Dobra selekcija, zbog nekih manje spominjanih filmova, recimo Actress/Centre Stage, Inquietude, When It Rains i D’est.
From the December 24, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Ten Best Movies of the 90s
Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen. – From the preface to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood
A lot of havoc is wreaked by the usual annual ten-best lists. For starters, there’s the hard-sell behavior of publicists trying to get critics to see every major year-end release before December 31, even though most of these features won’t open in Chicago until at least January. This results in two time frames — one for national releases and another for local releases — which confuses everyone. If you play by the rules of the Chicago Film Critics Association (which should really be called the Chicago Film Publicists Association), you’re encouraged to act like a publicist and promote features on your ten-best list that haven’t opened in Chicago — but you’re strictly forbidden to act like a critic and review any of them. Then there’s the hard-sell approach of certain national magazine editors who feel they have to know what the “best movies of 1999″ are by mid-November, long before most of the late entries have been screened.Behind both pressures — which squash the very possibility of what Andrew Sarris has called a “weighted critical valuation” while creating numerous deceptions — is the Oscars system. At the end of each year film companies send out dozens of videos of contending features not only to Academy members but to reviewers. This means that critics who play the ten-best game or collectively give annual awards are generally obliged to become part of the Oscars campaigns — months in advance of Oscars night — whether or not they want to be part of that nonsense. Unusual formats and deadlines that papers such as the Reader have for the holidays only make things worse. So it’ll be impossible for me to review any new features at length before mid-January.
So why am I proposing a ten-best list of 90s movies to precede a ten-best list for 1999? One reason is that this allows me to stretch the rules of the ten-best game and change some of its meaning and import, at least in this paper. Another reason is that even though I can’t quite consider every 1999 film for either list, a 90s list lets me go beyond Chicago and even U.S. openings to include new movies I saw anywhere between January 1, 1990, and mid-December 1999.
In 1937 Welles was a 22-year-old radio actor who was extremely well paid but usually unbilled; he was just starting to make a name for himself as an innovative theater director who sometimes acted in his own productions, but he hadn’t yet become a radio or film director. No matter how highly one ranks Welles as an artist — or as a “premature antifascist,” who spoke at a communist bookshop, wrote for the Daily Worker, and emceed a benefit concert for New Masses in 1938 — his importance in the history of socialist art is marginal at best. The same could be said of Welles’s producer John Houseman (played by Cary Elwes as an improbable blend of Tom Wolfe and William Buckley). Robbins is generally more respectful of Diego Rivera as a leftist artist of this period, but even Rivera, as played by Ruben Blades, comes across like a cartoon radical; Hank Azaria’s Blitzstein registers somewhat like an effete version of John Waters or Billy De Wolfe, a light comic actor in 50s musicals. Only Rivera’s and Blitzstein’s art are accorded any real integrity; the artists themselves are not, perhaps because Robbins hates elitism and star politics — one reason he may distrust Welles. If Robbins had more imagination and more capacity for nuance he might have appreciated the irony of Welles’s hefty salary as an anonymous radio actor being fed directly — albeit secretly and illegally — into his Federal Theater productions, making those productions, like all of his movies, unclassifiable hybrids of public art and private enterprise. But then Robbins already had a pretty complex story about art, politics, and patronage — one that doesn’t betray the significance of the spontaneous populist premiere of Blitzstein’s opera after the government shut it down. This premiere was essentially without a director or sets, and it brought more fame to Welles (who’d directed the production that was shut down) than Welles brought to it.
Welles fully recognized this paradox in his autobiographical and highly self-critical screenplay on roughly the same subject, The Cradle Will Rock, written in 1984 but published a decade later, after his death–a script Robbins says he deliberately didn’t read before writing his own. If Michael Denning, author of The Cultural Front, is right that Welles’s theater company “went from an experiment in people’s theater to a trademark for a star,” the contradictions and ambiguities of that evolution certainly weren’t lost on Welles. Perhaps because his script, unlike Robbins’s, is built on personal recollections, its nostalgia for the period registers quite differently: it’s the reverse of Robbins’s script in its warm treatment of individuals and its relative indifference to collective expression. Robbins gives the dated Blitzstein opera much more attention, plainly seeing it as the last hurrah of American collectivist art, and to build his case he takes a few pretty dubious historical shortcuts — such as making Nelson Rockefeller the godfather of American abstract painting. Yet regardless of his movie’s faults, Robbins’s real point is to show us what we lost when we abandoned socialist art rather than what we gained, and that’s an affecting and meaningful story. If Welles gets lost in the shuffle, you can’t have everything.
***Comparable trade-offs can be found in all ten of my favorite films of the 90s. In alphabetical order they are:
1. Actress/Center Stage/Ruan Ling Yu (Stanley Kwan, 1991)
2. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991, the 230-minute version)
3. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
5. From the East/D’est (Chantal Akerman, 1993)
6. Inquietude/Anxiety (Manoel de Oliveira, 1998)
7. The Puppet Master (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1993)
8. Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1993)
9. When It Rains (Charles Burnett, 1995)
10. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)
It probably isn’t coincidental that all three American films on my list hark back to earlier eras — explicitly in the case of Jim Jarmusch’s radical western, implicitly in Charles Burnett’s jazz parable about locating common roots in contemporary Watts via the 60s (specifically, a “countercultural” jazz album of John Handy’s group at Monterey), and implicitly in Kubrick’s adaptation of a masterful 1927 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. (Kubrick transplanted the action to 90s New York, but his movie has a great deal to say about every decade in this century except the 90s. And just as we already “have” Ruan Ling-yu on film — or at least Kwan does — we already have certain notions about New York in the 90s, so why should we need to have them duplicated on film?)I suppose it could be argued that Jarmusch, Burnett, and Kubrick were in some fashion turning their back on the 90s, but the first two do have things to say about the present and its peculiar habits and customs. Jarmusch’s crucial gesture — a simple yet highly significant step in the history of multicultural cinema — was to assume the existence of Native American moviegoers (a move signaled in part by his insertion of jokes addressed specifically to Native Americans), something no maker of westerns to my knowledge had ever done before; the implications of such a move are so far-reaching that many white spectators haven’t begun to sort them out. (Native Americans were apparently hip to what Dead Man was doing from the beginning.) Burnett’s astonishingly beautiful film compresses an extraordinary amount of what he knows about his hometown and the homeless into its 12 minutes, making it as succinct as a 12-bar blues chorus — and an implicit critique of the flab of most features. Even Kubrick’s remoteness from what’s fashionable in the 90s might be construed as a critique of that.
The remaining four features on my list all come from countries — Belgium, Hungary, Portugal, and Iran –that are generally seen in the U.S. as marginal (a bit like the way film distributors regard Chicago relative to New York and Los Angeles). Yet it’s the Dardenne brothers’ marginal status as Belgians that makes their films — La promesse and the soon-to-open Rosetta – central to what’s happening in much of the world at the moment. Most of us are still catching up to the reality that the world no longer revolves around New York or Paris or Moscow or Beijing, no longer sees those cities as the key to the meaning of contemporary existence. Half of my 90s favorites are set in the sticks — because that’s where the action is now. The big cities now are responsible mainly for paper flow, national TV broadcasts, and movie premieres.
When he premiered this movie last September in Venice, where it won two prestigious prizes (if not the top ones), Kiarostami announced that he would no longer enter any of his films in festival competitions. Many critics and interviewers assumed that some bitterness or disappointment must have been behind this decision, but it’s clear from recent interviews that this is not the case. Having by now won a total of 60 international prizes over the course of 30 years of filmmaking, he feels he’s got enough — certainly all he needs to go on making the films he wants to. (He says he also suspects that many filmmakers win prizes because of their names rather than their work; this limits recognition of new talent, and he’d like to widen the playing field.)
The best news I can think of to greet the new millennium is that Kiarostami has become a recognized master on a global scale — in spite of the efforts of Miramax to bury his work, the efforts of other studios to ignore it, and the efforts of some American critics to dismiss it for the sake of more studio garbage. Ironically, most of the remaining holdouts I’m aware of reside in Iran and the U.S. — two culturally conservative countries that are resistant to innovation. But in both change is already under way.