Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Best of 2008: Twin Cities Film

By all accounts, 2008 was a bad year for the film industry. As movies vie for attention, television has become far more sophisticated at distracting the audience. As the piece of the money making pie for films gets smaller, the larger companies fight harder. A handful of specialty distributors (Warner Independent Pictures, Picturehouse, THINKFilm, New Line, Paramount Vantage, Tartan) threw in the towel, changing the landscape of independent film distribution. As the lines become more and more blurry between the theater and your television and your computer and your PDA, film generally gets ignored under the wide umbella of media events. The biggest shows of the year played out not on film, but on TV and the various digital outlets that it supports. Between Zhang Yimou's theatrical mega-show in Beijing and the election year's many moments of political dynamism and ridiculousisms, I was even willing to join the couch potatoes. Although Oliver Stone filmically tried to add to the conversation with W, no one heard him over the shouts for Tina Fey.

Of course the other watershed of 2008 was the "crisis in film criticism." A number of full time critics at large publications lost their jobs due to a seismic shift between digital and print media. All of the sudden those who get paid to write about films are threatened by those of us willing to write about film regardless of pay. (Please note the two very important exhibits right before you: a) your computer, b) my ragtag blog where you have read into the second paragraph.) Every conversation about what is going on with film criticism eventually ends up on those dirty weirdos in their basements on a 24/7 blog-a-thon. (Again, refer to exhibit b.) The irony locally is that yours truly and my friend Daniel over at Getafilm, bloggers at the very least, have crept out from our basements to occasionally grace the pages of our local daily. Needless to say, the crisis is more of a crisis of excess, and this is by no means isolated to film. Figuring out what form this excess will take on in the coming years is a do-or-die task for every magazine and newspaper. Personally, I don't know if film periodicals have ever been better. I am continually amazed by the rich material in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Cineaste, the newly redesigned Film Quarterly, and Art Forum.

It is under these dire circumstances that the Twin Cities film community soldiers on! If it was a bad year in film, I was ignorantly oblivious to it here in the Twin Cities, where film exhibition continued to challenge my schedule and my brain. Although I wish our community had a little more solidarity (uniforms? lapel pins?), our resilience has nonetheless been rewarded with a very fruitful year of screenings. Whether you wanted to be nostalgic or cutting edge, a handful of venues and organizations did their very best to offer top shelf programming. Here were the highlights:

26th Minneapolis-St Paul International Film Festival
Carrying a huge sign that signified 'not dead yet,' Minnesota Film Arts packed St Anthony Main day in and day out with a very solid film festival. Offering a glorified sneak peak of the year's indie darlings (The Visitor, Encounters at the End of the World, Beauty in Trouble, The Edge of Heaven, The Last Mistress, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, Son of Rambow, Tell No One, Time Crimes, Young @ Heart, Up the Yangtze, Savage Grace, American Teen) as well as unprecedented screenings of fantastic films that will never ever return(Alexandra, Autumn Ball, Beaufort, Dry Season, Import/Export, Jar City, Katyn, Little Moth, Slingshot, Still Life, Way I Spent the End of the World, Woman on the Beach, Yella, You the Living, Pageant, Momma's Man, Patti Smith: Dream of Life...and those were just the ones I saw. To say that there was something for everyone would be an understatement. MFA has been struggling the past few years and has faced many criticisms (perhaps even from me.) But its sheer tenacity is admirable. Film Fest dates for this year are set for April 16 to May 3.

In the Realm of Oshima: The Films of Japanese Master Nagisa Oshima at the Walker
The Walker offered many things in 2008—Naomi Kawase and her films Shara and Mourning Forest, Mike Leigh and his amazing first film Bleak Moments, Carlos Reygadas and his most recent masterpiece Silent Light, Two Lane Blacktop, crazy Errol Morris and Standard Operating Procedure—but the Nagisa Oshima retrospective was the crowning jewel. Seeing these films, many for the first time, was like some kind of unbelievable gift that I didn't deserve. The three week remastered CinemaScope retrospective of film rebellion was like a dream come true: intellectually engaging, visually stunning and completely overwhelming.

Playing the Villain: The Films of Richard Widmark at the Parkway
Take-Up Productions has worked tirelessly to make repertory screenings a reality, offering two film noir series and this hum-dinger at the newly renovated Parkway Theater. Richard Widmark was born in Minnesota, and although he wasn't a huge star, he was a familiar face. The beauty of the Widmark series was the relative obscurity of the titles: Kiss Of Death (1947), Slattery's Hurricane (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), Yellow Sky (1948), and Don't Bother to Knock (1952). I'm willing to be corrected, but I would guess that all five probably had not screened here theatrically since being released.

Alain Robbe-Grillet Series and Godard Retrospective at the Oak Street
Word on the street was that the powers that be were not happy about the turn out for these two series, but I thought they resurrected some much needed life back into Oak Street. Despite the fact that everyone was focused on the election and debates, film fans turned out to see these films either for the first time or the fifteenth. The Alain Robbe-Grillet films were a stark reminder to what the Oak used to be with surprising hidden gems that I could have never imagined in my wildest dreams.

The sad reality of theaters fighting for audiences did make itself evident in small, but very obvious ways in the Twin Cities. The most stinging was coming back from vacation to find Mama Mia and Batman Returns dominating my independent film mutiplex. With that in mind, I make the plea for everyone to check out a film that you have never heard of, or support the cinema offering challenging programming. I'm no Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert, but I'll see you at the movies anyway.


Dan said...

Kathie is right: mobilization!
Kate, I don't understand a pair of sentences:
"A number of full time critics at large publications lost their job due to a seismic shift between digital and print media. All of the sudden those who get paid to write about films are threatend by those of us willing to write about film regardless of pay."

I'm not in the field of criticism, so you also mean that a number of paid writers has been fired because of internet publications?

Kathie Smith said...

Sorry, that is a messy sentence!

No, not at all Dan. Critics lost their jobs because newspapers and magazines are struggling. Time, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice and Newsday are all examples of publications who fired film critics. It is the result of fewer and fewer people reading and buying newspapers and magazines. Most of the time this is blamed on the internet and the massive amount of information (both useful and useless) offered for free.

Dan said...

Oh, now I see. Yep, the internet can represent a true problem for the newspapers all over the world, but I also think it is a natural evolution, and sometimes a regression, of the information technology. And I don't think this phenomenon will stop.
What do you think about all this?

YTSL said...

Am glad to see as many Asian films reaching Minnesota as looks to be the case from your blog. Care to explain for a curious Asian why this is the case?

Daniel Getahun said...

Kathie, I'm so glad we connected this year, and I hope that we both find time and energy to get to our "unfinished business" together, as it were.

This is one of the best posts of yours I've read, mostly because it's locally-focused, well-written, and, of course, because you mention me (yes, our names in print are a bizarre sight to see; but no, I don't write out of a basement - even though I am a dirty weirdo).

And you're right, if 08 was bad for specialty distributors (I weep at THINKFilm's demise), it wasn't that bad for their actual products, many of which I loved.

I didn't know you saw Dry Season. What a gem that was. And also, no mention of Barry's Screwball Comedy series? I saw His Girl Friday for the first time on the big screen in April and it blew my mind.

Oh, and I would definitely wear a uniform or lapel pin.

Kathie Smith said...

Dan, I agree with you that it is a natural evolution, even though the dying newspaper business saddens me. But I don't think newspapers have embraced electronic media as a second outlet for news and revenue. I think there is also a general distrust of the internet from the old school of newspapers. The fact that the internet is full of junk is only seeing half the picture. It is also an amazing resource and tool. People like to say that you can't believe anything you read on the internet, and I would like to know if you can believe everything you read in the newspapers... This is obviously a much larger topic, but very interest.

YTSL, we do get a fair amount of Asian films, but I think it is only because we are sort of a middle market for films (not a big market, but certainly not small.) Minneapolis is pretty lucky to have at least a few independent theaters around, as well as three Landmark Theaters, and The Walker Art Center (which does some amazing programming.) I also have my ear to the ground regarding any Asian films that come through town and generally highlight them more than most. The irony is that we don't have as many Asian films as we used to. An organization in town, Asian Media Access, used to bring a different Hong Kong film to town each week. It was amazing. As a result I saw a lot of 90s Hong Kong films in the theater here. Eventually renting the theater and the prints became cast preventative and they stopped doing it. (If you are curious, you can check out the archives here. I just randomly took a look at Cinema with Passion 10: The Naked Killer, The Untold Story, God of Gamblers II, A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn, New Dragon Inn, The Blade, Ah Kam, Who's the Woman Who's the Man, Hard Boiled, The Killer, Thunder Cop, Big Bullet. AMAZING! Right? They did 16 seasons!)

Daniel, if we ever get to said "unfinished business," I'm going to have to insist we institute lapel pins. Maybe a goat lapel pin! All of Barry's series were awesome, but it was really the Widmark films that personally took me by surprise. I did the capsule review in the Strib for Dry Season (gave it high marks as I remember.)

Daniel Getahun said...

Hmm, now that you mention it I might have some recollection of that capsule review.

Question - you mention the dates for 09 from March - April? Is that confirmed? I thought April 16 - May 3, but that was I date I pulled from something a long time ago so I'm not sure it's accurate.

Kathie Smith said...

Jeez, thanks Daniel. I was off on those dates by a month. I just changed them in the post. April 16 - May 3 was the last I heard, also.

Yana Olson said...

I also like to watch Asian films. people want some now topics to see movie,, that's way 2008 was a bad year for the film industry.

lapel pins