites I saw last year:
- Brilliante Mendoza's Serbis - I'd be especially interested to hear what Alexis has to say about this film. Fortunately it has a distributor and should be seeing a US release sometime early this year.
- Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero.
- Sergey Dvortesevoy's Tulpan - I think this has been picked up by Zeitgeist in the US.
- Ying Liang's Taking Father Home - which was the last film to enjoy a run at the now-departed Two Boots Pioneer, RIP.
My company dGenerate handles non-theatrical distribution for this film, as well as several other Chinese independent films. I love all of the films we carry, which makes sense since my job is to select which films to distribute among the hundreds of Chinese independent films sent our way. I haven't been to see the Chinese indie film scene firsthand for a few years, but from the many hours I've spent in 2008 watching their works, I'd say that this is one of the most exciting scenes of filmmaking in the world right now, especially in the realm of documentary filmmaking. These filmmakers have no sense of rules or conventions in terms of how to film reality. The Chinese documentaries that have caught the attention of the international stage (films by Wang Bing and Jia Zhangke) are only the tip of the iceberg; there are many more works that challenge the conventions of narrative, of the relationship between filmmaker and subject, of the politics of representation. Among my favorites that we're releasing are: Ou Ning's Meishi St. (a collaborative work between Ou Ning and his subjects, who film their own process of being evicted from a Beijing neighborhood to make way for construction mandated by the Olympics); Jian Yi's Super, Girls!, which follows several contestants of China's version of the TV show "American Idol," and Zhou Yuejun's Foggy Valley, a strange blend of fiction and documentary that's worthy of Abbas Kiarostami.
Andrew, I'm looking forward to hearing your take on NYC film culture. And Edwin I'd like to hear more about how you stay tapped into contemporary Chinese cinema, since that seems to be a major focus for you and your blog (which, by the way, is an exceptional resource).