Friday, January 12


Adam Hartzell's Best New Films of 2006

I try to keep on top of the latest interesting film screening news on Frisco Bay, but I can't do it alone. I get e-mail tips, and sometimes from the most unlikely places. Someone in the Philippines just alerted me to something called the Spinning Wheel Film Festival, a Sikh film spotlight (screening Amu and Dream in Doubt among other selections) which takes place at Stanford's Cubberly Auditorium on February 3rd. OK, the "someone" was my friend and fellow cinephile Adam Hartzell, who'll be back from the other side of the world before then so it's not that weird that he's in Manila thinking about an upcoming event in Palo Alto. Adam also sent along his thoughts on the top ten new films he saw in Frisco and on his globe-trotting film seeking expeditions in 2006. Loyal readers may recall that Adam guest-contributed some other pieces for this blog in 2006, starting with a top ten list nearly a year ago. This time around there seven selections an alert Frisco Bay filmgoer could have seen (even if Adam saw at least one of these, as well as the other three, at far-flung film festivals.) Without further ado, Adam:

As I write this, I am overwhelmed. Most of it has to do with the stress of my day job which has turned into the stress of a night job in a foreign land for the past two months. But another reason for my overwhelm can be found in the outside projects I bring on. I love reasoning with ideas and such is what leads me to my three other interests - writing, books, and film. Near the end of the year, I was asked to write a piece that became my priority task for the last two months. I’m always reading at least two self-assigned books (and various magazines) and have at least 10 books ready to be read. And there is always another film worth seeing in the San Francisco Bay Area and I spend much of my limited vacation time to catch films I’m concerned won’t make it out to SF.

All of these things take up a considerable amount of time to accomplish. As a result, I found myself recently saying aloud that sleeping and eating are 'inconveniences' to my getting everything done I want to get done. But then I see the every day poverty on my walk home and realize that’s my privilege talking..., and it needs to shut up.

Looking back at my year in film through the scrapbook-y journal I keep to reflect on which were my favorites, I find that I saw 122 films in theatres, 48 DVDs, and 11 on Beta/VHS. And those are ones that were new to me, that I hadn't seen before. I did countless re-watching of films I'd already seen, mostly on DVD. For the past three years, my goal was always to see at least 10 a month, which I've accomplished again. But I'm not going to make that my goal next year, because my new year's resolution is to cut down on the projects so as to hold off this overwhelm where I have the power to hold it off. Such a schedule I've kept had me 'watching' such films as Eric Khoo's Be With Me and Hou Hsiao-hsien Café Lumiere too tired to really take in what was before me on screen, hence why they aren't on my list here and likely would be if I were better able to keep my eyes open during the screenings. I want to make the most out of every opportunity I have, but to do that, somewhat ironically, I have to have less opportunities. One needs time set aside for nothing for the experience of everything to seep in.

Which brings me to my list of films from 2006 (or 2005 that were finally made available for me to see this year.) With one exception, it is filled with films that are of the patient pace that I prefer, and know that I need. This year I'm going to try to learn from them and have my life be similarly paced when I have control of the speedometer.

10) WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea 2006)

I can’t get enough of Hong. He is one of the few filmmakers I can watch over and over again. I never fail to find new interesting insights in the Hongian intertextuality of his films. As Filmbrain and others have commented, this film is an shift in his portrayals of women. The romantic triads that abound in his films are taken over this time by two women as endpoints confronting their rival suitor with similar bullshit and lying just as his men always have. Hong can fail me with any number of future releases since he’s already given me a life’s work to mull over. Two years in a row, I got to experience his films in a Korean multiplex, again at the MegaBox theatre at the Pusan International Film Festival, and the crowd’s response to his masterfully crafted humor added to the pleasure of his dramas of displeasure.

9. TEN CANOES (Rolf de Heer, Australia 2006)

One of two films in the languages of indigenous peoples I saw this year, part of me is simply happy such films were made. But they also greatly moved me, enabling me to give thanks for more than just that. Narrated with loving tongue-in-cheek by the great Australian actor David Gulpilil the film follows an Australian Aboriginal tribe in the infinite re-telling of a myth. I love how the recent history is told in black and white and the past in color, for as much as I love my present, some events from our past seem more vivid than the hours of today. I'm about to head to Australia, and I would have loved to watch this film amongst audiences there. But I checked it at PIFF when the chance arose.

8) INSIDE MAN (Spike Lee, USA 2006)

The only quick-paced film on my list, it's more special than just that since there are certain genres that I don’t tend to enjoy, and many such genres are utilized by Lee here in this film. So it says a lot of Spike Lee and his cast to get me to eventually buy the DVD of this film. I love the precise peppering of clichés from the various genres to not have me groaning but grinning. I don’t have the DVD with me, so I don’t know if this is a direct quote, but Denzel Washington’s character’s line 'I bet you have no trouble getting a cab, though?' still has me laughing as I type this. I caught it at the Presidio Theatre right after snagging some scrumptious Blue Moon Pizza and then some coffee from The Coffee Roastery to keep my ass awake. I quickly realized in the theatre that in the case of this film, I didn’t need the help of the coffee.

7) SOUND BARRIER (Amir Naderi, USA/Iran 2005)

Also taking place in the streets of New York, this film of limited dialogue but vibrant frenetic sound is deliberate delirium, like I remember those streets. The first half of this film takes place mostly in the claustrophobic confines of the cataloguing containers of old radio shows in a storage locker that our young deaf protagonist proceeds to destroy with a frantic fever. The film had me immediately engrossed from the first few minutes. Silence and sound crashing, ebbing and flowing, it was a nice mix of contemplation, hopelessness, fury and determination. The staff at PIFF have yet again turned my attention towards a director whose oeuvre I knew nothing about until they programmed it.

6) SISTERS-IN-LAW (Kim Longinotto United Kingdom/Cameroon, 2005)

Considering how difficult it still can be to see certain films one desperately wants to see in theatres (see Brian's wish list), I was dumbstruck that I had FOUR separate opportunities to see British documentarian Kim Longinotto's Sisters-In-Law this year. I caught it during the African film series at the Pacific Film Archive, who would bring it back for another opportunity to watch it along with Longinotto herself for a retrospective of her work. (Besides those two venues, it had a run at the Balboa and it was the opening film of the Women's Film Festival in Seoul that I attended this year.) This film that follows two women, a prosecuting attorney and judge, in Cameroon going about their days demonstrates how democracy and her justice are not easy. She cannot be streamlined to meet tightly controlled corporate timelines and profit margins. She is slow, messy, and, at times, frightening, which is what makes the eventual, and sadly often occasional, just conclusions and results all the more joyous and fulfilling.

5) SA-KWA (Kang Yi-kwan, South Korea 2006)

I am not a Christian, but this film is. And this film is much of what I cherish about Christianity from my friends who are and from my distant, author/teachers like Rev. Michael Eric Dyson or Rev. Cornel West. Sa-Kwa (which means both 'apple' and 'apology' in Korean) isn't about a marriage made in an antiseptic heaven, this is a marriage between two messy humans who have to muck around before they get it right. And getting it right will be realizing that they never will. Hence, they must learn about forgiveness. The ending is wonderfully ambiguous so that it can reveal the conclusion you need it to at the time of your viewing, making it a film that embraces an inclusive congregation. Thanks to the programmers at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival for bringing this film to the Bay Area. You just might have helped, along with other festivals that advocated for it, push South Korean theatres to finally give it a release there.

4) THE DUELIST (Lee Myung-se, South Korea 2005)

At first glimpse, one might think this is another outlier of my patient film theme, but the slow drawn out dances of this martial mating ritual still fits within my frame. I know people have expressed disappointment in the lack of a 'story' here, but I find myself recalling the images long after my February screening. And it is the images that tell a more vivid story for me. In the feminized flourish of the male protagonist coupled with the masculine cuts of the female protagonist, the film presents a vision for mutual gender mutation that has slowly taken hold in South Korea. Yes, this is only a vision and doesn't intend to represent modern day reality anymore than it does its Chosun past. But we can't get anywhere without the vision first, and the vision isn't realizable without a seed and a fertile ground to plant it in. The gangster stroll of some South Korean films just doesn't hit me as hard as these gender role plays do. Thanks to the San Francisco Korean Film Festival staff for bringing this landlubber-swashbuckling spectacle to San Francisco.

3) THE JOURNALS OF KNUD RASMUSSEN (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Colin, Canada 2006)

I have been away from snow for so long, that I had forgotten how it crunches beneath your feet. It took this film to remind me how packed snow feels almost styrofoamish under ones boots. The vastness of white snow made this perhaps the brightest film I've seen all year, a film definitely meant to be seen on a theatre screen rather than my television, where the light ironically envelopes you with a cold chill that strangely turns the movie theatre into a luminescent body rather than a dark cavern. The story is a simple one of Danish Christian missionaries bringing their religion to replace the beliefs of the Inuit peoples through subtle resource reserves if not through spiritual influence. Each crunch of snow represented a slow transition from one tradition to another. It is a sad, sad movie, but even sadder was that there were so few of us to fill the vast space of the Palace of Fine Arts to see this film late on a weekday night. But I hope my great appreciation for bringing the film here is enough solace for the programmers of the San Francisco Native American Film Festival.

2) CACHÊ (Michael Haneke, France 2005)

This film was on a lot of 'Best Of' lists last year, but it wasn't released in SF until early 2006. But now I can understand why it made those lists then. Fear holds when it's brought to viewers so cautiously, and this film reaches heights of suspense and loathing that few other films brought to me last year. The opening scene surveillance of self becomes a mirror to reflect on what we bring on ourselves from the pasts we brought onto others. The scene where our main character gets into a shouting match with a bicyclist is a wonderful demonstration of how ones false beliefs of righteousness in actions and words dissipate upon greater, deeper reflection. I caught this at the Lumiere this year, a theatre that has brought many films that demanded reflection during my 10 ½ years in SF.

1) SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apitchatpong (aka Joe) Weerasethakul, Thailand 2006)

Right when the rush of festival films was getting bewildering for me at PIFF, I needed a film to re-position my state, and I knew Joe would deliver the medicine I needed, as do his doctors’ double-time in this country mouse/city mouse tale of..., well, I don’t really know. I don’t need to know, and I may never. I just need to set myself adrift sometimes like Joe’s camera as it floats around statues and corridors. We all knew the humor was there in the mass clumsy choreography of Jazzercise, but who would have thought there was such artistry, such transcendence? Well Joe of course. Joe sees things most of us don’t see. Thankfully, he’s a director who knows how to realize those sightings for the rest of us through cinema. Yes, Brian, I hope you and the rest of the Bay Area get to see this one too this year. I’ll bring my headbands and legwarmers to join you, but I’ll spare you the spandex.
Thanks, Adam for the perspectives on your year in cinema (not to mention your spandex promise). With nine of your ten picks being "of the patient pace" you prefer, and your top choice being an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, perhaps it's appropriate to give a shout-out to the current Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon being organized this month by HarryTuttle of SCREENVILLE. Though I may find time to contribute to this boundary-stretching event before January is over, in case I don't I'd just like to point to a piece I wrote a year and a half ago on a pair of contemplative films by James Benning.

Tuesday, January 2


Listless Empire

I just sent off my list of favorite 2006 Frisco film releases to the Australian film journal Senses of Cinema, who have been kind enough to host my year-end thoughts a few times before. It should be published in a few weeks, though I hope to have something here at Hell on Frisco Bay to tide over all you list-junkies out there soon.

What can I say? I'm a list-junkie myself and at this time of year there's always a bumper crop coming from awards groups, critics, and increasingly, bloggers. Film studios and distributors have long understood this and have tried to place their most critic-friendly films in cinemas at a time when they can reap maximum financial benefit from the publicity of being mentioned by a high-profile awards group or a large number of critics. Critics know this strategy well enough for it to often turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a year-end release becoming a critical sensation seemingly due as much to the timing of press screenings and national release patterns as to the actual merit of the film in question.

Luckily, there are plenty of critics and bloggers who try to resist being pulled and pushed by the studios playing this game. Most of my favorites this year have prefaced their top ten lists this year with some sort of disclaimer about the impossibility of seeing every film released in a year, the limitations of rating works of art against each other, the arbitrariness of a list usually made up primarily of first impressions (how many films do you take the time to see twice or more the year they're released?) hastily formed in a few weeks toward the end of the year. Vern, for example, alludes to the latter when admitting he doesn't feel comfortable putting Children of Men on the top of his list because he's only had three days to process it.

But one side effect from running this blog for a year and a half now is an unexpected, newfound empathy for the critics and awards groups that pack their lists with December and January releases. I used to silently accuse such listmakers of having bad memories and even wonder if they were somehow being "bought" by Oscar season's would-be movers and shakers. And to be honest those sorts of thoughts probably don't enter my mind any less often than they ever did. But now, because of the nature of Hell on Frisco Bay I think I understand just a little bit better the joy of sharing a film you've loved so much with a friend or a stranger or a readership full of friends and strangers. And the joy is amplified when a friend or stranger actually has a chance to view that film. Preferably in the same way you did and the same way the filmmakers intended: on film, in a darkened theatre, with a real-life audience. Which may be one reason, conscious or not, why the New York Film Critics Circle's choice of the already-on-DVD United 93 (which I admittedly have not seen) as their Best Picture of 2006 seemed like something of an anticlimactic statement on December 11th (are you New Yorkers saying there's not something majestically better than that for all of us cinemagoers across the land to anticipate?) It may be one more little reason why Crash's win at last year's Oscars was such a letdown for so many. I know most people don't come as close to fetishizing the theatrical experience as I do (better than fetishizing DVDs, I say), but does that mean it's pure projection on my part when I wonder if one small reason for critical acclaim to so often coalesce around December and January releases is simply the good will critics have for sharing the theatrical experience? This is not a rhetorical question, if you'd like to tease it out in the comments section below.

I guess it's here where I might as well reveal that my favorite film of 2006 was Terrence Malick's the New World. Yeah, most everyone else classifies it as a 2005 release. It's definitely on DVD, and not coming soon to a theatre near you or me. But there was no way the average (or even the above average) moviegoer could have seen it in 2005 unless they lived in or traveled to New York or Los Angeles during the last week of December. Or crashed a press screening or got a hold of a screener, I suppose. But Malick's film, more than almost any other new feature I've seen in the past year or two, demands to be seen in a cinema. I'll admit my bias: the qualities that make the film more cinema-friendly than home video-friendly are some of the same ones that made me cherish it so much: its patience, its grandeur, its splendid quietness, its moments of audacious energy, it's creation of a new, and for more than two hours wholly absorbing cinematic world up there on the big screen. This is one film I did see twice on the big screen, and wished I'd squeezed in even more viewings that way.

I'm not the only Frisco cinephile I know who thinks of the New World as a major highlight of 2006. Jeffrey Anderson liked the 2006 cut significantly better than the version he saw at a 2005 press screening. And Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, programmer of the Castro Theatre's monthly (give or take) MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS triple-bills placed Malick's film at number two on his top ten list for the Bay Guardian's massive year-end film issue. He also included a big, hilariously accurate asterisk along with his submission: "though he hasn't seen David Lynch's Inland Empire yet". Neither have I, but in certain ways David Lynch's latest film seems like the New World for 2007: 100%-certified auteur product, hotly anticipated, only available to New Yorkers, Angelinos and a few others last year, extremely divisive among those who have seen it, and nowhere to be found in Frisco until well into the New Year.

Exactly how well into it? Our first chance comes January 19th when Lynch is set to appear at the Rafael Film Center, which started distributing its new calendar last week. The film will open there for an engagement of an unspecified length on February 9th. Other upcoming highlights at Marin County's most thoughtfully-programmed cinema include its annual showcase of Oscar-submitted foreign films (Jan. 12-21) and a pair of programs devoted to the modernist animation studio best known for Gerald McBoing-Boing, UPA. The first of which (on March 15 & 18) I can highly recommend, it being a duplicate of a program that Russell Merrit brought to the Pacific Film Archive a couple years ago, and the second of which I've already placed a force field around March 22 in my calendar so I can see (it also plays March 25).

But crossing the Golden Gate Bridge isn't always the most convenient thing in the world, something cyclists were surprised to be reminded of yesterday (peace out to cyclists and to Code Pink; I admire you all.) And I'll be out of town on the 19th anyway, so my target date for Inland Empire is actually February 8th. The day it opens the 2007 IndieFest at the Castro Theatre. Early reports on this year's IndieFest schedule make it sound like they might really outdo themselves this time around, and opening with a self-distributed David Lynch film sure seems like a good sign. More signs are appearing on the festival's myspace page, which reveals Fido as the closing film (February 20) and Manhattan, Kansas, Rolling, Dante's Inferno and the Substance of Things Hoped For among the other selections. I've also been given the go-ahead to mention that Joe Swanberg's LOL and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's Green Mind, Metal Bats will play at the festival. The latter one I'm particularly eyeing as IndieFest has for a while now been very good at digging for some of the most fascinating, bizarre and entertaining new films from Japan; they've played at least as many Takashi Miike films as any Frisco venue, and I'm still kicking myself for missing last year's Katsuhito Ishii oddity Funky Forest: First Contact.

Rumor has it that Anita Monga has somehow joined forces with the 2007 IndieFest folks. In the meantime, the Castro Theatre which she booked for sixteen years is about to launch what may be its most Monga-esque calendar since her departure from that role. In addition to a spectacular 15-film Janus series featuring the kinds of titles (Jules and Jim, Drunken Angel, etc.) she used to routinely bring to the theatre there's the return of Noir City, a festival she helped start five years ago and that pulled out of the Castro in 2004 and 2005 as a direct result of her abrupt, unexplained firing. There's a pair of British Hitchcocks February 28th, and there's a 70s & 80s sci-fi double-bill series called "Tormented Terrestrials Tuesdays" which features titles like the Omega Man (Feb. 13) and Flash Gordon (Feb. 27) but most impressively, the inclusion of the amazing avant-garde short Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky before John Carpenter's the Thing March 6th. This is the kind of gentle guidance out of the realm a friend calls "cinematic comfort food" (for the 80s sci-fi crowd and the a-g crowd both, come to think of it) that good programming is supposed to do sometimes. And I certainly won't try to conceal my thankfulness that the Castro will be the site of a recurring calendar-long Robert Altman tribute featuring double bills like the Long Goodbye with California Split (Jan. 23), the Player and Short Cuts (Feb. 11), Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (Feb. 25), and more. Most special for me is the March 7th recreation of the Altman double feature that turned me into a confirmed Alt-maniac at the Castro several years ago: McCabe and Mrs. Miller paired with Three Women.

I've done it again. I started off with a point, and then began drifting off into anticipatory mode, listing all the upcoming screenings I'm interested in. I'll be happy to rejoin a discussion of year-end listing or anything else in the comments section, but I might as well continue rounding-up Frisco screening venues for a while. In mostly random order:

The restored (and as yet unvisited by me) California Theatre in San Jose is currently showing classic movies for a mere five dollar ticket. From now through Thursday it's Gone With the Wind, on Jan. 5th and 6th Casablanca (another print of which also plays Oakland's Paramount the first of those days- anyone care to do a comparison?), Douglas Fairbanks in the Mark of Zorro with Dennis James on the Wurlitzer organ Jan. 7, North By Northwest Jan. 8-11 and Breakfast at Tiffany's on the 12th-14th.

Artists' Television Access is showing the Cuban film that's topped the results of at least one critical poll on the greatest Latin American films, Memories of Underdevelopment, January 11th as part of its A.N.S.W.E.R. film series.

If you're like me you've never visited the UA Emery Bay; it just seems like a faceless multiplex way on the other side of the Bay Bridge. But anyone interested in seeing a Metropolitan Opera performance broadcast live onto a movie theatre screen might want to take note of this schedule. A movie theatre in even farther-off Dublin is also broadcasting these Saturday performances.

Frisco's Main Library will be showing episodes of the landmark Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize every Thursday at noon starting January 4th.

And that's all for now!

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