1. When Geoff Gardner reminded me that it was time for this year’s traditional Film Alert “Things That Defended Cinephilia” column, I had just heard the sad news of Sylvia Lawson’s death. Remembering her put me in a cautious state, for if there was one thing that unfailingly set off Sylvia’s alarm bell, it was precisely the uncritical celebration of cinephilia or ‘movie love’ – a love-fest that amounted, in her eyes, to something insular, self-satisfied, too little engaged with urgent, social realities. Sylvia did not spare me, after hearing my talk at the Film and History conference of 2006 in Melbourne, her withering critique: “You’re wasting your time on this cinephilia stuff, Adrian, when there are so many more important things to explore and discuss!”
By the same token, Sylvia was herself a fervent cinephile! And she was ever ready to completely flip her polemic about movie-obsession – depending on whom she was talking to, and where. (Acute sensitivity to the socio-political make-up of audiences and venues – a trait she shared with her friend, John Flaus – was the topic and substance of one of her finest essays, “Pieces of a Cultural Geography”, in a 1987 issue of The Age Monthly Review.) I have often quoted her pithy, fighting words from a early 1990s Modern Times review of Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, this time addressed to righteous, lefty types who didn’t (in her view) care enough about film form: "It simply isn't possible to talk sensibly about a film anywhere without discussing the sounds and images it's made of”. That was Sylvia, bless her soul: telling the cinephiles they didn’t know enough about reality, and then telling the sociological politicos they didn’t know enough about cinema.
Sylvia was no film snob. She appreciated the difficult, experimental side of Chris Marker or Jean-Luc Godard, but she also knew how to value the entertainment punch of Woody Allen. She treasured every kind of small, marginal, against-all-odds triumph in independent, indigenous or political cinemas; but she also appreciated the no-expense-spared thrill of a good, clever, well-achieved, mainstream flick. That’s what made her a great film critic, off and on, from the early 1960s to just recently.
So I am devising this list while wondering, at every point: what would Sylvia make of it? What would she make of what I consider the sublime ‘political entertainments’ of 2017: Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit? They are two very different cases: Bonello treats the hot-button topic of terrorism in a perfectly formed genre piece, citing as his inspiration films like the original The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974); while Bigelow consolidates her knight’s-move away from genre and into a kind of realist reportage, merging detailed research with a you-are-there, immersive naturalism. Yet the two films join at the point where a strong dose of cinematic thrill serves to deliver a powerful message or (to say it better) form an unforgettable kind of gesture. The type of cultural gesture Sylvia might have appreciated – or at least felt compelled to take issue with.
2. There’s no secret about the key cinephilic event of 2017: it was David Lynch & Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return, all 18 episodes of it, hands down. Lynch pulled off something extraordinary here: while remaining 100% true to his own, inner ‘universe’ as a poetic artist, he also managed to completely redefine and redirect the medium of serial, long-form, television fiction. But only time will tell how many are brave enough to follow his example, according to their own visions. And it’s not as if he is entirely alone, out there in TV land: out of all the fine things one could catch on the small screen in 2017, I cite only the incredible turn into drama engineered by Rachel Bloom & Aline Brosh McKenna in episode 5, season 3 of the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: a twist which took me back as a viewer, literally 40 years, to the gaping, feminist despair of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. (By the way, that special Crazy Ex episode was directed by an Aussie VCA graduate, Stuart McDonald.)
3. “Part IV: Cinephilia Revisited” in Barrett Hodsdon’s long-awaited book The Elusive Auteur: The Question of Film Authorship Throughout the Age of Cinema (McFarland) has a particularly wonderful section: “Recapturing the Sublime Moment: A Spectrum of Films”. Hodsdon’s argument is passionate (moreover, I agree with it): what cinephiles value as sublime, rapturous, ephiphanic moments in cinema are not accidental, excessive, or purely the creation of our viewer-subjectivities: they are structured, formed, layered and co-ordinated by great filmmakers. A spectrum that ranges from Morocco and The Awful Truth to Il Grido and Contempt: Hodsdon’s cinephile canon is a truly congenial one.
4. I didn’t get to many film festivals this year, but I did manage to get to launch-stage with two projects I have been dragging around for over 20 years: a bunch of ‘collected essays 1982-2016’ that will appear next year from Amsterdam University Press as Mysteries of Cinema (the title is a Ruiz homage, naturally); and my ongoing, online archive of film reviews and short essays, Film Critic: Adrian Martin (www.filmcritic.com.au) – which you, too, can support, for $1 a month or more, so much more, at www.patreon.com/adrianmartin. Make this Internet democracy thing work, people! My future as a freelance cinephile depends on it.
5. Apart from the titles already mentioned, here’s what I most liked seeing and hearing in 2017: Marco Bellocchio’s hallucinatory melodrama Sweet Dreams; Walter Hill’s superb The Assignment, which was buried even faster by the Court of Public Opinion than Nocturama; the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl, a return to form after the disappointing Two Days, One Night; Matias Piñeiro’s delightful Hermia & Helena; Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brilliantly crafted Creepy (Cristina Álvarez López and I made an audiovisual essay about it here at mubi.)
Best Australian Films: Alena Lodkina’s debut feature, Strange Colours; Bill Mousoulis’ Songs of Revolution.
Most Overrrated: Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Lamest: Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled.
Two Best Films of 2017 I Haven’t Yet Seen: Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day, and Joseph Kahn’s Bodied. Best Film of 2018 That Hasn’t Even Been Finished: Brian De Palma’s Domino.
© Adrian Martin, November 2017