History and inspiration
While the old saying “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” maybe inherently true, this does not mean that current directors are doing inferior work. Just for the record, the bulk of Hollywood's output has always been forgettable mass-production. And aren't we all glad, top Hollywood helmers like James Cameron are doing Avatar instead of Ben-Hur, even if they exploit the same spiritual commonplace themes? The films that can’t live up to their own standards are usually the ones that try to recapture the spirit of some beloved piece of cinema (or any other art form). Imaginative film makers don’t update certain genres or styles that inspired their work (the exceptions are old-fashioned postmodernists like Tarantino or the Coen Bros.), they simply fight for their personal vision which later will be recognized as their own style. Most of all, animation film makers shouldn't brag about being inspired by their "own" movies and traditions (pick your own recent example). Artistical inbreeding should not be confused with inspiration.
In his recent review of the Fellini remake Nine, Roger Ebert wrote “In the life of anyone who loves movies, there must be time to see "8½."”. I like to add that even if you are already familiar with Italian cinema you should dedicate four hours of your life to Martin Scorsese’s Il mio viaggio in Italia (1999), simply because it makes you fall in love with Italian movies all over again (beware: highly addictive). Scorsese’s enthusiasm for the movies and directors he comments on is noticeable in every line. Even his voice sounds unusually soft and tender. After having seen viaggio I even wanted to see those movies again that I didn’t like when I first saw them. The conclusion is rather bittersweet, though, as the film ends its chronological journey around 1970, as there seem to be no distinct new voices in Italian cinema ever since. This sadly underlines a development that I have recently detected in many European cinematographies. Despite some exceptions there has been a trend since the 1990s towards more streamlined "arthouse" movies that adopt classical narrative structures with the result that even arthouse audiences aren't prepared to appreciate movies that explore different approaches. So what a film like viaggio could do for filmmakers is reassuring us to take our own routes, reminding us that there should be no preconceptions what a good film consists of. But most important, at the heart of every one of the presented Italian movies lies a profoundly human experience. Lose that and you can pile up as much style and storytelling tricks as you like, nobody will care for it.
There's nothing like a responsive audience
I’m always preaching that any movie should be seen in a theater not just because of the high quality and dimensions but mainly because movies can only be fully appreciated with undivided attention. This year I was reminded more than once that the aspect of seeing a film with a good audience can greatly enhance the experience as well. In the course of completing my Scorsese diet I was able to see the restored premiere cut of New York, New York (1977) which successfully marries improvisational method acting with 1940s musical excess. It was preceded by a selection of vintage 16mm jazz clips including All the cats join in and After You've Gone (1946). People responded to them like it was a live presentation. It simply was a blast. I’ve had similar experiences this year with Singin’ in the rain, The Jungle Book and Mary and Max.
Favorites of 2009
Finally, here’s my list of 2009 favorites in alphabetical order, limited to 10 new releases. In my case, favorite movies are the ones that stay with me for a long time independent of their cinematic or intellectual quality, so “favorite” is not to be confused with “best”. I tend to remember those with the deepest emotional impact. I also actively fight the animation ghetto by refusing to list animated features separately from live-action.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, USA 2008) – a visual tone poem, no more, no less.
- Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA 2009) – I hate World War II revenge fantasies. But I adore cinematic brilliance. And Christoph Waltz’s performance.
- Let the right one in (Lat de rätte komma in) (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008) – the ultimate vampire movie that says more about lonely children than horror clichés. Saw it absolutely alone in a dark theater.
- Maman est chez le coiffeur (Léa Pool, Canada 2008) – Léa Pool seems to know a lot about children and 60s music.
- Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, Australia 2009) – the most heartfelt film of 2009. Deals with difficult subject matter in ways that are unique to animation.
- Ponyo on a cliff by the sea (Gake no ue no Ponyo) (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan 2008) – because it follows children’s logic and not screenplay manuals. The real future of hand drawn animation.
- Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, USA/UK 2008) – inflated expectations damped my initial response, but as a straight ahead intimate play it rivals Chekhov. A stellar cast and carefully chosen songs outshine everything else.
- Stellet Licht (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico 2007) – the definition of an art movie: slowly challenging our viewing habits.
- Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo) (Kore-Eda Hirokazu, Japan 2008) – Japanese “family” film in the tradition of Ozu. I still feel that these characters were talking about my own life.
- Das Weisse Band (aka The White Ribbon) (Michael Haneke, Germany 2009) – Deconstructing German rural life in the 1910s. Sharp as a razor, aesthetically superior.
The most interesting movies color-wise were almost all classics:
- An American in Paris (1951) – heavily dated but full of marvellous details
- Singin’ in the rain (1952) – What a glorious feeling! Bigger than StarWars.
- Funny Face (1957) – unexpectedly entertaining exercise in popular style
- Sleeping Beauty (1959) – in fact, it’s the sheer beauty that keeps you from sleeping
- Nagagutsu o haita neko (Puss n Boots) (1969) – Japanese animation that mixes a lot of familiar fairy tales into a fun ride heavily inspired by the success of Disney’s Jungle Book. My own private festival discovery in Locarno.
- Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) (1972) – Bergman in a redroom.
- Maugli (1973) – episodic retelling of Kipling's short stories, close in tone while still omitting the man village scenes.
- Allegro non troppo (1977) – Bozzetto’s parody and his most accomplished piece of animation
- Collateral (2004) – Michael Mann’s only proof so far that going digital can enhance a film.
- Taxidermia (2006) – episodic eastern European tongue-in-cheek art movie, provocative, distancing, for those with a strong stomach. Predominantly Hungarian national colors.