2011 — Best Undistributed Films
The “Skandies” half of my year-end wrap-up continues with my vote in the “Undistributed” poll, which, unlike every other Skandie category, requires that your film NOT have had a commercial release. To qualify for this section, also known as the “Undies,” a film must have an Internet Movie Database year of 2009, i.e., be two years old, but never have had a Skandie-qualifying run, which is defined as playing for one week in a commercial release in New York. Effectively, this means films that played at festivals but never got picked up.
In the past two years, I saw 29 such films with 2009 IMDb dates, a shockingly high number for me — in previous years I’ve typically seen about 12 or 15 and sometimes had to abstain because there weren’t 10 I thought were worth a crap. Not this year — I actually even liked (6 grade or better) the majority of those 29 films, and there were even some 7-grade films that didn’t make the cut for the Top 10. The film at #1 I graded a 9, and the next three I graded an 8, so there are some real “keepers” here. Like other Skandie categories, you get 100 points to divvy up among your 10 films, with the sole distribution rule being mimimum of 5 points, maximum of 30.
Since I already reviewed half of my ten films, I just say a few words on them and link to my earlier review. The overall results were revealed in December and are here. The 10 films I eventually voted for, with the number of points, are after the jump.
MEDAL OF HONOR (Calin Peter Netzer, Romania) 20 points
Does this description grab you — UMBERTO D meets THE LAST COMMAND in the style of a dry East European comedy? No? On the surface it DOES sound like a really bad game of “Authors” on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
But it works far better than you’d think because the comic irony gradually builds and deepens and has more layers than you’d think (some you see coming; some you don’t). And thanks to a great central performance, MEDAL OF HONOR develops far more pathos than it had an obvious right to. Victor Rebengiuc plays “Umberto / the General” (a cussed, prideful old man who finally gets a reason to have some pride). His ironic name is Ion Ion (fans of Plato get a meaningful name reference; fans of Kieslowski are put in mind of WHITE) and the plot begins in 1995, when he gets a note notifying him he will receive a belated medal for his World War II heroism on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. The problem: Ion doesn’t remember doing anything particularly heroic during the war. So he’s both determined to find out why (“maybe I forgot”) but wants to let everyone know right away. Romania’s famously cooperative service-oriented bureaucracy (“Don’t you speak Romanian, old man? You put in your application. Now go home. We’ll answer it.”) puts the two goals somewhat at odds. Odds that increase as the tale gets fruitier with each retelling.
While Rebengiuc is not quite at the Olympian level of Emil Jannings, he is a far superior actor to Carlo Battisti. He can play comedy (MEDAL has some broad slapstick), handles well the long takes that are part of Official New Romanian Style, and puts out the right mix of stubbornness and beaten-down-ness (at the start, his wife and son haven’t spoken to him for six years). He also serves as a living link between the Old and New Romania, both in this film (what does a medal mean After The Revolution) and by this film (he played the lead in Liviu Ciulei’s 60s Cannes-prize winner FOREST OF THE HANGED; his son is played by Mimi Branescu, from TUESDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS).
I realize this doesn’t quite “read” like a 9-review. Dryly ironic though it is, MEDAL OF HONOR is also far subtler than most of the recent Romanian films. There is a late scene that’s a conversation between two veterans, and what made the scene for me wasn’t so much the surface content as an unseen third character and what his existence means. As I’ve said, the film snuck up on me until a few tears come out at a closing celebratory line “he has Romanian blood in him.”
P.S. I found out from MEDAL OF HONOR that “Skandie” is actually a proper noun with a meaning other than “Movie Nerd Poll” — a brand of vodka sold in Romania. That’s gotta be worth a few extra points in a Skandies poll.
P.P.S. I sent the following email to Gwendolyn Cornelius at Pandora Film, the picture’s distributor. (The saddest news is … well, I explain)
My name is Victor Morton and I’m a Washington cinephile who saw and loved MEDAL OF HONOR when it played at FilmFestDC in 2010. I’m picking on you among the four contact emails listed on the film’s Romanian site based on your having an English name. I already tried to e-mail you last month, but I got an out-of-office bounceback.
As best I can tell from Internet searches, MEDAL has not been released on DVD or Bluray anywhere in the world. Is this true? If not, is there any version that has English subtitles and can you direct me to somewhere I can get one, either from y’all or via a vendor? Issues of region coding are not a problem for me.
FACE (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France) 12 points
This was the film that wound up winning the Undies, but I’m not surprised it never found a US release after the 2009 Toronto festival (2nd capsule). Tsai doesn’t make crowd-pleasers and, while I don’t think the film is boring, it is easily his most hermetically sealed. I can’t imagine someone not a Tsai fan making emotional head or tail of it.
AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inouye, Japan) 12 points
This movie is so obscure that, when I sent in my ballot, Mike said the IMDb doesn’t have a page for it. Turned out FUWAKU NO ADAGIO does, but Mike (reasonably enough) couldn’t find it because the IMDb doesn’t even list the English-language title under which I saw this film at FilmFestDC 2010. I had to find the page by searching for the star.
I DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy) 12 points
While the title gives the game away pretty early, if nothing else, this resolutely old-fashioned and deliriously entertaining historical bodice-ripping biopic suggests one way SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE might have been better (FTR, I like it some but don’t think it remotely the best film of 1998 or potentially any other year since about 1913). Shakespeare should have been an opera composer or other musician. After all, if you want to use a playwright’s life as the inspirational source of his works, there are few to no simple ways to actually PRESENT those works on the screen. Narrative cinema so much resembles drama or literature that doing it at all would require some sort of meta-messing or multiple-layering. But a musician — his finished and canonical works can be on the film’s score, illustrating and underlining the life drama. The film also can profit by the reflected glory.
Saura’s I DON GIOVANNI basically applies the SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE formula on Lorenzo da Ponte (with what amount of historical justification I cannot say) and how he became the librettist for Mozart’s Italian operas, most especially “Don Giovanni and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” Da Ponte is a libertine who flees to Vienna and hooks up with Mozart thanks to the ill-motivated machinations of fellow Italian Antonio Salieri, who can’t seem to catch a break in the movies. Instead, da Ponte inspires and reawakens Mozart, and the Italian’s tomcattery becomes raw material for “Don Giovanni.” (As an aside, I’ve often wondered indeed why everybody calls it Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” rather than Mozart and DaPonte’s “Don Giovanni.” After all, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loew were billed equally in the functionally identical art.)
It’s a fairly well-trod tale that Saura really only can use as a framework for what does make this film exciting and valuable — better than SHAKESPEARE if not in the league of the other natural cinematic yardstick (AMADEUS). In making a bio into art, Saura eschews a naturalistic look and frame, instead constantly putting curtains and pillars and paintings on the edges of his images, making them serve as prosceniums for the stage that all the world is. And the outdoor scenes, whether in Venice or Vienna, don’t remotely look real, instead taking on the appearance of expressionistically-colored stage sets. In this, Saura is helped considerably by having the great Vittorio Storaro as cinematographer. Storaro, as is his specialty, layers on the colors thick and heavy to create a Venice bathing in blue ink and a Vienna shimmering in rich lame. And since I DON GIOVANNI is not remotely realistic to look at, Saura is free to use those few ways to stage drama-within-drama that don’t cone across as affected. In the film’s best scene, da Ponte details a conquest to Mozart, and the tune pops out of Mozart and onto the soundtrack. Meanwhile the resulting and accompanying scene from “Don Giovanni” plays out in the background and the two men’s shadows discuss the event / narrate the scene. The film’s other unforgettable image/sound for me is the enormous closeup of Donna Elvira’s (I think) swearing vengeance in Mozart’s music. It’s borrowed glory, sure, but how can this much Mozart be wrong? Here is the trailer:
THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) 10 points
When I write this capsule, I was starting to get a little unsure of my growing crush on Romania, which had a dedicated program during FilmFest DC in 2010 (2nd capsule). I joke to that effect in my capsule that (WARNING) also contains massive spoilers.
I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada) 8 points
This film placed high in the overall survey, after remaining undistributed in the US after showing at Toronto in 2009, while Dolan’s second (slightly lesser) film HEARTBEATS was released after playing at Toronto 2010. Feel sorriest for lead actress Anne Dorval, who’d’ve been a Best Actress Skandie contender if MOTHER had been released.
THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (Radu Jude, Romania) 8 points
My name is Delia Cristina Fratila, and I’m the happiest girl in the world. I sent in three Bibo Multi-Fruit labels and won this gorgeous Logan Break. [Drink juice] Send them in now. [Drive off.]
THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD takes about an hour of screen time in an effort to have the heroine say, and to have the admen record, that simple short speech. You will get lots of chances to write it down in its entirety (and I did, back at FilmFestDC in 2010). Even before that, the three central characters — the titular girl (Andreea Busneag) and her working-class parents (Vasile Muraru and Violeta Haret) — spend about a half-hour getting to the scene, the main square in Bucharest, from their small Romanian town. She wants to keep the car; they want to sell it and start a business with the money; each is convinced they have convinced the other. The exchanges throughout the film are brutal and blunt. Here’s the Romanian trailer (which, even if you don’t speak Romanian, as I don’t, is very funny in how it repackages the dynamic among the three family members at trailer length).
This (intentional) travesty could be retitled MR. LAZARESCU DOES A TV COMMERCIAL (which is why I’m not terribly surprised that Mike D’Angelo walked out on this film). Like LAZARESCU, the central drama takes forever to “get started” and, like LAZARESCU and a lot of self-consciously satirical films, HAPPIEST GIRL thereby tells us something about the country’s national character — or at least its national self-image. It does so formally, by getting stuck in the narrative mud and then, once started, spinning its figurative wheels in a circle as if Romania simply isn’t capable of the ruthless pragmatism of Hollywood storytelling. And it does so within the content too, portraying the girl as a national symbol because she’s homely (you can bet that gets said about her, not quite out of her earshot) and thus assures all Romanians that they can be as happy and lucky as she is. As I said, every family conversation draws blood. During the shoot, every manner of incompetence and delay and barrier (e.g., they learn midway through the day that Delia can’t drive the car she’s supposed to have won) makes the shooting of the commercial ever more desperate. By the end of the film, the admen are just hoping they can reflect enough post-sunset light for the cameras to pick up. It’s like Lucy’s Vitameatavegamin commercial, reconfigured as an all-day train wreck. LOOK HAPPY DAMMIT could be another alternative title. But it’s all so funny that we “enjoy” it like we “enjoy” a Keystone Kops comedy of errors.
And make no mistake, HAPPIEST GIRL is intended as a national portrait, Romania as Truculence and Dilly-Dally write large. In addition to casting the girl as a Miss Romania because she’s homely, Jude makes explicit the meta-cinematic concerns by having the onscreen director fret that “this is a commercial, not art-house cinema.” And the Bucharest square, which they only (are supposed to) get to use for one day, is named 21 Dec. 1989 Piaza — the start of the anti-Ceausescu revolution. Jude’s next film, EVERYBODY IN OUR FAMILY, will be premiering in a few days at the latest Berlin Festival and is reportedly even better. I can’t wait.
SYMBOL (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan) 7 points
The third of my 10 votes to make the overall Top 20, which is no surprise since it is enormously entertaining and brought down the house at a Toronto 2009 Midnight Madness show (4th capsule), while being just too weird to play outside midnight and “cult” showings in the US.
GOODBYE, HOW ARE YOU (Boris Mitic, Serbia) 6 points
If I were simply to describe this self-styled “satirical documentary fairy tale,” it would sound like the worst sort of self-indulgent avant-garde claptrap — a soundtrack of Serbian aphorisms in 24 segments laid over every manner of related-or-unrelated documentary footage of Serbia and the Serb sector of Bosnia, a collage of roads, architecture and signs on the one hand and newsreels on the the other.
You wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I enjoyed GOODBYE, HOW ARE YOU much more than I had a right to, and certainly more than any film to which the first reaction in my notes is “looks like ass.” But eventually you forget the visual undistinction simply because the aphoristic voiceover is genuinely witty and often laugh-out-loud funny. A Croatian friend once told me that the senses of humor in the former communist bloc differed — that the north (Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) had the dry, mordant style while the south (Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria) was much cruder and more in your face. And while this split has generally fitted my experience of the films I’ve seen, GOODBYE is the most overt exception. Here is a representative clip from the film on YouTube.
As you can see from the clip, the Serbian humor displayed in the aphorisms is dryer than Texas in July — and the imagery is presented deadpan, even though much of it consists of absurdist juxtaposition or ironic comment, though sometimes isn’t (or maybe it is to a Serb, but I don’t see it). The signs are often misspelled (“Holywood”) or seem absurdly inappropriate or wrong. We see a tank actually running over a car, and Santa gnomes next to Hindu idols. There was one home that, until something happened that made the scale obvious, I would have sworn was a closeup of a Lego building. Another home where Mitic began with a closeup of Doric columns then pulled back the camera to show them as the facade of a shack.
Certainly this is the tradition of humor as underground political commentary — apathetic almost to the point of defeatist on one hand, but with eyes obviously wide open on the other. The film has thematically-united and aphoristically-titled segments, but it’s very loosey-goosey. Happily, the overt segmentation (introduced by numbers a la Greenaway) assures you that even if a segment isn’t working, it’s not gonna last long. And the same with the hundreds(?) of aphorisms said over the film’s short 60-odd minute running time — not all work, but most do and some are priceless. My favorites: [from a politician] “we made a lot of mistakes; please arrest those who voted for us”; “we wanted the war to finish as soon as possible. That’s why we started it first”; “the state is introducing a tax on poverty. That way, there’ll be no more poor people.”
I dubbed this style in my notes “blank-faced surrealism” — and between the jumble of absurdism, cynicism, painful humor and striking imagery, it’s like the longest-ever remix of The Police’s “King of Pain.” At the end you don’t really have very much, except the experience itself, but it was enjoyable while it was happening. And maybe that was the point too.
DANCING WITH THE DEVIL (Jon Blair, Britain) 5 points
The kind of made-by-a-leftist issue doc that’s gripping when I watch it, but which I inevitably think less of after the Q-and-A. Director Jon Blair won unprecedented access to some of Rio de Janeiro’s drug gangs, speaking on-camera and without masks in a slum it controls. (After the screening at the 2009 SilverDocs festival, Blair criticized the crackdown by Mexico and the US on the drug-gang wars along the border, “Brazil tried the military solution, it doesn’t work. Drugs are a social problem, not a military one.” And won the predictable round of bobo applause.) Still probably the only film you’ll see this year in which the moral center is an Assembly of God preacher who speaks in tongues. Pastor Johnny is a rebuke to First World Christians whose crosses are so light; he embodies both spiritual seriousness and the social Gospel and in the most difficult of circumstances, the hardest of cases and without becoming a tool of anybody but God. But Blair disagreed again, calling the minister, who prays with the drug gangs, lives in the neighborhood with them, and considers one of the bosses a personal project, “a deeply morally ambiguous person.” The footage with the cops and access to the Rio favela drug gangs is shocking and amazing (though not quite at BUS 174 level in terms of grippingness or “ferret out the backstory”). And Blair leaves well enough alone in the film. But not “out.”