For me, the year in cinema was defined by two events: the death of Jean-Luc Godard and the release of Sight and Sound’s new list of the 100 “best” films ever made. Both distinctly unsatisfying.
I came to Godard late, at least for him. By the time I saw Band of Outsiders (in a double-bill with Breathless) in 1977, JLG had already proclaimed the death of cinema in the closing frames of Week-End. I had watched a lot of movies by then and was smug enough to think I could discern the difference between a “movie” and a “film.” Watching Band of Outsiders, which came out 13 years before I saw it for the first time, was like getting an electric shock to the eyeballs. It had all the elements of a familiar Hollywood movie, chopped apart, sped up, slowed down and reassembled in a new, exhilarating order. Godard opened the door to Renoir, Bergman, Fassbinder, Rivette, Fellini, Kurosawa, Fuller, Wajda, Varda, Nick Ray and Lang. (Still my own Pantheon, along with Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges.)
I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to watch every film these directors made and all the films by the directors who influenced and were influenced by them. From 1977 to 1981, I watched 10 to 12 films a week (while carrying a heavy reading load in my lit and history classes). I raced from theater to theater, from DC to Baltimore. I snuck into screenings for film studies classes at AU, Georgetown, GW and Hopkins. I was obsessed. These weren’t date nights–or when they were, there usually wasn’t a second. Certainly not after sitting through 7.5 hours of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler: a Film From Germany or the 5-hour version of Bertolucci’s 1900. Who could blame them, really?
Along with Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, the Sight and Sound 100 list became my guide. I needed to see every film on it. Later I located old copies of Cahiers du Cinema at Second Story books and used their end of the year lists to discover films, especially European and Japanese, from the 50s and 60s. My circle of film-mad friends learned how to dress, strut, smoke, flirt and screw from the movies, at least in a kind of hip early sixties French style. It was a while before we (most of us, anyway) realized we were being sold ways to behave, that what felt like liberation was in fact the manufacturing of a kind of mass cultural conformity.
But that youthful ardor gradually cooled. These days if Godard isn’t my favorite director, he remains the one whose movies taught me new ways of looking at films and at popular culture in general. I doubt Godard’s entire oeuvre–which includes at least five of the great films ever made–cost as much as the latest Marvel spectacular. But most of them still look sharper and more vibrant–especially the ones shot by Raoul Coutard–than anything filmed by Cameron, Nolan or the AI machines that spat out Wakanda Forever and Top Gun: Maverick.
Sight and Sound’s decadal lists should be contentious, something to fight about over drinks late into the night. But the new offering left me flat. It seemed more of a perfunctory re-ordering than the frontal assault on the canon that cinema needs to reinvigorate itself. Chantal Ackerman was a fabulous and innovative filmmaker and Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles a masterpiece of a certain kind of sedate, slowing moving European cinema of the late 60s and early 70s. But it is really much different in kind or quality than the films of Rivette, Resnais, Rohmer or Varda? If the editors of Sight and Sound really wanted to shake things up, they would have dethroned Vertigo with another visually-disorienting reworking of film genres like Park Chan-Wook’s Old Boy or War Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (much superior in my mind to the favored In the Mood for Love). The best narrative films have been coming out of Asia for the last 20 years at least.
Still it’s getting harder and harder to define what cinema is these days, when most people watch movies on flatscreen TVs, tablet computers or phones. With a few notable holdouts (Nolan, Tarantino and Iñárritu), films aren’t shot on film anymore and the year’s most watched movie, Avatar: The Way of the Water (only 8 minutes shorter than Jeanne Dielman but feeling a lot longer I hear from those who sat through it), wasn’t even shot using a camera, a fact James Cameron brags about incessantly. The relationship between camera, light, film, projector and screen used to be sacrosanct. But we’re rapidly approaching the point where all of these once essential elements of cinema might become historical artifacts, like the doomed theme park in Nope.
And perhaps this won’t be such a bad transition, for the planet, as well as our minds. Godard was thrilled by the possibilities of the iPhone’s camera, where one could film, edit and mass-distribute a “movie” in one simple, relatively cheap handheld device. Godard predicted that phone cameras would give rise to a new generation of film-makers. It didn’t take long to prove him right. The footage shot on the streets of Minneapolis, Gaza City, Kenosha and Portland was more harrowing than anything Scorsese ever filmed.
We seem to have reached a point of cinematic exhaustion–at least I’m exhausted–where all of the stories have been told, as well as all of the ways of telling them. If movies have a future, it’s almost certainly in the documentary format and Sight and Sound could have really shook things up by putting a documentary at the top of the heap, like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Barbara Koppel’s Harlan County, USA, Peter Davis’ Hearts & Minds, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Peter Watkins’ The War Game or the Maysles brothers’ Salesman. A case in point this year is Rory Kennedy’s Downfall: the Case Against Boeing, which is probably the greatest contribution any Kennedy has made to American culture.
Only one film tempted me to return to an actual cinema this year: Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. But by the time I’d recovered from being flattened by Covid, it had been chased out of the theaters by an inexplicably hostile critical reaction, characterized by a kind of collective misogyny, reiterating in real-time one of the key themes of the picture.. And that’s really too bad, because not only does Don’t Worry Darling deliciously dissect the fantasies of our current Brotopia (here’s another clue for you all, the chief walrus is Jordan Peterson), it’s also an intensely sensual film, lusciously shot and propelled by one of the best, some might say seductive, soundtracks in years. Still the critical fury generated enough interest that Wilde’s movie made its money back and then some, which is more than can be said for the critical yawn that sank the subtle film She Said, a more exacting exploration of how investigative journalism works than either All the President’s Men or The Paper. (One is tempted to speculate that it was precisely this kind of sustained critical indifference–or outright rancor–to her own films that drove Chantal Ackerman to suicide at the age of 65, which can hardly be ameliorated by the belated recognition of Jeanne Dielman.)
Then there’s Nope, a film that excoriates the violence of visual exploitation, where the key to survival is the ability to resist the impulse to gaze at the spectacle that is being projected toward you. Like Don’t Worry Darling and Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, Nope encourages the viewer to break free from the visual fantasy worlds that confine, exploit and haunt us.
Perhaps my favorite film of the year, certainly the most radical in concept and technique, is Expedition Content, a film that takes the warning that visual framing corrupts our perception to heart by removing images all together, blacking out the screen as if it were a redacted document from the vaults of the CIA, forcing the viewer to listen, to see through the sounds recorded by a famous anthropological expedition to New Guinea led by Robert Gardiner and Michael Rockefeller and in doing so turn the focus back on the anthropologists themselves, instead of the cultures they endeavored to interpret and capture through images.
Here are the films that I found the most intriguing this year.
Director: Nadov Lapid
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Director: Laura Poitras
Director: Terence Davies
Both Sides of the Blade
Director: Claire Denis
Decision to Leave
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Director: Margaret Brown
Don’t Worry Darling
Director: Olivia Wilde
Downfall: the Case Against Boeing
Director: Rory Kennedy
Directors: Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati
Director: Darin J. Sallam
In Front of Your Face
Director: Hang Sang-soo
Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues
Director: Sacha Jenkins
Directors: Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman
Director: Jordan Peele
Director: Maria Schrader
Director: Alon Schwartz
Director: Alex Priti