Moments of 2012, Part 1

Our contributors and colleagues pick the year's moving image highlights
by Various Writers  posted January 10, 2013
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Continuing our annual tradition, we invited some of our regular contributors and colleagues, as well as a few writers and artists, to select their moving image moment or event of 2012—anything from an entire movie or television series to an individual scene or shot, from a retrospective or exhibition to a news story or viral video. Read Part 2 here.

Scott Foundas, critic, Village Voice
The return of 70mm, in the form of The Master, Samsara, and the IMAX sequences of The Dark Knight Rises much needed nourishment for the celluloid-starved soul.

Girish Shambu, writer, co-editor of LOLA
A signal memory I've carried with me this year is a deeply melancholic pair of objects—and the humans associated with them-that distil the beauty and weariness of aging: (1) A thick wooden table that makes a rich, resonant sound each time someone sets a mug or plate down on it. This table is likely older than the trio of distinguished European actors (Michel Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale, Jeanne Moreau) who eloquently sit, stand, and move around it in Manoel de Oliveira's Gebo and the Shadow; and (2) A Greenwich Village building whose many layers of history—Supercuts and Chipotle today; a methadone clinic and hippie hangout in the ‘70s; a dance studio and beatnik gathering spot in the ‘50's; and an ethnic (German) newspaper before that-are ruefully peeled off and explained, one by one, by an exhausted, older vampire (Alicia Silverstone), giving a history lesson to her younger protégé and friend (Krysten Ritter) in Amy Heckerling's Vamps

David Hudson, Keyframe Daily
James Bond and an assassin battle it out on a top floor of a Shanghai skyscraper, silhouetted against neon animations drifting across glassy blacks and blues, a ballet of planes and reflected planes. In a year rich with frames within frames (more than a few of them defined by the windows of a limousine), perhaps the most unforgettable image from this sequence in Skyfall is the assassination itself, a shot fired across a windy chasm half a mile high from behind one window to shatter another and take out a man, seated, his back to us, who'd been assessing a painting, probably a Modigliani.

Mysteries of Lisbon


Thom Andersen, filmmaker
The most amazing new film I saw in 2012 was Three Sisters by Wang Bing. It's a simple story, but there is something burning in every shot.

Alex Ross Perry, filmmaker
Immediately, I thought of the most shocking moment from the most shocking scene from a film that is full of them: Sinister's "Lawnmower Scene." The film's strength is its ability to be basically every kind of good horror film all at once: haunted house, ghost children, boogeyman, true-crime serial-killer mystery, and yes, found footage. As Ethan Hawke's character becomes obsessed with watching snuff films that he finds in his new home, the film brilliantly encapsulates what it feels like to sit alone in a dark room and confront your fears as they are projected on a movie screen, playing into and functioning as the ultimate culmination of horror in cinema. I saw this film at a matinee alone with only two other people in the theater; since horror generally benefits from a crowded room of tense and scared people, I was disappointed but as the dread built to one of the most admirably depressing endings I have seen in a widely released film, I began to feel like Ethan Hawke, all alone in a quiet dark room, with horrifying and unforgettable images playing out just for me.

Jean-Michel Frodon, critic
I wish to choose as the most striking film event in 2012 a happy moment, so I will not mention here the death of Chris Marker, but rather the strength, subtlety, and mystery of Leos Carax's Holy Motors. Many extremely moving moments relate to the film, in and around. It goes from the song that accompanies Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant as they walk the stairs in the deserted Samaritaine to the unexpected quality of the response from audiences, in Cannes and elsewhere, as a long-awaited recognition of Carax's talent, after so many years of insults and ignorance. To respond more sharply to the survey, I would choose the sequence where Monsieur Oscar, Lavant's character, becomes a worker in the factory of digital images. The acknowledgement of the proletarian status of human bodies (and souls) becoming raw material for the image industry is evoked in such a beautiful, ironic, dramatic, and troubling way that it, alone, stands as one of the most powerful and accurate scenes cinema has ever offered. 

Tom McCormack, critic
Holy Motors, the greatest movie of 2012, memorialized the end of traditional cinema by dramatizing the dispersal of the cinematic into the texture of everyday life.

A month after Motors premiered in New York, the IDF released the most blankly horrifying movie of 2012. With its uncannily awkward Charlie Chaplin timing and ghostly blown-out black and white cinematography, this 10-second YouTube video propagandizing the assassination of Ahmed Jabri tells you everything you never wanted to know about where moving images have been and where they're heading in the 21st century.

Colin Beckett, critic
"Mitt Romney and the Infinite Sadness"

Not Waving but Drowning — by Stevie Smith 
Nobody heard him, the dead man,  
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought  
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,  
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always  
(Still the dead one lay moaning)  
I was much too far out all my life  
And not waving but drowning.

Gina Telaroli, filmmaker
Two men, almost completely in agreement on issues of "foreign" policy, spend 90 minutes trying desperately to disagree in a theater of the absurd where the end game, regardless of performance, is a standing ovation for a continuation of procedures that have resulted in, among other things, 170+ dead children. 

Nicole Brenez, film scholar and curator
My event of the year is the discovery of Natpwe: The Feast of the Spirits, made by Tiane Doan Na Champassak and Jean Dubrel in 2004. In the great tradition of Jean Rouch and Raymonde Carasco, but also Philippe Grandrieux and David Lynch, it's the both faithful and empathic depiction of five days of trance rituals in a Burma then under severe dictatorship. These rituals are also a way for the homosexual and tranvestites to find a rewarding place in the community. The film was shot in 16mm and S8 black & white. It has been awarded in 2012 the Prix Scribe and can be seen here.

James Naremore, film scholar
The year's most pleasant surprise for me was a showing of Yasujiro Ozu's An Inn at Tokyo (1935) at the new Indiana University Cinema in Bloomington, which is one of the best theaters in the United States. Ozu resisted the advent of sound and made a silent picture that tells a simple story of two broken families in Depression-era Japan; in many ways his film anticipates neo-realism, and therefore seems both modern and curiously old-fashioned. What made the showing especially novel was the live accompaniment of traditional Benshi performer Kataoka Ichiro, who softly interpreted the voices of the characters. This was an art I had never witnessed, and it served the film beautifully.

Mysteries of Lisbon

An Inn at Tokyo

Daniel Kasman, critic
The eventful cinema moment of 2012 for me lingered nearly the entire year: a monumental William A. Wellman retrospective, programmed by Bruce Goldstein at Film Forum in New York in February. It was reputedly the last major retrospective in 35mm at the venue, and it couldn't have been more fitting to dedicate it to one of Hollywood's lost journeyman-craftsman-artists, someone whose greatly prodigious and varied career, spanning studios, epochs, technologies, genres, and stars, would be begging for the great textured swathe—picture of a full retrospective—if Wellman's films weren't so casual and self-sufficient as to never ask, let alone beg, for attention. But attention is what they got, and many returned the favor; namely, a group gathered by the Italian online film journal La Furia Umana in a special dossier on the director edited by David Phelps and Gina Telaroli. Released in the fall, this dossier—including contributors who attended the retro and those, flung around the world, who hadn't, but nevertheless engaged with Wellman's films and career-created a salvo of dialog with Goldstein's retro: the most extensive collection of criticism on the director ever published. And so something magical happened, a discovery and exploration in person, of material, on the ground, in New York, and a further exploration, and discovery, available to all, floating in the Internet clouds, that pulled directly and indirectly from that real world event and talked to it, played with it, pushed it farther, dived inward, and pulled out. The two—a retrospective and an online publication-worked in beautiful tandem, and opened my eyes and expanded my mind more than anything else in 2012.

(No one said I could do a runner-up, but Kevin Brownslow's 5 ½-hour restoration of Abel Gance's Napoléon, shown at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, rhythmically, epically induced sensual, sensorial giddiness: the snowball fight, a camera strapped to a galloping horse, a forever—length night battle, Napoleon's mental flashes of battle plans, and, climatically, the revelation of the film's three magnificent panels. A one-of-a-kind celluloid live event for a year in which theatrical exhibition and projection crossed the Rubicon into a digital wilderness.

Phillip Lopate, critic
My most significant movie experience this year was the Claude Sautet retrospective at Lincoln Center. Sautet struck me as the kind of underrated professional who year after year made films of great psychological depth, unflashy but surefooted technique, beautifully understated, magnificently acted (especially by Romy Schneider, Michel Piccoli, Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil), superbly written. In short: "well-made films" (that category the New Wave and Cassavetes taught us to despise). I had loved his Un Coeur en Hiver and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, but was unprepared for the riches of his many other masterpieces, including the finally released-in-America Max et les Ferailleurs.

Noah Isenberg, director of Screen Studies, The New School 
As part of my big intro lecture at the New School, in fall 2012, I arranged an in-class screening of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, which I've since found very hard to stop thinking about. Sure, there are the extraordinary shots-photographed by Burnett himself-such as those of the unruly boys leaping, like self-taught ballet dancers, over the Watts rooftops. There's also the unspoken grief of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), toiling away at the slaughterhouse and still squeezing in time for home improvement, and the equally intense longing of Stan's wife (Kaycee Moore), who cannot help but dream of a better place. But what stuck with me perhaps more than anything else is their poignant, lyrical, and ultimately tragic dance to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth."

Critics have frequently drawn comparisons to Italian neorealism, but this particular sequence, in terms of its emotional register and theatrical framing, is all Fassbinder.

Imogen Smith, critic
For me, this year was all about old French movies, from classics (Children of Paradise, Grand Illusion, and Port of Shadows in new restorations) to rarities (Jean Epstein, Pierre Étaix, and the hard-to-see gems in Film Forum's "French Old Wave" series). It's hard to single out one moment, but I'm still haunted by the scene in Grémillon's Remorques where Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan walk on the beach and visit an empty house. It's a dreamlike scene with a kind of aching beauty, and the dialogue is subtle, elliptical, and intimate. The whole sequence is suffused with that melancholy, romantic pessimism that exemplifies pre-War French cinema, and it casts a strong spell.

Michael Koresky, writer and editor, The Criterion Collection and Reverse Shot
The New York cinephile world is always scrambling to find the next big screening event. Recently, it was to be a rare 35mm print of Jean-Luc Godard's 1987 King Lear at 92Y Tribeca, an occasion curtailed by the fact that the wrong film was shipped from the archive. In this era of malfunctioning hard drives and missing codes (the New York Film Festival this year was infamously beset by digital-era errors), this mistake felt so tactile and analog-quaint that no one felt the need to get too terribly angry.

Yet that same December night, across the East River, the city's real film event was taking place, and it went off with a hush and without a hitch: John Huston's exquisite final work, The Dead, made the same year as Godard's film, in a 35mm print at BAM. Once upon a time, Huston's film looked merely like a surprisingly good adaptation of a masterpiece—the short story that culminates James Joyce's Dubliners. Today, it must be viewed as its own singular experience, a quiet prayer for multiple eras that have now passed on: Joyce's, Huston's, and celluloid's. Evaluated independently of its source material and only on its own filmic terms, The Dead is an aching, splendid swan song. Seeing it projected on film for the first time, in a dark, reverently quiet movie house, I was struck by its terrifying, textured intimacy. As the majority of the viewers stayed in their seats immobile and silent until the last credit rolled, I was convinced it was partly because of the film's indescribable power and also because of their desire to last a little bit longer in the shadowy presence of film itself.

Mysteries of Lisbon

The Dead

Rebecca Cleman, director of distribution, Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)
I had one public, and one private, landmark moving-image event this year: watching Charles Atlas's film of Merce Cunningham's Ocean (2008) in an austere museum gallery during the Whitney Biennial, and Paul Newman's Sometimes a Great Notion (1970) off Netflix at home. Neither setting distracted from the cinematic achievements of these films. Atlas and Cunningham were long-time collaborators, developing a unique approach to filming live dances that translated their dynamism to the moving image. Atlas is a cinema buff, and it shows in his vocabulary of tracking shots, split screens, and close-ups-effects applied with an expert touch that complements, rather than upstages, its subject. As for Newman, the only other film I've seen is Rachel Rachel (1968), but I'm ready to agree with those who consider him a great American auteur. Like Ocean, Great Notion takes risks that never become overbearing or gimmicky. There are some scenes in this peculiar American tale that have resurfaced almost weekly for me, unlike most of the overly long releases I watched in theaters this year.

Nina Menkes, filmmaker
Without a doubt, the most powerful moving image experience of the year for me was seeing Dror Moreh's excellent documentary film The Gatekeepers at its world premiere at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. I immediately knew I had experienced something of tremendous value and told producer Phillipa Kowarsky that her film would go on to win the Academy Award, and that Gatekeepers had the potential to actually change the world. Tied for first place in my life as most memorable experience has to be—and please forgive the self-centered-ness of this—the bi-costal retrospectives of my own work, presented simultaneously at Anthology in NYC and at the UCLA FIlm Archives in LA in Spring 2012. The screenings, and amazing press reactions, made me feel that 30 years of hard labor was truly recognized, at long last.

Dan Streible, professor of cinema studies, NYU
The most engaging movie experience of 2012 was the long-anticipated appearance of animator Chris Sullivan's feature-length Consuming Spirits. Two hours and nine minutes is a long running time for a handcrafted, subtle animated film. Nearly 15 years of production is lengthy as well. I had first seen an excerpt of the work-in-progress that Sullivan showed at the 2000 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. There I found the style and tone of the work intriguingly dark, original, and provocative. The narrative was inchoate then, but Sullivan's finished piece is fully formed and rewarding. 

In addition to the film's adept intermixing of cut-out, cel drawing, and tabletop animation, Consuming Spirits is also full of texts. Words, both spoken and written on the mise-en-scene, that complement the alternative universe the film constructs. The film's main character and narrator, Earl Gray (voice by Robert Levy), has a polished, learned, and quaintly archaic vocabulary. The lines he utters are full of absurd non sequiturs or surprising turns of phrase. Equally important to sustaining the pleasure of viewing are the myriad printed names and phrases that Sullivan puts on labels. Their wit contributes to the fantastical nature of the film, rather than distracting from the characters and their interweaving storylines. Like the movie's title, they are also word play. 

Rarely is an artist so adept at both visual style and textual richness. Consuming Spirits is a rare film, deeply engaging and original. A refreshing change from the bright shiny 3D computer-animated movies that predominate at present.

David Schwartz, chief curator, Museum of the Moving Image
Phil Solomon's three-projector film installation American Falls was the moving image event of the year. Taking up the Museum of the Moving Image's entire 4,000-foot third-floor changing exhibition gallery, it was a fully immersive audiovisual experience, an epic masterpiece by one of cinema's great miniaturists. Phil Solomon's 55-minute film was at once enthralling, somber, delicate, and expansive, a tour through the cataclysms of recent American history and culture. Many of the images and sounds were familiar—Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, Busby Berkeley dance numbers, the Zapruder film-but they were beautifully manipulated and reprocessed through an astonishing blend of photochemical and digital means, a great film for the post-film age. Deeply ambivalent and deeply beautiful, the film was the perfect antidote to the inanity of the 2012 presidential election. 

Jonathan Rosenbaum, critic
This holiday season, part of my light reading has consisted of browsing through two new doorstop-size books, each over 600 pages long, Selected Letters of William Styron and The Richard Burton Diaries. The differences between them have been both telling and surprising, at least to me. Both men were heavy drinkers and literary pontificaters who spent much of their social lives hanging out with celebrities, but Styron—the more prestigious and respectable of the two, and admittedly the one I respected more before broaching these two volumes—proves to be an utter, sanctimonious bore, seemingly more interested in career management than in life, while Burton, forever the shameless hack actor, has both an interest in life and a wry sort of humor about it that sparkles on every page.

Admittedly, there's not necessarily much correlation between artistic talent and the way one communicates with one's self or with friends, acquaintances, and relatives. My own semi-admiration for Styron stems mainly from what I remember favorably about Set This House on Fire and Sophie's Choice—two of his less respectable efforts, according to this country's literary tastemakers, but possibly more because of their perceived subject matter than because of their dramatic achievements. The latter novel is supposed to stand or fall as a statement by a non-Jewish American about the Holocaust, but for me it's the best depiction of bipolar behavior I've encountered in fiction; and both books conceivably have more to impart about adolescent male horniness than about the various philosophical and ideological issues they tackle.

Sadly, few of these virtues crop up in Styron's stiff and dutiful correspondence. But compare the jazziness of Burton's grief on August 11, 1967, during preproduction on Boom!—considered as thought, as feeling, as writing, or even, for that matter, as a kind of cinema: 

"...A terrible day, frantically disorganized, thousands of bags all over the place, nine children, six adults all on one plane, Howard and Mara's incessant screaming, my and E's pre-film nerves, nine children, plane-fear, Gaston [...] has fallen in love again, dwarfly serious, with Patricia's mother (Patricia is Christopher's girl friend) nine children, the Kalizma hasn't arrived, nobody at the airport to meet us, nine children (Dick Hanley, Bob Wilson, John Lee cost us and Mike Todd roughly $1000 a week) and hot and a small room and a multi zillion dollar picture and I screamed ‘fuck' out of drunkenness in the hotel lobby, and pasta (not very good) and screaming and heavy stoned sarcasm, and a sloshed memory of fields and farms and towns of France and Italy, and the purple sea, and shame and booze and fear and nine children, and I want to be left alone, and Gaston saying that he has explained to Cecile that he can't marry her because she can't have children, August is the cruelest month, and E making any excuse—not difficult to do since they (the excuses) were handed to her on a platter-not to start the film on Monday, and J. Losey is an arrogant fool so far and thinks he's a genius and you can't be at his pock-marked age without showing it before, and a frightful day and I hope never to live through another which I will tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

"To scream ‘fuck' in the lobby was the only possible way to meet the justice of the day."

Thomas Doherty, professor of American Studies, Brandeis University
I am fortunate to live in a city that has repertory theaters where the programmers take the gig as a sacred calling. Last October, the folks at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, a sumptuously restored Art Deco venue in Brookline, Massachusetts,  booked Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master for a two-week run in 70mm, the director's format of choice. In an age of digital projection, 3-D goggles, and 48fps shooting, the opportunities to partake of the glories of vintage big screen celluloid are becoming rarer and rarer. I tell my iPod and Smartphone-fixated students to catch these occasions while they can, that this is a spectatorial experience whose days are numbered, but being of the time-and-place-shifting generation, most of them don't listen. The Master has many fabulous sequences, but the moment I can't shake shows Joaquin Phoenix, as a deeply disturbed and violent alcoholic, being dragged into a jail cell, battling his warders every inch of the way, a dervish of anger and anguish. Tossed behind bars, he vents his fury at the bunk, the wall, the porcelain toilet—and at the man in the next cell, his guru-Svengali, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The sequence unspools in an extended long take, as two of our greatest screen actors explode in rage and wail in pain. It is a mesmerizing mano a mano, projected in the crispest of images, with no FX or CGI, all the more poignant and powerful because you watch with the knowledge that this kind of moviegoing experience—the format, the theater, and the drama itself-is vanishing before our eyes.

Gabe Klinger, writer and curator
Can I pick two? Peter Kubelka's 35mm Monument Film and James Benning's digital Nightfall are hard to separate in my mind. Benning's prolific digital phase—he's completed nearly 20 works in the format in less than five years-has included an unconventional reshooting of Easy Rider, a structural essay on the activities of Voina and Pussy Riot, and this 98-minute dusk tableau in which we gradually immerse into the profoundest of black. In its measured, one-way contemplation of light into darkness, Nightfall offers a startling contrast to Kubelka's projector performance, in which black and white occur in fast succession and often in the blink of an eye. Testing the faraway contours of their respective mediums, Benning and Kubelka suggest light and dark/black and white as imperceptible progressions, opening up the poetic space in between to limitless potential. 


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