Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 in Review

So, another year comes to a close for Tom and Mary Russell, those dynamic husband-and-wife filmmakers. Of course, since our last film was finished in 2008 and our next one will commence shooting in earnest in the next week or so (that is, 2010), the question is begged: what did we, as filmmakers, do with this year?
  1. We wrote the script for Olivia Forever!!, an extended process involving more hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, and starting-overing than either of us would have liked. That is, however, one major consequence of (a) trying to eschew traditional narrative and (b) being petrified of the "shoot a whole bunch of stuff and see what sticks" school of thought. But, hey, the script is done and where it needs to be.
  2. We got on The Twitters and The Facebooks and tried our hand at this whole social networking thing. I'm not sure how well we've done at it-- more on that in number three-- but we've made a few friends, including some people who've made our next film possible. Not that, mind you, we've managed to raise money for the film or anything. We're still operating out of pocket, which brings us to our next item...
  3. We started distributing our films directly to you, oh fans of independent cinema, in nice DVD editions with a few extras. From selling our DVDs (and Tom's books) we've raked in a grand total of $41.86. Granted, getting said books published and sending said DVDs to critics has cost us $89, putting us about $47 in the hole. (Not to mention, of course, the three-digit figures that go into making the films themselves.) Not a particularly profitable year for us, but hey, it hasn't been a particularly profitable year for anybody and, as mentioned above, we pretty much suck at this social networking/marketing thing.
We will, however, get better at it. Which brings us to our plans for 2010:
  1. Make Olivia Forever!! Naturally. Maybe another feature come the fall.
  2. Re-release our two previous DVDs, this time will a full commentary track, better bonus features (which we should have the technological capacity to do in the next week or so), and more attractive packaging. Said packaging should also be coherent with our brand identity.
  3. Create a brand identity in the first place, somewhere between "we're scrappy filmmakers" and "but our stuff is actually good".
  4. Get the films online. Which should happen in the next couple of months, actually.
  5. Sell more DVDs. As in, enough to potentially break even. This will likely be helped when we can cajole those critics who got screeners to watch 'em.
  6. Blog more regularly, including more indie film reviews, for the purely selfish reason that the more hits we get and the more goodwill we can engender, the better off we're going to be.
Those are our plans for 2010. Let's see how we do...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bluth Blogging: The Secret of NIMH

I have fond but ever-so-vague memories of the four films Don Bluth directed in the 1980s-- The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven. These four films, the last three of which I saw in the theater at ages four, six, and seven, respectively-- The Secret of NIMH having come out a week after I did, I first encountered it on a television set-- formed what probably seemed like an unstoppable chain of hits that came undone with 1991's Rock-a-Doodle. I haven't seen any of these films since at least the early nineties-- or, rather, I hadn't seen them again... until now.

I decided to revisit them partially for the purely mercenary reason that, having resolved to film-blog on a more regular basis, I need to have something to film-blog about, and partially for the purely personal reason that I wonder how well these films hold up to those fond if vague memories.

In general, I remember the films being darker than other animated films, and by darker I don't necessarily mean "scary", though The Land Before Time did frighten the bejeebus out of the six-year-old who saw it, but that they weren't dominated by bright, goofy colours. They seemed in a surreal way to be more "realistic" and less reassuring. I left those movies feeling certain that the things on the screen could happen; I felt no such verisimilitude when I waddled (pigeon-toed and unsatisfied) out of Oliver and Company. The Bluth films felt more like "real" films, the sorts of films that adults watched, and being that I was a strangely solemn little boy that desperately wanted to be taken very seriously indeed, that aspect appealed to me. I liked that there was something at stake. I never worried about the characters or the outcome in the Disney films of the period.

Bluth himself was unhappy with the mollycoddling, banal nature of those late-period pre-"Renaissance" Disney films, which is why he left the House of Mouse in the first place. Before their resignation, Bluth had spearheaded several attempts to change the direction of a company that saw its films as products to exploit, made as cheaply and as quickly (and as safely) as possible. It was that old court case, Art v. Commerce, all over again. When Bluth left, taking nearly twenty percent of Disney's animators with him, a staff meeting was held that reportedly began with the words, "Now that the cancer has been removed..."

The first feature Bluth and his fellow expatriates made was about as far from safe as possible. At its heart, The Secret of NIMH is about a widow fighting desperately to save the life of her sick child. So sick, he cannot be moved, for the chill might kill him. But moving day is near; the farmer's tractor will surely crush the home and the sick child that lays within it. Those are the stakes, my friends: a meek and frightened mother-mouse moving heaven and earth to save her son.

Mortality is central to the film and is emphasized by a series of frightening set pieces, chief among them being the sequence in which Mrs. Brisby seeks the council of the Great Owl. This is a potentially dangerous individual for a mouse to seek out; her not-entirely unfounded fears of being devoured are underscored by the hostile landscape surrounding the owl's tree.

Even more daunting, however, is the prospect of entering the Great Owl's tree. Shadows stretch out from its gaping maw, cobwebs hanging like curtains. Note the dynamic contrast between the shadows and the violent orange of the sky; if it had been a dark-blue starry night sky behind Mrs. Brisby and Jeremy, it wouldn't work, the contrast wouldn't be as striking.

"Film is flow," I'm inordinately fond of saying. Too many films, and animated films especially, are too quick to cut to the chase, to the action, to the sensation; as such, there's no sense of flow (I'm looking squarely at you, Transformers: The Movie). Bluth understands flow and pacing; he's unafraid to luxuriate in this murky atmosphere, to follow Mrs. Brisby as she makes her way through the cobwebbed darkness.

When a shock is required, such as the discovery of this pile of tiny corpses--

-- it emphasizes her vulnerability, her potential as prey, and thus her fears. It's not coming at the expense of the atmosphere, or even paying it off; it's part of the atmosphere, of the tapestry, of the flow. The same can be said for the sequence of shots that follow, which introduce a predatory spider that sneaks up on Mrs. Brisby, glaring at her with its alien red eyes and drooling from its hairy, pincered mouth.

Again, this isn't just a cheap shock, but a deeper and more frightening one. That thing was going to eat Mrs. Brisby, and it just died, it was just squished, all yellow ooze and twitching legs. If that spider is vulnerable, how much more vulnerable is the mouse it was about to eat? How much more vulnerable is the tiny mouse who lies in the bed, threatened both by pneumonia and the farmer's tractor, two forces over which poor Mrs. Brisby seemingly has no power?

Each frightening set piece emphasizes Brisby's mortality/physical vulnerability, often in visual/tactile ways: for example, she's basically stripped naked before she attempts to drug the monstrous cat, Dragon; trying to escape from a cage, she cuts her arm and bleeds. And by emphasizing that mortality, Bluth and company emphasize her son's mortality, and thus her fear, her motivation, her love. If she fails, he dies.

This all comes to a head in the film's finale. As the rats of NIMH move Mrs. Brisby's home intact to a safe place, her four children, including sick Timmy, sequestered within, the ropes are cut by the dastardly Jenner, intent on squashing Nicodemus, the only obstacle to his lust for power. And, sickeningly, the plan carries off with a hitch; Nicodemus is squashed by the house, the effort to move it is thwarted. The bad guys won.

There of course follows a dynamic sword fight, the most exciting animated action sequence since Prince Phillip took on "all the powers of Hell" in Sleeping Beauty, and the badniks are punished. But Nicodemus stays dead: death is final and no one is safe. And so when the house starts to sink in the mud, and when, despite all their best efforts, Mrs. Brisby and the rats cannot stop it from doing so, there is the very real chance that her children will drown, a possibility that is ominously underscored when the home is submerged completely in the mud, and the rats pull the frantic Mrs. Brisby away from it, restraining her.

It's a moment of real terror, and even the somewhat hallucinogenic ending, in which Mrs. Brisby uses the magic amulet to telekinetically raise the house out of the mud, does not mitigate its power. I wouldn't call it a deus ex machina, because a deus ex machina by definition does not flow from within the story but is rather imposed on it. Because the whole film is about her fear, her feelings of powerlessness, and her love for the child, it makes perfect sense for that love to prevail in the end, in the moment when she is the most fearful, the moment where she seems to be the most powerless.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Side Saddle 2 released

Merry Christmas.

And, hey, how's about a contest?

You heard the man! Upload three game play videos-- that's a perfect "no collisions" run-through for bosses eight, nine, and ten-- and post a link in the comments field over at Second Party Games. Good luck!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best of Decade Addendum: James Cameron's AVATAR

The problem with making a Best of the Decade list before the decade is over is that something really spectacular might just blow your socks off in the interim. The sock-blower in question is James Cameron's Avatar.

To be brief, it is brilliant filmmaking. Its action is coherent and exhilaratingly staged in an era where Le Cinema Du Blockbustré thrives on incoherence and meaningless stimulation. Cameron takes his time in setting up and telling his story, with each set piece coming out of that story instead of being shoehorned into it. Its computer-generated creations are not there simply to impress us, but to move us; its use of 3-D, that gimmickiest of gimmicks, is not gimmicky at all but, dare I say, artistic. It does not throw a bunch of shit at us, taking us out of the film, but rather gives the image layers of depth, bringing us deeper into it.

Glenn Kenny, in his review for the Auteurs, likened it to the work of Jack Kirby:

What I really love about Cameron’s sci-fi work is that it baldly reveals that one of his key visual influences is comics pioneer Jack Kirby, he of the galactic concepts, massive double-truck panoramas, and the craziest kineticism that was ever contained within none-moving frames, that is, comic book panels. Watching the camera pans going over the desolate planet landscape filling up with defense machinery in Aliens was like looking at a trademark Kirby two-page post splash vision come to life. It wasn’t just the composition and the larger than life humans; it was the hypertrophied design of the weapons and the air, land, and sometimes sea craft. A crazy, violent universe...[Avatar] works best as an insanely expanded Kirby-esque cinematic spectacle.

And this is a case where I agree with Glenn; I totally see (and definitely dig) the Kirby influence. The weird shapes of the flora and the fauna, the sometimes impractical craziness of, say, a trial of manhood that involves first jumping from one flying mountain to the root hanging precariously from another and shimmying up said root. I've written before about how Kirby often finds the sublime in the ridiculous, and Cameron does this in Avatar, tossing more ideas on the screen than most action directors have in their entire oeuvres. It's two-and-a-half hours jam-packed with exhilarating ideas, ideas that come together with a vengeance in the film's final act, especially with the introduction of a most unusual cavalry.

If someone tells you that the film devolves into mindless action in its last hour, they are wrong. If someone says the film has no ideas, no center, no originality, don't listen to them. Rather, feel sorry for those who have closed themselves off to spectacle, who can't appreciate or enjoy bombast at its most gorgeous and astonishing-- those people have cast off an entire and perfectly valid tradition of cinema, becoming like certain academics who can only celebrate the messy and the obscure, who are afraid to embrace something "popular" because it makes them seem less refined.

As for the putative political content, which caused quite a stir at Kenny's site a week or so back, I got to say that I don't think the film should be approached as an allegory for the most recent war in Iraq; while many of the men working for the assuredly Evil Corporation are former marines, they're no more members of the United States Armed Forces than the colonial marines in Cameron's Aliens. (And it's not like the Iraq War was waged for oil. No, no matter what your friend's protest sign says, that wasn't actually the case.) A better analogue for the Na'vi, if you must have one, would be the American Indians; the film is somewhat like Inglourious Basterds in that it provides a new (better?) ending to the whole sad saga: cinema trumping history.

But even that is a bad fit, in that, again, it's not a government but a private company that's waging this war for profit, not American soldiers but mercenaries. (Which does bring to mind the atrocities of that hated Octopus, Chiquita Brands International, nee the United Fruit Company...)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Carter for free online!

Ryan Andrew Balas (who I interviewed here) has made his film Carter (which I reviewed here) available for free online until January 1, 2010. So, go ahead and give it a watch while it's still available.

In the spirit of giving for Christmas, Balas is also asking that people consider donating to the charity "Musicians on Call"; if you've got the resources to do so, why not consider shooting a few dollars their way?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Verite is a lie.

"Verite is a lie," I pronounced yesterday over twitter. It wasn't the first time I had said it, and it likely won't be the last; chances are, when I promote this piece through twitter and Facebook and all the other happy smiling social networking thingamajigs, I'll do it again.

But I said it yesterday, and yesterday, the filmmaker Jarrod Whaley responded through Facebook: "So is every other style." And this is true: any method you use to tell a story or relate an experience, even and especially cinematically, shapes that story or experience. Things are emphasized or de-emphasized, elided or changed. Whether the film is a documentary, a re-enactment, or a wholesale fiction, the simple act of telling that story, of making it into art, changes its substance, makes it "not true", makes it a lie.

And that's not something that causes me any real consternation; shaping a story is not the unfortunate side effect of art but rather the purpose of it. More than that, it's how the human brain works; when we reflect upon an experience, we impose order on it, creating a narrative of cause-and-effect, omitting unnecessary details, drawing connections, finding meaning. To be clear: I'm not saying that art should be manipulative or that an artist should lead the audience by the nose, forcing them to cry here, laugh there, draw this conclusion. The best art contains a multitude of meanings; the very best art contains meanings that we don't have words for, meanings that can't be explained but only experienced. The shaping of a story-- structuring it, ordering it, creating moments of culminative power-- is an integral part of even the messiest of art.

All styles, as Mr. Whaley said, are equally guilty of lying; thus, all styles are equally valid approaches, with some perhaps being better suited to shaping this story or that one. So why do I single out cinema verite, why am I picking on it?

It's partially for the simple, silly, and vindictive reason that we've been told-- by, I might add, some of our dearest friends-- that verite is the only valid method for digital video. That the low-lighting shaky-cam rack-focus whip-pan this-is-happening-right-now aesthetic is what video was made for. And being that our films use lights and tripods, that our style is a trifle bit (but only a trifle!) more formal, utilizing creature puppets, non-diagetic music, and stylized performances, I bristle a bit at being told that we're working against the "inherently naturalistic" medium of video because we don't use this "naturalistic" style.

And there are two fallacies in that last sentence, the first being that video itself is naturalistic. When I related this particular line of feedback to another good friend of ours, who has shot exclusively on 16mm, he said that video is a language that computers speak; what's inherently naturalistic about that? And I'm inclined to agree with him. Video is not any more naturalistic than film. In fact, some of the beautiful peculiarities of video, such as its lower contrast ratio, makes it less naturalistic, less like the human eye.

Video is only considered "naturalistic" because lightweight and affordable cameras are associated with the verite style, with birthday parties and home movies, with in-the-theater bootlegs, with gonzo porn, with capturing some freaky occurrence outside your window and putting it up on YouTube. Which brings us to fallacy number two: the idea that cinema verite is "naturalistic", that shaking a camera about makes it more "real". Let me demonstrate my point with a series of questions:

One, do you possess Superman's telescopic vision-- i.e., the ability to magnify an object several feet across a room?

Two, does your vision go blurry at indiscriminate times, only to snap back to crystal clarity?

Three, is your head constantly wobbling back and forth and jutting to and fro?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should probably seek medical attention. (Well, maybe not the first one. The first one is cool.) But I think you get my point: these touchstones of cinema verite (frequent zooming, rack focusing, and shaky-cam, respectively) in no way reflect the normal operations of the human eye. For that matter, neither do the touchstones of the classic Hollywood style: images typically don't dissolve into one another, we don't glide along sideways in lateral tracking shots, and humans don't, at this point in time, have the ability to pull back and up from something like a crane shot.

They're all artificial ways to add emphasis, beauty, and meaning to a cinematic experience. No one disputes that; no one argues that a crane shot is naturalistic. But verite is just as artificial, just as virtuosic. And, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with that. It's not a style I prefer to shoot in, and it's not my favourite style as a viewer, but like any style the question isn't what it is but what you do with it. And there's been some great films made in that style, no question about it.

My problem isn't that the verite style is a lie-- because, once again, just as Mr. Whaley said, so is every other style-- but that the verite style has pretensions of Truth. I've actually heard directors say that going handheld makes it more "real" or "raw" or "gritty" or "honest". And it's horseshit, plain and simple.

My other problem with verite, as I've stated above, is the monopoly it seems to have formed around the video medium, wherein directors, such as ourselves, working in a different idiom are criticized not for how well or how poorly we work within that idiom, but for not conforming to the dominant style, a style that is not only visually codified but also seemingly codified in other ways as well: our dialogue is too sharp and should be dulled with a plethora of verbal placeholders; our characters are too well defined and should blend together like a bunch of passive-aggressive post-collegiate articulate inarticulates; our performers are too bold, taking too many chances, and should stick to naturalistic, improvised mumbles; our sequences unfold with too much verve and should eschew directorial comment, energy, or artifice.

I don't think I'm being self-defensive here, or trying to invalidate any criticism of the films. Lord knows they have their problems; we've made mistakes and are still in the process of learning from them. And I'm not saying, like some filmmakers on the internet, that every style is equally right for a given story, or that there's no such thing as a wrong choice. Boy oh boy, are there wrong choices! And maybe we made the wrong choice in making our films the way we did, and maybe we didn't.

But the choices aren't wrong because our style is the "wrong" style for video. Video is a medium. Video is a means; it allows us to make films, instead of wasting years of our lives trying to work our way up through a studio system, instead of compromising what we want to do, instead of making films just like everybody else's films. And so, when verite and (let us speak its name plainly instead of dancing around it) mumblecore become dangerously close to being enshrined as the dominant styles of no-budget independent filmmaking, when people start to expect us to make films just like everybody else's films, it gets my dander up. If video is freedom, than the conformity of verite is inherently anti-video.

Verite is a perfectly valid form of artifice, but it is neither any more truthful than other forms, nor is it any more valid. I'm only hard on it because some others deem it to be both.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Tom's Favourite Films of the Last Ten Years

It's been an exemplary decade for cinema, and the occasion has been commemorated with various "best of the decade" lists all over the internet. I'm even contributing to one at Hammer To Nail; said list is dedicated to films made under a certain budgetary threshold, in keeping with the site's mission to promote ambitious independent filmmaking.

I'm not going to limit this list, my own personal list, by budget-- it's been a great ten years for both scrappy indies and big-budget studio films. What follows are my favourite films of the last ten years, unranked but divided into categories of my own choosing. These aren't the only worthy or even great films that came out in that period; just my absolute favourites, the films to which I am addicted.

I tend to be more awed by mastery than ambition (though of course it is impossible to have the first without the other), so a number of wonderful, imperfect, experimental films that I loved didn't make it on the list. I loved WALL-E's opening act but found the last half wanting; films like Ryan Balas's Carter and Amir Motlagh's whale do interesting and compelling things, with certain sequences that I would classify as brilliant, but for me they fell just short of the sort of cinematic nirvana induced by the titles that follow.

Films which I own on DVD are indicated with an asterisk; those who know me and are feeling generous this Christmas can help fill those gaps, if you like.

The Andersons
*Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson. My favourite kind of rom-com: one that says that no matter how screwed up you are, there's someone out there to love you. Giddy and nerve-wracking: a film that feels like falling in love.

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson. Tough, dark, surreally entertaining. Like his Boogie Nights, it's funny and sad and terrifying all at once; when Plainview snarls that his son is just a "bastard in a basket", you can see the heart breaking underneath all the anger and hate.

*The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson. A film teeming with beauty and surprises, from the gorgeous Henry Sellick fish to the pirate attack. The deadpanniest of his six deadpan masterpieces, and one of the warmest and most spontaneous as well.
The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson. Heart-on-sleeve: the most emotionally direct and earnest of Anderson's dialogue can be found here, along with the chanciest sequence he's attempted since Richie Tenenbaum's beard-trim and suicide attempt. Part of the fun of auteurism is tuning into a director's frequency so that you might better appreciate the nuances of one work or another; this one requires a great deal more tuning, and thus contains bountiful pleasures for the director's fans, yet is more likely to alienate his detractors. This is probably the film that made me a full-blown Anderson apologist (in the "defender-of", not "sorry-for", meaning of the word).

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson. A sad children's film-- something there should be more of-- with a clear sense of real danger. The stylish framing and dry humour treats children, and their entertainments, as the equal of adults, never talking down to them; the colour, zip-and-zest storytelling, and "just-so" tactile qualities appeal to the wee ones and old arty-farts alike and in equal measure.


*Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese. Perfect enough for me, even with Cameron Diaz gumming up the works. Daniel Day-Lewis knocks it out of the park, Leonardo DiCaprio remains a compelling screen presence, and Scorsese & Schoonmaker pull off an impressive trick: the pacing and ordering of the film follows what is important to the characters, which is why the historical Draft Riots, so often derided by the film's critics as coming out of nowhere, indeed come out of nowhere. Coming out of nowhere is the point; these characters and their melodrama are squashed by history.
The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan. This is, frankly, what Batman should be: dark, serious, compelling, heroic, morally ambiguous, complex. A thrilling entertainment, with strong performances all around. A thinking man's action picture, which is so very rare these days. Or at all, really. A popcorn movie for the ages.

Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi. And this is what Spider-Man should be: funny, serious, stressed-out, a colourful villain, acrobatic fight scenes, the struggle to do the right thing. The Subway Train Jesus sequence is vastly superior to the first film's "You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us!", and the mastery of various tones and threads is pitch-perfect here where the third film is famously shoddy. One of the better superhero spectacles.

*Munich, Steven Spielberg. This is Spielberg at the top of his game; this is the director who gave us Jaws and Close Encounters, not the schmaltz machine that inflicted us with E.T., Hook, or The Terminal. He's been slowly working his way back with tough-minded but occasionally creaky films like A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds. Munich is the pinnacle of this late-career progression, and it has me more excited about the director and his work than I've been in years.
Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino used to make films about pop culture (cf. the various riffs in his first three films) and now he makes films that are pop culture; he's no longer talking about the influence of Leone and others, but showing it. After the film, I was euphoric for hours, and I said to my Mary: "This must be what it's like to be high." I don't remember the last time I came out of a theater that satisfied, and that sure that the film I saw was a balls-out, no-bones-about-it masterpiece.

*Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro. A fantasy film with a real sense of menace that's too often missing from the "dark" films of, say, Tim Burton. Inventive, stylish, and terrifying. Like the director's The Devil's Backbone, the scary part is what the people do to each other, not the ghosts and goblins and creepy-crawlies.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee. An elegant kung-fu epic. Perhaps too elegant-- I like my wuxia to have a pulse-- but there's something beautiful about those slow, sad, treetop-swaying combatants.

Hero, Zhang Yimou. Like Crouching Tiger, it's an elegant, beautiful kung-fu film, and like Crouching Tiger, it works. It is a collection of stories, overlapping and contradicting but never confusing; taken together, it's as stunning an examination of the power and plurality of myth as any other.

*Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir. What I remember about this film, and what brings me back to it time and again, more-so than the sweep of its action, is the chemistry between its two principles. Bettany and Crowe play off each other beautifully, bringing the characterizations and the relationships from O'Brien's novels to glorious life. My only regret is that this wasn't the first of many adaptations, but the first and only.

*The Illusionist, Neil Burger. For my money, better than The Prestige, or any of the twisty "everything-you-knew-was-wrong" films that have come out through the years. And it's better because Giamatti isn't terrified or shocked by the big surprise, but rather delighted. I'd much rather be delighted than have the rug pulled out from underneath me. Burger is a great talent, and his first film, the Kennedy assassination mockumentary Interview with the Assassin, is worth checking out. And as someone who hates mockumentaries and the perpetuation of the Kennedy conspiracy myth, that should tell you something.

Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Still a very fine bauble.


*The Company, Robert Altman. I'd rank this with The Red Shoes as one of the best films about not just ballet but about the artistic process. Probably the master's last great film, working with a perfectly blended ensemble that doesn't devolve into the Overacting Olympics you sometimes get with his "quirkier" films.

Zodiac, David Fincher. I never thought Fincher would top Fight Club (especially after the merely-okay Panic Room), but he did, and how. The often quoted line is that it's like being stuck in a filing cabinet, and for a details nut like me, it was nirvana. Steeped in minutiae, thick with atmosphere.
Into Great Silence, Philip Groning. "Two and half hours of monks, doing monk stuff." Nothing more, nothing less. Probably the boldest, and most successful, experiment in film form and especially time. Tarkovsky wished he had directed a film like this. (And, if you know the high esteem in which I hold Tarkovsky, you know that this is not an insult to the late master but merely praise of the new one.)

*Bamboozled, Spike Lee. An examination of where we've been and where we're going, and of the subjectivity of history. It's a film that looks both at the awfulness of minstrel shows and at the real technical skill and talent required of its performers; it grapples with the legacy of black actors working in old Hollywood instead of dismissing or apologizing for them outright.

Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood. A look at the truth behind the Iwo Jima photo's mythology, a look at the necessity of that mythology, and a study in what that dichotomy can do to those being lionized. His most multifaceted and complex film, on par with Ford's Liberty Valence.

*The Queen, Stephen Frears. A stunning behind-the-scenes look at how a public image is constructed, complemented by a great Helen Mirren performance.

Shattered Glass, Billy Ray. A compelling, fact-based story, thrillingly told. When we got out of the theater, a little old lady who had been in the show with us approached us to ask if we remembered the director's name, because she wanted to keep an eye on him. Anyone who can get that performance out of Hayden Christensen is worth keeping an eye on.

*Ratatouille, Brad Bird. Likely the best and most stylish animated film since Sleeping Beauty. Gorgeous, sumptuous, full of small and wondrous details; a surprisingly literate script bursting with verve and surprises. At its heart, an examination of a self-centered, difficult genius-artist who never learns any life lessons or sees the error of his ways. Refreshingly free of moralism.

Existential Comedies
*I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell. No relation. Ebert once said of this film that it "may be the first movie that can exist without an audience between the projector and the screen. It falls in its own forest, and hears itself." And I have to say, I have no idea what he's talking about: the film is absolutely hilarious, full of lines that my wife and I repeat in our daily lives.

Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman. One of the most tactile meditations on death and decay I've ever seen. Psychologically complex, incredibly funny, defiantly surreal, formally audacious-- and still it touches the heart. When that old man and that old woman have at last got each other, and they go to sleep in that burning house, it is beyond touching, beyond romantic. And the blow that comes next is truly, deeply, crushing.

*Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess. Oh, I'm just a big populist softy at heart, randomly asking people to give me their tots and bragging about my many skills. On the arty-farty side of things, I greatly enjoy the film's complete lack of traditional plot or narrative momentum.

Jesus Camp, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. Seriously, the scariest movie I've ever seen. And I'm not talking in an intellectual, religious, or political way. This film is viscerally frightening, and those poor screwed-up kids crying their eyes out and confessing their sins are scarier than any homicidal orphans or Japanese girls with hair in their eyes.

Scrappy Lil' Indies, Distributed Division
Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski. (Disclosure: I consider Andrew a friend.) A film that gets deeper and funnier with every viewing. The long "parties" digression is not really a digression at all but the heart of the film. I could have easily categorized this one under "image-making", concerned as it is with gender, self-identity, and the way we present ourselves to others.

*LOL, Joe Swanberg. (Disclosure: I am credited in this film, though my footage didn't make the cut. I also consider Joe a friend, and he was kind enough to be in one of my own films, Son of a Seahorse-- thus ensuring the rest of the cast is only four degrees away in the Kevin Bacon game.) Less a study of technology than of male psychology. Strong performances from all the leads and interesting stylistic choices (look at the silent film style intertitles for e-mails, or Greta Gerwig's completely-through-sound-and-still-photo performance) abound. It's a film that I can watch compulsively, sometimes consuming just a few minutes at a time. It doesn't quite hit the emotional depth of the better scenes in Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, but I think for sheer cohesive mastery, LOL is a stronger film.

*Scrapple, Jay and Mark Duplass. This short film, included on the DVD of the Duplass Brothers feature The Puffy Chair, is one of the most bracing shorts I've ever seen. Too many short films are cute or clever, or play like severely truncated and poorly-paced features; this one has the emotional depth of a feature while remaining a well-structured short.

Scrappy Lil' Indies, Self-Distro Division
*The Lionshare, Josh Bernhard. A multifaceted examination of how culture is created and disseminated and notions of ownership, all packed into a tight and sprightly sixty-five minutes. Entertaining, maturely stylish, ambitious without ever overreaching. The filmmaker has made the film available for free. It's worth your time*Press Start, Ed Glaser. A spoof film? Yes, a spoof film, one that targets a particular audience-- people who grew up with video games and are well-versed in the culture and tropes thereof-- with gusto, authority, and sincerity. Probably of no interest to the uninitiated, but it inspires my devotion all the more for that. A funny film, presented on a DVD packed with extras. Glaser has also released the remakesploitation classic Turkish Rambo under the title Rampage. Show your support for this funny, self-financed guy by ordering both.*Son of a Seahorse, Mary and Tom Russell. Of course I'm putting my own film on my list. First of all, no one else is going to. Secondly, it is one of my favourite films. Of the six features I've made in the last decade, it's the one that's going to last-- mark my words. Or, better yet, buy a copy. Every $15 copy we sell on Amazon nets us $3.34, so you'll be directly supporting independent film.