December 31, 2012
There were many great film experiences for me this year. I had more access than ever thanks to the Florida Film Critics Circle, a group of professional film writers who welcomed me into their group in 2011. We voted on many films for several categories. The results of these winners was posted and discussed a bit here.
However, as the critic motivated to celebrate the independent ethos of creators of art, my votes for best films and their components often steer toward another direction. Well-made films are not always easy to understand (though they must first be well-made: smart, writing, illuminating pacing, surprising cinematography, an eye for mise-en-scène, great soundtracks and powerful acting performances can all be found in the films listed below). If I learned one thing while completing my MA thesis on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is that the depiction of the sublime should never seem literal. I would blame Ang Lee’s Life of Pi for something like that. It is also well and good that a film have entertainment value. I won’t deny that I enjoyed Ben Affleck’s Argo, but was it something more than thrilling jingoistic entertainment? It was not. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty does a little better, as it explores the slipperiness of the notion of truth. It’s a subtle thing, overshadowed by lots of dramatic violence, including 20 long opening minutes of torture, explosions and a climactic ambush attack whose results are no spoiler (review to come sometime next week).
Though one of the better film experiences of the year, Zero Dark Thirty still does not enter my top 10 (it may enter my top 20— that list to come in February). My top 10 are for those looking for something even deeper. It starts with a gut feeling that is hard to explain, but even if you cannot understand the film at first glance, there is something in it that makes you feel you saw something different. These films often warrant and reward repeat viewings (or a lengthy review on my part). Several of the films listed below I did see more than once this year. Here are my top 10 films of 2012, as of Dec. 31 (with links to my original reviews were appropriate. Note: all titles are links that will re-direct you to the title’s Blu-ray version on Amazon. By buying the item through that link, you support the Independent Ethos with a commission at no extra charge to you):
1. The Master
3. Holy Motors
(full review coming soon)
(This film was not reviewed on Independent Ethos)
(This film was not reviewed on Independent Ethos)
Now, why “as of Dec. 31″ or the “so far” in this post’s title? As noted in a similar post for 2011, based on my experience as a film critic in Miami, many great foreign films of the year do not make it to my area until the early part of the following year. Amour saw its debut in Cannes at the start of this year, but will not see official release in Miami until the end of January. Thanks to my membership in the FFCC I had a chance to see this movie way in advance. However, I still have not had the opportunity to see much praised foreign works like Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, Christian Petzold’s Barbara and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. I also have some catching up to do. I have yet to see Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. So there is still time for the top 10 to shift. In order to make up for the shift and allow for some text to explain my top 10 (the under-appreciated and often superficially understood Take This Waltz especially merits some explaining). In February, I plan to do what I did for my favorite films of 2011 with this post and this post. So here’s to looking forward to what 2013 has to bring. Happy New Year, indeed!
May 18, 2012
It’s a marvel what one learns about filmmaking while watching the anti-film This is Not a Film. In 2010, acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi was confined to his condo in Tehran under house arrest as part of his punishment for intending to make a film deemed subversive by the state. During his house arrest, he decided to turn on a camera and just record, all the while trying to deny he was even making a film. He reportedly had This Is Not a Film smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake delivered to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it had its world premiere in 2011. The result offers a raw, insightful glimpse inside the mind of a creative genius.
This is Not a Film is so enlightening into the craft of filmmaking, it feels tragic that the government of Iran has denied this man the right to express himself. The film is set up with Panahi calling up a friend who turns out to be fellow filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, about a “problem.” Panahi cannot specify details over the phone, so he asks Mirtahmasb to come over. It will soon be revealed that Panahi needs a camera operator. Setting up his own HD camera in a corner, recording his movements as he wanders or sits in a room, it seems, leaves much to be desired for this visionary.
His friend soon picks up the camera to shoot Panahi. After all, his 20-year ban from filmmaking does not stipulate anything about acting or reading from a script, Panahi reasons. There are also discussions over his iPhone with a lawyer who is working to appeal his sentence, which also includes six years in jail, as well as conversations with concerned relatives. But Panahi seems to delight in turning that iPhone into a camera. He transforms into another man during sequences when he explores his craft. He shares a clip from his 1995 film the Mirror with Mirtahmasb and how he feels like the little girl who wants to throw off the fake cast and quit acting, when she comes to realize the bus she is riding is headed the opposite way of her home. It offers witty insight into the subversive quality of his films.
Thinking about the resonance in his own work clearly shakes up Panahi, and he orders Mirtahmasb to cut, but the documentary director continues filming. “You are not directing. This is an offence,” he tells Panahi. But, just as this film has emerged commercially with US distribution, you cannot keep a good director down. Panahi breaks out a screenplay to read from and soon begins rearranging furniture in his home to help describe what would have been his next film in more visual detail, blocking off the set in his living room with tape. He describes each instance of intended action, from what happens outside a window when a door bell rings to where another character steps into the theoretical camera’s view. The need to direct is in this man’s blood. It’s an energy that simply cannot be repressed, no matter the threat of jail. During this extended sequence the viewer truly sees that filmmaking is what keeps Panahi alive.
This becomes a catalyst for more thoughts on filmmaking by Panahi, as he shares clips from The Circle and Crimson Gold as well as his own doubts and eureka moments, which brings him back to the “set” inside his home.
No fancy plot is necessary to rivet fans of cinema to This is Not a Film. Here is a true genius of film baring his creativity, thoughts in a pure search for truth in the medium. In the end, his defense of this work appears in his own honesty. Even as he tries to create a film via this non-film, he cannot help but feel he is telling lies by filming within the confines of his home.
As the “film” unfolds, the soundtrack beyond his home’s walls is worth noticing: the sound of fireworks and sirens in the street. Mysterious at first, as if there might just be a war going on outside, it is later revealed via a news report, that it is Fireworks Wednesday. Following protests of the recent reelection of the country’s unpopular president, a reporter on the television notes, the country’s leader has found no religious reasons for Fireworks Wednesday and has had it denounced as unreligious. What is actually happening outside are people shooting off fireworks in protest and police zipping about to arrest them.
As much as Panahi would argue this is not a film, the narrative within This is Not a Film plays out with more skill than many in Hollywood can muster. There are many witty set ups, as the film continues to unfold in surprising ways, from the introduction of his daughter’s pet iguana, Igi, to the resonance of the revolutionaries living it up on Fireworks Wednesday just outside Panahi’s confines. There is a moment early in the film when Panahi looks into the lens. “The city is real busy today,” he comments. And so is this movie. At a brisk 75 minutes, it is something not to be missed.
As of this post, after the appeals court upheld the original sentence of a 20-year ban from filmmaking and six years in prison, the director has made his intentions known that he seeks to appeal to the country’s supreme court. Though he remains out of jail, he could be sent there at any time. Amnesty International continues to collect signatures in reverse Panahi’s sentence. You can add your voice here.
This is Not a Film is not rated, runs 75 minutes and is Persian with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida on Friday, May 18, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For more screening dates across the US, see the film’s official website.