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An A-Z of what 2011 was like for me


Is for APSA or the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. For the last two years I have been on the APSA pre-selection Committee, a group with the task of reducing about a hundred or so feature film entries from several dozen countries down to around thirty. The pleasures were enormous, none more so than seeing some twenty Iranian entries, probably the largest part of the country’s production for the last year or so. Only a few got through to the next stage but that few included the remarkable Facing Mirrors (Neghar Azarbayjani) a film otherwise apparently unremarked upon anywhere else in the world. The lead performance by Shayesteh Irani as the young cross-dressing woman seeking an escape to Germany in order to begin a sex-change operation while being pursued by a father who wishes her to be married off to some unsuspecting young man. She is saved by a devout Muslim female taxi driver (no kidding, this is the narrative of a new Iranian movie!). Its one of the best and certainly one of the bravest films of the year. Unfortunately its international premiere was at the near universally despised and derided Montreal World Film Festival, a circumstance which has hopefully only slowed rather than stopped the appreciation of this major work.

Is also for Jacques Audiard. His last film A Prophet was in my sight the best French film I saw in its year. I started to think that, after five films we may well have a new Jean-Pierre Melville on our hands. Audiard is a hard-edged storyteller. His narratives are thrilling, brilliant inventions. This year, thanks to a Brit cinephile I managed to see Audiard’s first film Regardent les Hommes Tomber, a supersmart and sinewy crime story, containing more than enough twists and turns to keep the narrative throbbing. I’m more convinced than ever that he is indeed the Melville for our age. That debut movie finally had its public Australian premiere at this year’s Brisbane Film Festival as part of a selection curated by Charles Tesson of Cannes’ Critics’ Week. Quite a coup though given BIFF’s desultory crowds you have to wonder if anyone was there to appreciate it.


Is for Burning Man (Jonathan Teplitzky). Selected for an important slot at the Toronto Film Festival, slagged off unmercifully by one key critic (Dennis Harvey of Variety) and treated with disdain by many others, the film opened and closed here quickly, notwithstanding some heavyweight local critical support. I was taken to task for suggesting it was a standout contender for worst Australian film of the year. Not so. How, suggested one friend, could I have forgotten or ignored Gail Edwards’ A Heartbeat Away. True, too true. My apologies to Teplitzky. It wasn’t as bad as that.

Is also for Bordwell and the nonpareil blog at where under the rubric “Observations of Film Art” the most civilised and lively discussion of hundreds of cinephiliac concerns are enthusiastically brought together by the esteemed professor and his amanuensis the equally esteemed Kristin Thompson


Is for Censorship. The punishers and straighteners never give up and nowadays even find time to rejoice in their success. It would appear that they have at least two key allies in the Attorneys-General of both South Australia (Labor) and New South Wales (Liberal), both of whom have done their bidding at some time this year to refer films off for review with a view to having them banned. They also have allies on the Review Board, the Chair of which, a person of no known previous interest in the cinema, was appointed by the Rudd/Gillard and Swan governments, an outfit increasingly identified with short-sightedness, lack of vision, mediocrity, social punishing and straightening towards such people as Julian Assange and other internet providers, and a commitment to the most mindless forms of whatever it takes politics. This has ironically led the governing party to a position where it is held, including by its dwindling supporters, in the lowest esteem ever recorded by a major party. See also H for Human Centipede and for Laurence R Harvey, K for Keating and L for Lavarch


Is for Dr Ruth. There are some Dr Ruths in the world who freely give advice, frequently lecture, and preside over dysfunction and muddling. Then there is the lady on American television and in newspapers who offers solace to the lovelorn and others. Both are called upon to pontificate and exercise judgement but they are hard to take seriously. Australia’s Dr Ruth, a New Zealander transplanted into Australian Film Culture (AFC), runs an organisation whose several hundred personnel should be daily encouraged in the idea of creating cultural and critical landmarks. Doesn’t seem to be happening. After bringing longstanding cultural institutions like Senses of Cinema to their knees NZ Dr Ruth and her team have established some wondrous new rules by which quality Australian cinema is judged. Most notable is the “Six out of Six” ‘rule’ whereby often minor and forgettable films selected for certain film events now apparently constitute an empirical measurement of the organisation’s high achievement and the aforementioned quality. See also S for Six out of Six


Is for Equation. Put relatively simply. (And thanks to the estimable Inside Film and its charting of Australian films at the Box Office.) This year, at time of writing and before Happy Feet2 and a couple of others round it out, at least 31 feature length films (docos and dramas) were released in cinemas. The combined budgets were more than $160 million. The box office, also at time of writing was $39 million+. Red Dog accounted for over $21 million of that.


Is for Finney. Old mate Alan Finney has taken on the daunting task of reviving the AFI and its Awards by turning the organisation into an Academy of film-making peers. Good luck to all who have put in the hard yards to get it this far.


Is for Guilty Pleasures. In 2011 the sci-fi/ET spoof Paul, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hunt in Moneyball and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes suitably qualified.


Is for History. Specifically David Stratton’s film history class at Sydney University which in 2011 screened feature films made between 1937 and 1939, inter alia, to a very supportive class including the previously unseen by moi Midnight (Mitchell Leisen), The Stars look Down (Carol Reed) and The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey). Not sure how I missed them all that time but there you are. Now, in further pursuit of treasure, onto a full scale visit in 2012 to Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato.

Is also for The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) and its star the amazing Laurence R Harvey. For much excited chatter about this go to the Monster Films page on Facebook. See also C for Censorship, L for Lavarch et al


Is for Iranian movies. In 2011 just about every major event where it was shown gave a prize to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. From Berlin in January through to APSA in November, the film simply beat off all contenders to win major prizes everywhere. If politics don’t intervene it may well win Iran’s first foreign-language Oscar. For the record some other remarkable Iranian films, almost all seen on screeners sent to APSA, were Absolutely Tame is a Horse (Abdolreza Kahani), A Cube of Sugar (Reza Mirkarimi), Daughter…Father …Daughter (Panabkhoda Rezaei), The End of 8th Street (Alireza Amini), Final Whistle (Niki Karimi), One Two One (Mania Akbari) and Three and a Half (Naghi Nemati). When you add these to such films made in 2010 and 2011 as Rasoulof’s Goodbye and the Jafer Panahi inspired documentary This is not a Film you might be forced to make a judgement that the Iranian cinema, battling against so many pressures indeed oppressions may well have outshone all the nations of the world for quality over the last twelve months. See also A for APSA.


Is for Killer Elite. Film Victoria’s $66 million folly was yanked from exhibition here after flopping in theatres in North America. It features marvellous Melbourne standing in for Paris, New York, Oman, London, the English countryside. What brilliance was shown so that the world might be deceived into thinking that the film-makers had endlessly jetted off to exotic locations for their tale of derring do amongt the spy fraternity and its cohorts. Featuring the round-headed and stubbled all over, except on the bald spots, Jason Statham and such other luminaries and Academy members as Robert De Niro and Clive Owen (plus assorted Oz old timers out there just earning a quid). If the Australian distributor had not suppressed it from public theatrical view the Equation (See E) would have looked vastly different.

Is also for Keating, the PM who appointed Michael Lavarch. See L


Is for Lavarch. Long forgotten, this one time political dullard somehow managed to be made Attorney-General by Paul Keating back in the 90s and while ensconced got himself ensnared by the forces of darkness both inside and outside the bureaucracy to such an extent as to rewrite the film censorship laws in such a way as to give the ratbags of the right the continuing opportunity, to this day, to create mayhem. Lavarch also managed to get the film festivals to agree without demur or protest to give up their right to screen films without any interference from the Office of Film and Literature Classification.


Is for McDonald. Irony piles upon irony for it is John Howard’s best friend Donald McDonald to whom we now look as a bulwark against the forces of censorship darkness. Appointed by Howard, McDonald has throughout his esteemed public life acted with more than a little bravery in taking positions unpopular with his peers and with those who put him there in the first place. Some of us didn’t like him when he attended Howard’s campaign meetings while Chair of the ABC but that too was brave and the bravery has been further reinforced when he found a way to unban Pasolini’s Salo and to preside over decisions to allow other contentious films to be released. The punishers and straighteners appointed by Labor Governments to overturn McDonald’s and others’ liberalism remain the real blight on open discourse.

N and O

Is for the National Film and Sound Archive and is for Ken Berryman’s esteemed Oral History Program which has allowed me the privilege to interview for the record a number of the luminaries of Australian film including Ross Tzannes, Peter Thompson, Rod Bishop, Philip Adams, David Stratton, Sue Murray and Meg Clancy. Most pleasurable.


Is for Prizes. Many of them throughout the year but who could go past the prize of “Film festival of the year” awarded by IF Magazine to the upstart, always belligerent, ever newsworthy Dungog Film Festival. And next year Dungog’s founders have funding to move into the big smoke with a summer festival of new Australian and international films on Cockatoo Island right in Sydney Harbour.


Is for Queensland and a state government doggedly and generously supporting the APSA Awards and Des, Max and the team.


Is for Ripping. Cinephiles the world over are now able to access ever more movies, ever more gems, ever more classics. This is not because of the largesse or goodness of producers and distributors but because the new technology by which devices like the Norazza machine and online facilities like Torrent create whole new worlds of available film history and leave things like copyright law and intellectual property struggling in the wake of the old paradigms of control, circulation, distribution and exhibition.

Is also for Red Dog. The $21m+ grossing little Aussie movie which took us back to an earlier time in the Kimberley when the Aboriginal population was invisible and desperate but happy white blokes lived out dreams of camaraderie and hoped for wealth. ‘Pernicious’ said Tom Ryan of the Sunday Age though most others thought it was just a charming little movie and told all their friends to go see it. Apparently among the investors was Hamersley Iron so clearly we must assume those big bad mining companies who don’t like paying tax but which are carrying the country on their shoulders thought it was just the ticket. They no doubt will enjoy the 40% tax rebate on their investment as well. No reports are yet to hand as to whether other citizens in other jurisdictions have taken to its charms.


Is for Six out of Six. Not many people knew that Australian films have featured in all ‘six premiere international film festivals’. The six are however as defined by Screen Australia’s spinmeisters and thus you should be warned that such a definition might be a tad self-interested. The organisers of more than a few festivals not listed in the six might even feel a bit miffed at being left off. But lets face it the fact is that few of those events are simply good enough to have premiere screenings of new Australian films anyway. For the record according to Arts Minister Simon Crean, “this year Australian films had strong representation at Toronto, Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Venice International Film Festivals. The selection for these festivals is extremely competitive. The Busan International Film Festival, held in Korea, is also a leading competitive Asian festival which has risen to prominence in the last 10 years providing a gateway to the region.” Thanks Simon. Now we know and next year if we don’t get films in those six and anyone has any memory of this year’s spindoctorship some may judge that our standards are slipping. Then again we should expect the spin doctors will manage to find some wriggle room in their definitions as they always do if faced with the prospect of admitting failure. Maybe we’ll get our films in more major festivals and eventually get to ten out of ten.


Is for Top Ten. One local writer upbraided Sight & Sound for not including anything by Spielberg and other box office champions but frankly who cares about worrying about box office champs. Top Tens are about precious moments when you feel that you were part of something very special, something reserved for the privileged few. If you want to put in your equivalent of Moneyball or Paul, the two best ‘commercial’ movies I saw, then do so but really they are guilty pleasures. The art of the cinema and of cinephilia is about Hirokazu Kore-eda and Abdellatif Khechiche and Bela Tarr and Na Hong-Jin and Abbas Kiarostami and all the others. It can of course be confusing to make any such lists. A Sydney Morning Herald advertising supplement recently told us who were the ten best directors in the world and then in the same article told us they were not the ten greatest living film-makers. Or something…But who’s worried. My ten greatest and most privileging moments sitting in a theatre in 2011 were watching, as follows in no particular order. Certified Copy, The Turin Horse, The Whistleblower, Venus Noire, Majority, I Wish, Toomelah, Le Havre, Play and The Yellow Sea. As at this point I have not yet seen Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, two films on many other lists. Otherwise, I know, it’s the list of an old fuddy duddy who likes a good story and some exhilarating moment of humanity revealed for the most part. Don’t bother writing to tell me.

Is also for television. The three most enjoyable experiences, just as ‘good’ as all those listed above were watching the Eagle, The Killing and the first season of Treme all on DVD in great chunks of time, racing through episode after episode.

Is also for Johnnie To the one man powerhouse of Hong Kong film-making whose Life Without Principle was probably the major film of the year to go out under the radar. See U.


Is for Under the Radar. Each year there are dozens of films that get out into the cinematic ether and attract crowds of various kinds. Many of them are in film festivals, events which are not reviewed though occasionally they are previewed when the publicists get the reviewers or simply some journalists on side. Some of the films, especially those in the Italian and French Film Festivals take a poultice of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars if we are to believe the box-office charts. But as well there are the Indian, Chinese and Korean films especially which are programmed in the major multiplexes but do not attract media attention. Critics do not as a rule go and see films in cinemas after they open. If they do it’s generally not for review purposes. That moment has passed. A late-breaking case in point is Tsui Hark’s 3D extravaganza Flying Swords of Dragon Gate which in Sydney at least just opened without a solitary mention anywhere in the mainstream media beyond the directory ads.


Is for Vancouver and VIFF. A brightly burning cinematic jewel. A model of its kind for film festivals intended to serve the community by bringing the very best to the people with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of effort. VIFF’s Dragons and Tigers selection remains perhaps the most unique western assemblage of new work from the Far East, a permanent gateway for quality cinema by young and exciting film-makers. And a place for some of the most enjoyable days and nights of prolonged cinephilia.

Is also for Vale. As the cinema grows older so do key participants. Losses this year included Vittorio De Seta, Diane Cilento, Peter Crayford, Googie Withers, Harold Hopkins, Bill Hunter, Bob Gould, Marie-France Pisier, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Russell, Annie Girardot, Richard Leacock, Sidney Lumet, Hideko Takamine, Peter Yates and many, many more.


Is for Wenders. A Melba-like career. Just how many comebacks can the great man make. This time he brings the work of Pina Bausch out of obscurity into 3D pleasure. It has to be said though that a recent subsequent viewing of Tati’s Playtime makes you wonder just how original and expressive the Bausch performances of dance and movement really is/was.


Is for John Hewitt’s movie of the same title. The only thing I could think of. The fact that it’s set no more than a mile or so from my own abode makes me think I mustn’t get out enough.


Yellow Sea, The (Na Hong-jin, South Korea, 2011) See also M for Jean-Pierre Melville and A for Jacques Audiard. I cant claim that what for the most part I write is critical commentary but I did furnish 500 words or so on this movie for Andrew Urban’s which included: “Think superior story-telling. Think of a sinewy narrative in which criminals of high and low character and their various criminal enterprises smash against each other. Think of a tale told about an increasingly proficient little guy with debts, facing betrayal at every turn of his life.

The Yellow Sea is the second film by Na Hong-Jin, following his highly regarded neo-Hitchcockian The Chaser (2009). There’s a grand leap in prowess here, such as might suggest after only two films that we have a South Korean claimant, a long term contender at least, to the mantle of Jean-Pierre Melville, the cinema’s supreme story teller. ….The Yellow Sea is probably the year’s best crime drama and one that might be confirmation of a new master of the genre, spinning tough as teak tales, ready to emerge.”


Is for zzzzzz. The occasional snooze. Difficult to fight especially after lunch.

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