FILMMAKER YEAR IN REVIEW: BRANDON HARRIS
Here, Filmmaker contributor Brandon Harris issues his thoughts on 2008 in film.
Nothing was ordinary in 2008. As many have noted, a riveting, historic, perhaps transformational election and economic turmoil unlike any seen in several generations seemed to dwarf what was going on within the films we were watching or within the ever evolving business of making and distributing them. Yet, unlike years’ past, I was drawn to films that didn’t so much speak to the inescapable dread and great hope of the historical moment, but films that spoke to more elemental questions – what are the costs of ambition, insecurity and failure in a world of empty signifiers (Reprise, Synecdoche, New York) and how do we find some existential solace in family or community (Synecdoche, New York, A Christmas Tale, Silent Light, Rachel Getting Married, Snow Angels, Frownland, The Flight of the Red Balloon, Reprise). All these films in some way grapple with these very difficult questions, ones that kick my ass everyday.
I never keep count, but I certainly saw several hundred new films this year and wrote about many if not most of them in some form or another. Many of these where among the six hundred features released theatrically in New York, perhaps even more were screened exclusively at film festivals or one off screenings here and there. The more films I watch each year, the more arbitrary distilling those cinematic interactions into a meaningful series of “best of” lists seems. Twice in the past month, first when voting as a member of the National Board of Review and later in indieWIRE’s critics poll, I’ve been asked to vote on my favorite films, directors, writers and performances; I can’t help but reconsider my picks each time, swapping films in and out at the last minute (Gran Torino out, Che in, Che out, Mr. Lonely in, Mr. Lonely out, Reprise in…) until I feel utterly helpless. I’m exhausted by the prospect of listing all the titles which struck me this year that I couldn’t find room for on any given list of “bests”.
If 2008 confirmed anything for me as someone interested not just in the aesthetics of films (sometimes, in my most scarily utopian moments, I wish this were all their was to talk about), it is that the old models for financing and distributing independent films are in dire need of reevaluation. Far too many films get made that shouldn’t, far too many films that should be seen more widely are not, far too many independent film business plans are utter fantasies, far too much money is spent publicizing (and duplicating) films in traditional forms that aren’t providing the same value they used to, most distributors are completely clueless about how to market sophisticated films whose natural audiences, despite their formal adventurousness (think Ballast, a film I’m having trouble finding a single fellow detractor for), is niche or marginalized audiences who will never see or hear of the film.
Its becoming clearer and clearer that most people making films with their investors hard earned dollars should start distributing and promoting the films of more gifted filmmakers and building communities everywhere (not just Manhattan and a small sliver of Brooklyn) in which sophisticated film appreciation is a given, not an oddity, instead of indulging their own narcissistic impulses to make their own pictures in order to build a truly sustainable (and diverse) film culture. Of course this comes from an author who, in the bowels of a beat up Brooklyn townhouse on this very day is composing another feature film script he hopes to put before cameras in the new year, so take that last bit with a grain of salt. I suppose this will always be a business for wild dreamers and unflappable craftswomen, visionaries and lunatics, genuinely gifted screen presences and mere shadows, but mostly of dedicated professionals, plying one craft or another, just trying to get by.
2008 also reaffirmed time and time again, that filmmakers working with very little, on the DIY margins, can and do make transcendent works, relying mostly on their own ingenuity and fortitude, in ways that have not perished since the disappearance of the New American Cinema or the rise of Indiewood. This has been an all too valuable lesson and one I hope more filmmakers, especially those with nothing but a camera and an idea, will stay conscious of when considering the quite daunting but never less than alluring task of making something that aspires to be art and yet will be judged largely by its deftness in the marketplace. That is, in the unlikely event that it makes it far enough to be part of anything we could honestly deem a “marketplace”.