Another year grinds torpidly to its bathetic conclusion, and the internet is already bulging at the seams with the traditional seasonal self-indulgence as various critics and aficionados such as myself flag up their top film picks of 2010. Forgive me if you were expecting even more of the same here, but my selection for Sight and Sound’s annual canvas of its contributors, 2010: The year in review, can already be already found online, while the Midnight Eye round-ups should be up for your perusal, fashionably later than most of our fellow movie websites, sometime in January. Meanwhile I’m faced with my usual dilemma of whether to try and tailor my selections according to the specific readership of each, or just cut and paste directly. One thing is sure – there’s no real need to come up with another variation on my selections here.
Before I continue, I’d also like to point out that this is not intended as any sort of end-of-year post. Things have been relatively quiet on this site while I’ve waited for the dust to settle down after Zipangu Fest, but I haven’t forgotten that I’ve plenty more to say on Jake West’s wonderful Video Nasties documentary and the other DVDs of Japanese experimental animation released by CALF.
Anyway, the primary purpose of this piece was basically to point you towards the Sight and Sound list, but I’d also like to use this opportunity to explain one of the more seemingly eccentric among my own choices, Step Up 3D. I’ll happily concede that this was not a “good” film in the way that Citizen Kane or, to cite a more current example, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (so I’m told), are “good” films. My criteria for mentioning it were twofold. Firstly, while I think 2010 was generally a pretty unexciting year for cinema, the most significant aspect of it was the sheer volume of 3D releases and cumulative their box office share, a phenomenon that, prompted in no small measure by the enormous pop-cultural clout of Avatar, I attempted to track in some detail in a number of posts earlier this year. Look, for example, at the bewilderingly high returns of Resident Evil:Afterlife, or the budget-for-box-office profitability of StreetDance 3D and it is clear this is not something that’s going to go away in 2011. Of the numerous such titles I made it my business to go out and see, I deemed this title the most successful in its innovative use of the format.
I think the Chicago Tribune’s critic Michael Phillips best sums up my feelings when he describes it in his review as “a bit like watching a CinemaScope musical from the early 1950s but front to back rather than side to side, i.e., turned at a 90-degree angle.” Yes, the story had its loopholes, I won’t deny it, as did StreetDance 3D, Piranha 3D and lets face it, Avatar itself. And the characters were unbelievable and wafer thin. But putting all cynicism aside, for me the pure brio of scenes such as the impromptu Fred Astaire homage that came about midway through, whose rendering via a lengthy fluid one-take tracking shot provided a perfect showcase for this newly possible exploitation of screen depth, were as rousing and magical as, say, the opening reel of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Sadly, you’ll have to take my word for this if you want to catch up on the film “flat” at home, but for me it nevertheless provided a perfect antidote not only to the migraine-inducing edits of Cameron’s film, but also the soporific “contemplative” static long-shots so beloved of practitioners of a certain strain of international arthouse cinema that became referred to as “slow cinema” following Nick James’ provocative “Passive Aggressive” editorial in the April edition of Sight and Sound that appeared to call time on this tradition, some of which is excepted here. I don’t agree with everything James says, and it’s clear he doesn’t either, but at the same time, one has to admit he has a point…
The rekindled vogue for 3D has managed to avoid much in the way of serious analysis by magazines such as Sight and Sound, no doubt due to its exploitation primarily by certain forms of quite brazenly entertainment-oriented productions thus far, allowing the misapprehension to set in that it is only suitable for such films. Twaddle, I say! Imagine how a Mizoguchi film might look if he’d been able to go down this route. Lets see how our more inventive auteurs like Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders (Go! Go! Gaspar Noe!) make use of the added dimensions before we pronounce the technology’s latest incarnations dead in its infancy.
My candid acknowledgement of the pleasures inherent in the cheesier end of the cinematic spectrum was at least shared by one other contributor to the S&S poll, Hannah Patterson, who cited “sloping off alone to watch StreetDance 3D in a morning screening (dance movies, a guilty pleasure) and finding three others in the audience – all teenage boys – who proceeded to dance in the aisle throughout” as one of the movie-going highlights of her year. This somewhat echoes my experiences too, watching both StreetDance 3D and Step Up 3D during afternoon screenings at the Peckham Multiplex, sitting among exactly the same type of teenage audiences the films were aimed at, all responded viscerally to the physicality expressed onscreen. For someone whose movie-watching is largely confined to sitting in austere press screening rooms among other jaded note-scribbling critics or wading through copious screeners hunting out increasingly more elusive gems for to show at festivals, it was a refreshing experience, and rekindled those sparks of adolescent passion that had led me down my particular route of cinephilia in the first place.
The fact is cinema may well be viewed as an art form, or it may equally be viewed in terms of escapist fantasy, but whichever way you look at it, it is first and foremost an industry. What has began to trouble me over the past few years is the relative dearth of a younger generation of viewers inhabiting the same venues or festivals as I do, ready to take up the pen or the camera and keep this whole thing going into the future. I remember the first thing I did when I moved to London in 1989 at the age of 18 was to make a beeline straight to the Scala in Kings Cross, where I began educating myself with double bills of directors as diverse as Pasolini and Russ Meyer, or heading out in big groups when I was a student to the local arthouse cinema in Brighton to watch films as impenetrably erudite as Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. Without getting too nostalgic about this, I’m wondering if this kind of audience is still there. Many of the venues for this kind of cinema aren’t any more. There might not have been any younger versions of myself at the screening of Step Up 3D either, but there were still people there at least, all having fun to boot.
I guess I’m somewhat hampered by my London-centric viewpoint in all this. Cinema tickets in our capital are prohibitively expensive, and prices are only going to get a lot worse in the coming year with the Tory VAT rises. I can’t afford to go to the West End cinemas myself, which is why you’re more likely to find me in the Peckham Multiplex, where normal people can afford to treat cinema as a more habitual form of entertainment rather than need to save up for weeks to turn a trip to the Odeon Leicester Square into some sort of big night out. The number of films mentioned in the Sight and Sound poll provide ample proof that there’s a huge amount of titles worthy of further investigation, and I’d love to go and see them all, on a big screen, with a full audience, but I don’t know if most of them will play anywhere near me at a price I can afford. So for now I’m happy enough that films such as Step Up 3D and StreetDance 3D are out there getting people into cinemas and putting smiles on faces, fighting their respective corners amongst the numerous other avenues of entertainment that have arisen during the first decade of the twenty-first century that conspire to make film appreciation an atomised solitary experience rather than a communal one.
Talking of which, my opinions have also been solicited for another poll by Sight and Sound that will be appearing in the New Year – the top online videos of 2010. It’s an interesting indication perhaps of the role critics and curators are likely to play in the future. Rather than direct people to go and watch films that probably won’t be playing anywhere near them by the time they’ve heard about them, it is more like being the online visual equivalent of a DJ, or like curating ones own personal mini-film programme for people to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes; films that take as much of their meaning from the context in which they’re presented, the other titles they play alongside and the explanatory text that accompanies them.
So on that note I’d like to sign off with a link to Adam Curtis: The Medium and the Message on the BBC website (apologies to those readers outside of the UK who can’t access the films here). Documentary-maker Curtis’ various postings provide a masterclass in the savvy disinterment and dissection of long-forgotten news and documentary footage from the dim-yet-not-so-distant past in order to contextualise the present. Here’s one that particularly tickled my fanc as our new government strive to make this Christmas a particularly miserable one for students, public servants and much of the population at large alike - The Office Party from 1969. Not only a wonderful piece of social history, but just a damn amusing way to pass 30 minutes. Ho ho ho!