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.