Nicholas Rombes’ Art Film Roundup


The 2010 Sundance Film Festival Shorts came through town for a one-night only showing, which I caught earlier this week at the grand old Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

The jury prize winner in international filmmaking, The Six Dollar Fifty Man (New Zealand, 15 minutes) was supposed to be poignant and funny and a little scary, and it was all of those, but not in a good way. Andy, an outcast 8-year old kid in 1970s New Zealand, learns to deal with playground bullies. There’s nothing worse in a film (I’m exaggerating; there are far worse things) than feeling like you’re being forced to identify with a specific character. Everything in The Six Dollar Fifty Man conspires to throw our sympathies on the side of little Andy with the funny-looking teeth. The heartfelt music at key moments, the cute girl who crushes on him because he’s different, the close-ups of his face as he’s thinking. At some point the scale tipped for me, and I began to take the side of the bullies.

Far more surprising and full of life was Young Love (Australia, 7 minutes), a completely unexpected film that features these events:

  1. A young man running, gripping his bleeding side, climbing over a series of farm-pen gates in the beautiful countryside
  2. This same young man collapsing in a pasture, as dozens of llamas who had been grazing come near him, in a surreal scene that, if you see it, will remain forever in your memory
  3. The arrival of the woman the young man had been running from, who stands over him and screams at him for a good two minutes, in Hungarian, with no subtitles
  4. The embracing and making up of the couple, although the poor guy seems to be bleeding to death

Also featured was the jury prize winner in short filmmaking, Drunk History: Douglass & Lincoln. I had never heard of the Drunk History films before, and after I saw the number of views on YouTube, I felt I had missed out on something Big. I laughed, I’m afraid, too loudly for the people sitting around me, stoically. I determined that these people were anti-humans, and were to be avoided.

Have you seen Black Swan yet? It’s like being chained in a room with 10 agitated Howler monkeys. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s too easy to dismiss a movie like Black Swan, because it strives so hard, but that striving is important, and mirrors the blind ambition of Nina (Natalie Portman), whose performance is a special case of willed hysterical-realism. The most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen is Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981), largely because of the performance of Isabelle Adjani. (In fact, I hid the VHS copy of the film in the back of my filing cabinet when our kids were small because I was sure it would mess them up if they saw it.) Natalie Portman’s presence reminds me of Adjani’s. She appears in almost every scene of Black Swan, and her performance is like a fevered expressionistic inferno. It’s true that Black Swan paints its picture in very broad strokes: the tormented artist; the cruel genius mentor; the oversheltering parent. And yet the movie is so free of irony, so overheated and sincere, that these familiar elements actually work to make the film all the more terrifying.

The best movie I saw in 2010 was Animal Kingdom.

Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker, was given a six-year jail sentence on December 20 and banned for making films for twenty years. He was accused of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” He has won, among other awards, the Venice Film Festival’s top prize, The Golden Lion. In a message from May 2010, while he was in the notorious Evin prison, he said that “I am innocent. I have not made any films against the Iranian regime. I will sign no confession that is forced by threats. . . . But let us not forget the thousands of defenseless prisoners here, who have no one to pass on the message of their distress. Like me, they have committed no crime, and my blood is no more important than theirs.”

I have seen a few of Pahahi’s films, and if you are new to him, I recommend Crimson Gold (2003), a dark and beautiful and tragic film and as great as anything you will ever see. The opening sequence is a riff on the classic long take closing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), with all the sad contrast between action and stillness. But Crimson Gold is its own movie, whose maker, now invisible to the world, languishes in prison.

Finally, I’ve got a Village Voice from August 1974, loaded with great movie ads. The Conversation at 6:00, followed by Serpico at 8:10. I’ll see you there. We’ll hold hands in the dark.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →