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Filmmakers Salute Filmmakers

Agnès Varda

Before we turn to this week’s reading recommendations, we’ve got some business to see to, some of it pretty exciting, some of it simply mournful. First, there’s been a flurry of announcements from the winter festivals. Sundance has added three films to its 2020 lineup, including a new DCP presentation of Lisa Cholodenko’s debut feature, High Art (1998). Rotterdam, which will open on January 22 with the world premiere of João Nuno Pinto’s First World War drama Mosquito, has unveiled the complete lineup for its forty-ninth edition.

The Berlinale’s new directors, Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek, are preparing quite a celebration for the festival’s seventieth anniversary. Even before the 2020 edition opens on February 20, the Berlinale will co-present an exhibition curated by Alexander Kluge and the world premiere of Numbers, a new film by Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, who was just released from a Russian prison in September. Chatrian has asked seven directors to invite a guest for a series of dialogues set to take place during the festival, and the pairings will include Ang Lee and Hirokazu Kore-eda and Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas. The festival has also rolled out a first round of fifty titles set to premiere in five separate programs.

One of those programs, the Forum, will be presenting its fiftieth edition, and alongside new work, the section will “replay” all the titles first screened in its inaugural 1971 edition—work by the likes of Chris Marker, Nagisa Oshima, Dušan Makavejev, Med Hondo, Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, William Klein, and Theo Angelopoulos. The Forum Expanded exhibition in the meantime will showcase new work by Ana Vaz, the Otolith Group, Kevin Jerome Everson, and Forensic Architecture.

At the end of last week, we learned of the passing of Danny Aiello, whose performance as the pizzeria owner Sal in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) scored him an Oscar nomination. “People call me an instinctive actor,” Aiello told the New York TimesFelicia R. Lee in 2011. “I used to consider that an insult early on, only because I had never studied. Now, when people call me instinctive, I love it, because it’s what I am. It’s always new to me.” Aiello was eighty-six.

This week we also lost theorist and filmmaker Peter Wollen, who cowrote Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and several films with his partner, fellow theorist Laura Mulvey. Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, first published in 1969, “was the first seminal book I read about film that actually made sense while bopping you to bits with its braininess and taking the engine of cinema completely apart in front of you while making you even more excited to jump in and go racing about in it just as soon as you possibly could,” writes Tilda Swinton at IndieWire. In a tribute for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, David A. Gerstner and Matthew Solomon write: “Peter was not ahead of the curve; he made the curve.” For more on Wollen’s impact on film studies, see Henry K. Miller’s remembrance in Sight & Sound; and Verso Books has posted two of Wollen’s landmark essays, “The Two Avant-Gardes” (1975) and “An Alphabet of Cinema” (2001). Wollen was eighty-one.

On to the reading you might take with you into the holidays:

  • The great sorting through the best of 2019 and the 2010s shows no sign of letting up. IndieWire has conducted a poll of 304 critics from around the world, and Parasite has been named best film and foreign film of the year, while Bong Joon-ho tops the director and screenplay categories. You’ll find annotated lists at the Austin Chronicle, the A.V. Club, the Chicago Reader, Flavorwire, the Guardian, Hyperallergic, Little White Lies, and Slant. Critics groups in Boston,Chicago,Dallas/Ft. Worth,Kansas City,Phoenix,St. Louis,San Francisco, and Seattle have announced their awards. As for the decade, see the rankings at Rolling Stone and Michael Sicinski’s thoughts on the state of making—and watching—experimental films. My own most fervent recommendation, though, is Nick Davis’s ongoing countdown of the top 100 films of the 2010s. Each title is accompanied by an excellent short essay and a batch of related honorable mentions. As of today, Davis still hasn’t hit the halfway point, so there’s plenty of time to catch up and then follow along.
  • Variety has collected appreciations of the work of some of this year’s outstanding directors from other directors, and on another page, writers’ salutes to other writers. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, for example, writes about Bong Joon-ho, Julie Dash about Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas, Steve McQueen about Pedro Almodóvar, and so on. “Wisdom is needed in film these days,” writes Guillermo del Toro. “Looking back, one can invoke late Renoir, Bresson, Bergman, Oliveira, or Kurosawa, but the list gets meager when you reach current American cinema—conceivably because in its youth-obsessed culture, it seems to phase out the sage in favor of the maverick. Martin Scorsese is both.”
  • With Portrait of a Lady on Fire in theaters, we’re currently featuring a program of Céline Sciamma’s previous work on the Channel. In the Notebook, Leonardo Goi writes that Sciamma has “populated her films with characters who heed to their impulses, and transform themselves in the process. There is something empowering about this: it’s the idea that love can change the way you carry yourself into the world, because it helps you understand the space you occupy inside it, embrace the image you project into it, and ultimately, rescue some of it from oblivion.”
  • In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a Motion Picture Department and then established the MoMA Film Library (now the Department of Film) in 1935. The first curator was Iris Barry, who wrote a series of Film Notes to accompany those early programs, and Anne Morra, a current associate curator, has based a series on those notes that runs through the end of the year. At Hyperallergic, Elizabeth Horkley writes that “the survey suggests that Iris Barry’s History of Film is the history of film as we study it in the U.S. today.”
  • Film at Lincoln Center’s comprehensive Agnès Varda retrospective opens today and runs through January 6. “Her work can be classed by geography and spaces, by movies set in cities and the country, in streets and homes, in France, Cuba, Vietnam and the States,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “You could also categorize Varda’s life as a series of befores and afters: before and after cinema, after [her husband Jacques] Demy and before her later-life celebrity.” Writing for 4Columns, Sukhdev Sandhu recalls worrying that “this belated spotlight was distorting, that Varda was being defanged and patronized.” The FLC retrospective may well serve as a corrective, he suggests, “not least because it includes her earlier and rarely screened short films (on topics such as the Black Panthers), which display her prickly intelligence and political antennae.” Jane Birkin, who worked with Varda on two features in 1988, remembers her close friend in the Observer: “She was so small but she was very bossy.” At the same time, she could also be “very unexpectedly tender.”
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