The value of the game of lists—if there is one—is that it affords one an opportunity to share one’s enthusiasms, to extol, to an imagined other, certain values one holds dear. Each of the films on my list is, by its very existence, a victory against the Cinema of Alienation and Distraction; each, in highly individual and idiosyncratic ways, led me further into myself and, as crucially, connected me more profoundly to this existence that enmeshes us.
I have already written in these pages on Peter Watkins’ insurgent masterwork La Commune, which continues to have commanding stature in my own creative ruminations about how to construct a more efficacious politically engaged cinema. While I could have just as easily cite any one of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films of the past decade, I selected Café Lumière (2003) because it hasn’t received quite as much attention, perhaps because it shares with its inspiration, Ozu, such extraordinary subtlety and understated formal elegance as to be almost evanescent. And like Ozu, Hou is not a director always foremost in my mind, until I am again seated before one of his films and find myself feeling, “Everything is here.”
More than 40 years after his first feature Eika Katappa (1969), Werner Schroeter remains as little shown or discussed in the West as ever (though thankfully the first few DVD releases are forthcoming). While Deux (2006) might at first blush seem a work of such insular preoccupations as to have no relevance to the exigencies of our time, its very extremity, its indistinguishable mixture of horror and tenderness, Eros and revulsion, humour and pathos, embodies for me something quintessential about the everyday “impossibleness” of existence.
An Injury to One (2002). How poetically just that a film about miners should itself be a work of excavation. Lest we ever forget the savage lengths corporate interests will pursue to dissuade working folk from uniting, Travis Wilkerson’s meditation on the 1917 murder of IWW organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana and the catastrophic, decades-long human and environmental exploitation of the region by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company serves as a touchstone of how to reinvigorate what militant cinema can look like.
Demons (2000) remains the only work I’ve been able to see by Filipino director (also former screenwriter and actor for Lino Brocka) Mario O’Hara, and the fever dream state I was in while viewing it—the unfortunate result of being at the Vancouver film festival in a state of utter exhaustion—seems in retrospect wholly in keeping with the febrile nature of the film itself. Noel Vera, another ardent admirer, describes it as “a coming of age film, a war atrocity drama, a supernatural horror film, a love story, and a celebration of Filipino poetry.” Whatever it is I saw, it left an indelible impression.
José Luis Torres Leiva’s The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain (2008) and Claire Denis’ Vendredi soir (2002) are both works that brought me to my senses: extraordinarily tactile, delicate, enlivening acts of cinematic expression, both tracing the fundamental yearning to find connection with another, both predominantly wordless though deeply engaged with sound and image, and both—simply through their capacity to reawaken us to sentient experience, to feeling human and less benumbed—as vital as any of the films on this list.
Mindful of the challenges of being a short in a feature-film world, I also want to give attention to three favoured poems. Fashioned with jeweler’s precision, Jay Rosenblatt’s Phantom Limb (2005) is a meditation on death and mourning that begins with a recounting of the passing of the filmmaker’s younger brother and leads to a broader reflection on how humans grapple with intimate loss. Michael Shamberg’s P.S. Beirut, Chapter One (2008)—the first stanza of an intended feature-length journey in search of Walter Benjamin’s missing briefcase—manages to be both elegiac and radiant, and incorporates images of a personal journey through Lebanon, an excerpt from a performance by New Order, and a voiceover by Emmanuelle Riva. Finally, Devin Horan’s Boundary (2009) is a brooding non-narrative mood piece shot in an indeterminate East European twilight that brings to mind the lyric intensity of Georg Trakl or Vladimír Holan. Having read a few of Horan’s as yet unrealized scenarios, I look forward to what the next decade brings for this young artist.
John Gianvito is a filmmaker, curator, and teacher based in Boston.