Thursday, January 21, 2010

Buyer Beware! TIFF Cinematheque's so – called Best of the Decade

The Best Films of the Decade list recently unveiled by TIFF Cinematheque (formerly Cinematheque Ontario), is problematic in many ways, not just in terms of what was picked (and not picked) as the finest of the past decade but more significantly, for what it says about the stagnant view of movies held by those who chose the 54 films on the list. (See for all the titles, not all of which will be shown in Toronto).

That film list, which begins showing today, is put together solely by curators and programmers (and not film critics), as TIFF Cinematheque Senior Programmer James Quandt, who shepherded the list to fruition, is quick to point out. The collection is chock full of many films that would try the patience of most film-goers, movies that often have words like rigor attached to them in the film notes. (Rigor mortis would be more accurate.) They deliberately go out of their way, it seems, to eschew any cinematic energy or zip. Resembling museum pieces rather than entertaining works of art, they remind me of that old joke about movies being called moving pictures, which many of the films on this list decidedly do not.

Those films include Gus Van Sant’s incredibly tedious Gerry, a Waiting for Godot-like screed that makes Samuel Beckett look like an action director and Jean-Luc Godard’s vacuous Eloge de l’amour, whose low point is a vicious, unprovoked attack on American filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who naturally does not make the list. Perhaps the most puzzling entry of all is Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, which was picked as the very Best Film of the Decade. They’re not the only egregious choices on the list but I’d peg them as the very worst of the many bad films picked here - and most indicative of why this list mostly reflects the hidebound prejudices of curators and programmers. In their selections, they display the most irritating snobbishness towards any movies that actually resonate with the public and/or most film critics.

I say that because I don’t recognize the past decade in film reflected in the cinematheque poll. The U.S. and English speaking cinema is almost completely missing in action, unless you consider the list’s Gerry, The New World and The Royal Tenenbaums, awful movies all, as the cream of the U.S. / English language crop. You can’t help but wonder where terrific movies like Sideways, Before Sunset, George Washington, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Capturing the Friedmans, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, 24 Hour Party People, Atonement, and Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Ratatouille are. Quandt, however, seems almost gleeful when he points out in his film notes that despite some votes, the Pixar movies, Zodiac and Bad Santa, failed to make the final list. Good on the curators who chose those films, shame on all those who pretended they didn’t exist. And though some worthy foreign language films are on tap here, many others, not coincidentally foreign films that were some of the most critically acclaimed movies of the last ten years, are missing, too. That includes such stellar films as The Lives of Others, Time Out, As White as in Snow, Y Tu Mamá También, Infernal Affairs, The Best of Youth, Good Morning, Night, Summer Hours, Waltz with Bashir and Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke. I also don’t see the exciting and broad national cinema of Israel acknowledged here. On the contrary, lesser ones from Mexico and the Philippines (!) are.

Gus Van Sant's Gerry.

Instead we get movies from Van Sant, who seems to have generally lost his way, after making a strong start with Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, and Godard, who’s been spinning his wheels in the forty years that have elapsed since his brilliant first decade of film-making. Then he could boast of at at least half a dozen masterpieces (Les Carabiniers, Bande à part, Weekend) in his credits.Van Sant and Godard have been cinematic irritants for years. But likely the worst offender on the cinematheque list is Weerasethakul and his Syndromes and a Century, a two part rural / urban tale, set within the confines of a small hospital and large medical center, which sets a new bar for opaqueness. The picture drowns its various characters in a miasma of pointlessly distracting camera angles, overly obscure images and a story, such as it is, that simply does not work up a sweat to say anything at all.

I’m not actually not sure what galls me more, James Quandt's crowing about how the TIFF Cinematheque had previously shown most of the films on that list in the last ten years, or his insistence on trumpeting the list as an alternative view to that chosen by the critical establishment, such as the more diverse one picked by the indieWIRE web site ( Since the cinematheque list was compiled by his compatriots, clones of Quandt in a way, that’s hardly surprising. And though theirs is certainly an alternative view, it’s also the only view being offered up on our movie screens. No one else, in Toronto at least, is proffering a Best of the Decade list to contrast / compete with that put forth by the cinematheque.

I should point out that out of the 38 films on the list that I’ve seen, I would rank ten of them, including Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Claire Denis’s L’Intrus and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, as among the best of their respective years, if not of the decade, and I liked others, such as Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. I’m also responsive to some of the films on the list, Hou Hsiao-Hsien,’s Three Times, Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, that delight in long takes but not at the expense of emotion or character. The rest of the list that I’ve seen, i.e.: Le Fils, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, A History of Violence, The World, Caché, veer from artless to pretentious. But the fact that I’ve seen more then two thirds of the films on the cinematheque list displays openness on my part to all sorts of movies, something that I am sure would not be reciprocated by those who chose the TIFF Cinematheque films.

No doubt, my choices for Best of the Decade would not be considered alternative enough by Quandt and his TIFF Cinematheque enlistees but I’d say my picks and the pics are far more representative of what really happened in the movies in the last decade. It’s just too bad that the fruits of my list and other similar ones aren’t being offered to Toronto film-goers, too.

--Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

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