The "best of the decade" lists are starting to arrive, and the ones I've seen so far from mainstream publications all tend to reinforce the idea that not only has everyone heard of the ten best films of the decade, but it's likely that every single one of them played at "a theater near you." This reminder, done intentionally or not, is the lists' main function: to allow the publications who print them to continue to review (and advertise, if there's a difference) all the big tent studio fare throughout the year while ignoring (or at least giving much less publicity to) many of the smaller, more important films. For the average person who keeps relatively up to date with cultural happenings (and takes pride in doing so), the lists will provide them with a nice means for patting themselves on the back. "Yes, you're up on things," the lists tell them, "You're hip." Thus the readership will feel as though the particular publication is doing a great job keeping them informed. Imagine if The New Yorker's David Denby put out a list which contained 4 or 5 films he never reviewed and which the majority of The New Yorker's reader base never even heard of?*
Another function of "best of" lists — probably their only practical function — is to provide new avenues for truly curious and open minded people to explore. But the lists are failing at that too. Some of the them seem to include a token foreign film (or two) that was a smash success (for a foreign film, at least), and therefore, it is assumed, hard to argue with. This pick gives the list an air of sophistication. Or instead (or in conjunction with), some of the websites/publications that consider themselves to be more hip and "with it" than their more mainstream counterparts select a somewhat lesser known, critically acclaimed art-house film to give their name some cachet. To me, this appears to be disingenuous and laughable when the selection appears alongside something like Lord of the Rings, especially when they choose a film that wasn't even made in the correct year! (Paste magazine selected Beau Travail for one of their top ten of the decade. A great choice — except the film was made in 1999.) Of course there are, and will be, exceptions. But not in the mainstream press, a press owned by the same companies that own the studios (or the studios themselves). Or at the very least, they're paid top dollar to promote studio films all year.
According to The Times of London, nine of the top ten films of the decade were made by English speaking countries, two won Academy Awards for best picture (No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire), another (Queen) was nominated for Best Picture (and won best actress), another won Best Actor (Last King of Scotland), and another was nominated for a few technical awards (the Bourne films). But of course, this all makes perfect sense. Not selecting titles with these specific accolades would reveal the vacuousness of the institutions that award them and the giant publicity machines behind them (which includes The Times itself). The publications believe in these institutions (or are forced to by their owners), so their choices reflect this belief. Perhaps it is interesting to note that The Times number one selection, Michael Haneke's Caché, was ignored by the Academy and also got limited US theatrical distribution. Is this the listmakers way of thumbing their nose at the system, or is it just their token highly acclaimed foreign film, added for a splash of variety?
There will be many similar Hollywood-centric and Anglocentric lists coming soon in many mainstream publications (this "decade defining" top ten is particularly ridiculous), but fortunately some more interesting and eclectic lists are already starting to emerge on various blogs.
Because of my annoyance with such lists, but mainly for fun, I've decided to make my own. I don't know when it will be complete... I've never compiled something like this before, and it's going to take me a while to catch up on some of the films I've missed, but I do have a pretty good idea of my top ten already. Hopefully I'll have it done before January.
There will be no Pedro Costa on my list as I have yet to see any of his applicable films and won't be able to in time (Criterion is supposed to be putting out a box set next year), and the same goes for Götz Spielmann's Revanche and Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours (both coming to DVD next year compliments of Criterion). And I don't know if I'll be able to see many (or any) of the highly acclaimed films available on DVD in the UK that still aren't available here in the United States (films like Roy Andersson's You, the Living (2007); Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg (2007); Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008); Bela Tarr's The Man from London (2007); Ulrich Seidl's Import/Export (2007), etc.)
Looking over James Quandt's list of the best films of 2008, I see that many of them still have yet to make their way to DVD: Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso); Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain); Straub-Huillet's Itinéraire de Jean Bricard and Le Genou d'Artémide; United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu). Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman is coming to DVD in December and Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City is coming to DVD January 12th. Other films by major directors yet to show up on DVD include Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest (2007), Hong Sangsoo's Tale of Cinema (2005) and Night and Day (2008), Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (2007), and Albert Serra's Birdsong (2008), to name just a few.
Over at Screenville Harry Tuttle made this post the other day:
Manhola Dargis (NYT, 18 Nov 2009) : "First shown at the Berlin Film Festival four years ago, “The Sun” [Aleksandr Sokurov's Solntse] is finally receiving its welcome American theatrical release, which means that one of the best movies of 2005 is now also one of the best of 2009"
Why does it take almost 5 years (Berlinale 2005 première: 17 Feb 2005) before a major film d'auteur gets distributed on the American market? A film featuring a (glorifying) moment of American history (not the nasty part of WW2), with General MacArthur in a positive, self-aggrandising light... And it opens on a single screen in NYC (Film Forum)?
The New York Times at least acknowledges this gap, but doesn't even bother pondering on the causes of this delay. Is it not worth investigating for the NYT? I understand that a boring foreign art film will never be released worldwide within a week, like your typical Hollywood blockbuster... that's a privilege of the universal mainstream entertainment. But 4 years before someone finds an available slot in the release schedule to show this great film on commercial screens is a lot of time in the film industry cycle. 1 year is a normal waiting period after its festival première. 2 years is already quite long for the major markets. Usually the smaller countries have to wait the longest to get access to films and have to watch them after everyone else. Now, why would America want to be ranked at the bottom of the release list, like if they didn't have the money to buy the rights, or the screens to show it, like it is often the issue in tiny countries? It's as if on the cultural level, the USA is an underdeveloped country, before industrialisation, before globalisation, before the instantness of the internet; while it is supposed to be the frontrunner technologically and culturally wise, a model to look up to, a leading force to show the rest of the world how to grasp the future... How can the leading economical empire on the planet be so backward, a-critical, self-indulgent, isolationistic culturally?
The access to American culture is a long tough road. And Americans are happy the way it is. So it's not going to change anytime soon.
(Ed Howard was quick to point out in the comments section: "Melville's Army of Shadows got a theatrical release in the US just... 37 years later!")
Yesterday I watched Kent MacKenzie's film The Exiles, a film I briefly mentioned last August that was distributed theatrically last summer by Milestone... 47 years after it was made! (It was just released on (region 1) DVD this week.) The film gives an idea of the experiences shared by a group of young American Indians as they make their way from their reservation into Los Angeles (specifically Bunker Hill, written about so beautifully by John Fante, and now covered in sky-scrapers). The film itself is part fiction, part documentary, crafted from interviews MacKenzie gave to a group of Native Americans he befriended, as well as the time he spent hanging out with them. (They all play themselves in the film, and the narration is taken directly from the interviews.) MacKenzie films everyone reenacting various scenes from their daily lives, and he gives an impression of their existence through many great black and white images that are set to the low rumble of cars, bars, aimless conversation and a rock n' roll score.
The same year The Exiles was ignored, Hollywood had the presence of mind to nominate Breakfast at Tiffany's for Best Picture, a film in which Mickey Rooney was cast to portray an Asian character.
And Best Picture winner that year was West Side Story, with Natalie Wood cast as Maria, a Puerto Rican.
Had The Exiles been distributed, it would have likely been an influential part of the American wave of independent cinema (it was made around the same time as Cassavetes' Shadows). Who knows, MacKenzie might have gone on to become a major director. Instead, it premiered at the Venice film festival to acclaim from many critics, then vanished. (Thom Andersen, with his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, is credited with its rediscovery.)
"I just want to make a point, maybe it's more idealistic. Ultimately, the more the audience has seen these films, they more they want to see other films like them. And then what happens is the audience changes. Which means that movies that are being made around the world could change, cause there is an audience for special movies, for new movies, for a different way to look at the world." --Martin Scorsese (Chairman of World Cinema Foundation)
*Lists of this sort are often mocked as being elitist or pretentious by people who consider themselves well informed.