The Best Films of 2011

Cover 2011

So, that was 2011, huh?

As if turning thirty, getting engaged, and moving into a new place wasn’t enough, I also – on the off-chance anyone reading this site doesn’t know – got a TV show up and running on ABC2. It was called The Bazura Project and it was about movies. (And if you’re in Australia, all six episodes are being repeated from tonight until the 30th! 9pm on ABC2.)

It was a joy to make, but it was damn hard work, and it resulted in my biggest irony of the year: if you spend six months making a TV show about films, you have time to watch neither TV or films. Crazy, right? Somehow – in-between the intense shooting schedule, the intense post-production schedule, and the subsequent catching-up-on-life stuff – I did actually manage to see most of 2011’s films, even if I did have to forego my annual Melbourne International Film Festival marathon. (Last year I saw 65 films at MIFF alone, many of which have not been, and may never be, released. How many obscure gems was I forced to miss this year? I’ll never know.)

Funnily enough, the best things I saw on a cinema screen this year were not actually movies. They came from the NT Live*, the ongoing series of National Theatre plays filmed in the UK and beamed to cinemas around the world. I was floored by the minimalist “King Lear” with Derek Jacobi, delighted by the should-have-been-seventy-times-as-long “Fela!”, and blown away by the best interpretation of “Hamlet” I’ve ever seen (Rory Kinnear reinventing the role in a way I thought was impossible). But the best productions were Danny Boyle’s astonishing “Frankenstein” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, and – my favourite thing of 2011 – “One Man Two Guvnors”, adapted from “A Servant of Two Masters”. Nothing I saw all year was as consistently entertaining, hilarious and addictive as Nicholas Hytner’s play. I saw it twice, and I’m praying I’ll be able to see it again.

But enough of that. Why so many entries? Yeah, about that… Continue reading

Those Who Junk History…

A couple of weeks ago, something incredibly rare and rather extraordinary happened: the BBC announced that two full episodes of 1960s Doctor Who had been recovered. One was “Air Lock”, the third episode in the four-part story “Galaxy 4”, with William Hartnell as the Doctor. The other was the second episode of “The Underwater Menace”, this time with Patrick Troughton in the lead.

This wasn’t just significant news for Doctor Who geeks (although, as a card-carrying one, I have to say it certainly was that), but also big news for cinephiles and movie lovers who may not care one iota about a black and white 60s UK series. Here’s why.

In the 1970s, the BBC began deleting their old TV shows. Tape was expensive, and back then it was practically and financially ridiculous to even consider repeating these old shows, so the likes of Dad’s Army, Z Cars, Steptoe and Son, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also…, and Doctor Who began disappearing from the archives.

When it was realised by the fledgling fan community – made up of people who had only just realised, in pre-internet times, that there were others out there just like them and they could probably form a community of some sort – that these episodes were being wiped, an outcry began. The BBC’s policy changed overnight. They went from junking episodes to recovering them, and, with no small sense of irony, the search for the missing episodes begun.

It’s easy to scoff at the short-sightedness of the BBC, but back then television was not the eternal, well-preserved artform much of it is now. There was no home video, and repeat viewings were exceptionally rare. It was radio with pictures, ephemeral and soon forgotten, and the idea that they would one day be treasured, fifty years on, would not have crossed a single person’s mind.

So, with the benefit of that cautionary tale, with hindsight clear and present, why are we being so short-sighted now?

The big film studios have recently announced that they will soon stop renting archival 35mm prints of their old films to theatres, because the costs of storage and transport have become too hefty, and the number of vintage theatres too scarce. The old film prints, so goes the plan, are going to be junked, and replaced with a 4K digital scan.

On one level, I totally get this. Why have expensive physical copies of films when you could have a single hard drive with multiple hi-def movies stored with greater efficiency? When the rental is – or will one day be – the simple click of a button, rather than a pricey courier? Why continue pouring all these resources into films most people don’t really want to watch?

The answer – or answers, for there are many – should be obvious. We’re talking about our cultural heritage here. This is the modern artform. The actual, physical film that these movies exist on are not simply bulky storage methods, but an intrinsic part of the work. Digital prints are useful, but they don’t have the soul of the film print. And if you think I’m being needlessly sentimental here, ask yourself if you’d destroy the paintings of da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Pissarro, because someone took a photograph of them. The celluloid is the canvas.

But even if keeping exclusively digital copies was a good idea, we’re not there yet. The technology is great, but it doesn’t yet have the depth that film provides. If, as has been suggested, the replacement backups are in 4K, what will we think in a few years when 4K is superseded? The technology keeps getting better, and as crazy as it is to pointlessly draw a line in the sand, this is not the place to do it.

Melbourne’s Astor Theatre has been fighting the good fight for a while. Although it’s adapted to include 4K digital, it still regularly plays 35mm prints, as well as 70mm prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, and others. The theatre has its own distribution arm, Chapel Distribution, co-directed by Astor proprietor George Florence and Potential Films director Mark Spratt, who have worked to acquire as many prints as possible. The Astor even goes so far as to offer free storage of film prints to other, storage-challenged distributors to discourage them being junked. Many older films are kept in regular rotation on the calendar to keep the prints alive. The Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse double, for instance, plays every few months to ensure those prints remain in circulation. From 2014, the Astor is going to be one of the last few places in the country still projecting film.

Hasn’t the BBC’s immediate about-face on the junking of old programs taught us anything? Can’t we weigh up the importance of having these works against the mild inconvenience of storing them and arrive at the conclusion reached by the village idiot ahead of the film executive?

There’s a cinema in Los Angeles called the New Beverley, which is basically the spiritual sister of the Astor. It also plays classic doubles in 35mm, and is committed to film preservation. It has started an online petition to save film prints, and I urge you to take two seconds out of your day to sign it. You may not see the value in it at right this moment, but we’ve lost enough over the past century to recognise what we’ll one day wish, with clarity of hindsight, we’d saved.

A Tale of Two Presidents

Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel

It’s easy to find the comparative “vs” style of debate reductive. Star Wars vs Star Trek. Deep Impact vs Armageddon. Hanukkah vs Christmas. The combative juxtaposition of things that have little more than a common word or date or cosmetic similarity can seem like a glib form of pointless measurement, but, if you do it properly, it can help identify the successes and failures in a way that solitary analysis may not.

So, the last couple of days, I’ve been comparing Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel, simply because they happen to die within about twenty-four hours of one another. A few extra days’ grace between the events, and nobody would ever have even considered mentioning these two in the same breath.

And yet they couldn’t be more similar in terms of having absolutely nothing in common. It’s almost like we’ve been living in some sort of elaborate HBO series called “Leaders”, in which the lives of two heads of state are shown in tandem, until the last episode of the final season when, dripping with subtextual meaning, THEY DIE ON THE SAME DAY. Then we are left to ponder: who is the real world leader? (That question doesn’t make any sense, but it’s the sort of thing that would look great on a pitch document.)

Vaclav Havel was born in Prague just before World War Two, and grew up in a country occupied by Germany. Kim Jong Il was born in Korea during World War Two, and grew up in a country occupied by Japan.

Havel was a highly successful playwright, whose works were banned due to his opposition of the communist state and its oppression. Kim Jong Il liked movies, despite banning most of them in his country, and would kidnap filmmakers from South Korea to make them for him.

Despite his desire to stay away from political office, Havel was elected as President of the newly-formed Czech Republic after its split with Slovakia. With a brazen desire for power, Kim Jong Il was appointed President of North Korea, itself split from South Korea.

Havel, who was extremely popular amongst his people, was elected for a second term, and choose to leave at its conclusion. Kim Jong Il’s state-enforced popularity in a country without elections saw him cling to power until the moment of his death.

Vaclav Havel was the subject of the extraordinary three hour documentary Citizen Havel, which traced his Presidency from its first days through to its last, spanning the ten years he was in office. Kim Jong Il was the subject of the marionette puppet action film Team America, in which he was portrayed as a bumbling villain.

Vaclav Havel’s death was sedately reported by a few outlets. Kim Jong Il’s death dominated the news for days.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that Kim Jong Il’s death is such a big deal. North Korea is one of the big question marks on the planet, and any disruption to that power structure given the ever-present possibility of war is going to be something we need to pay close attention to.

But at the same time, it’s a shame that we’re spending so much energy on the legacy of a man who did his best to promote and foster oppression, while spending so little on a man who spent his life successfully fighting it.

Superficial comparisons may be good for giggles, but they highlight just how much power can corrupt, and extraordinary it can be when it doesn’t.

The Bolt Retort

Ever since The Bazura Project‘s 2011 incarnation came to an end, Shannon and I have been working on our own super-secret, super-exciting projects behind government-mandated closed doors. Okay, I’m lying, we’ve just been playing online Scrabble against each other. But occasionally, something productive accidentally emerges.

The first of these accidental emergences to properly come to fruition is The Bolt Retort, a show created by Shannon in response to Channel Ten’s The Bolt Report. Never heard of it? Channel Ten, presumably in response to the notoriety of America’s Fox News, decided to go down the rabbit hole of “conservative commentary”, hiring firebrand columnist Andrew Bolt to espouse his right-wing politics at a desk every Sunday morning. The show was a terrific cure for hangover recovery and breakfast digestion.

The Bolt Retort is the response. You’ll see my name at the end, but I merely gave notes through the script drafting process. Shannon’s the one who was brave enough to actually wade through hours of Bolt Report to find the clips and arguments necessary for a televisual rejoinder.

All three episodes of 2011’s The Bolt Retort, which originally aired on Melbourne’s C31, can now be enjoyed online. At a mere five minutes in length, you’d be mad not to. Enjoy!

Finally! Another website!

What does it say about you when you start a website that has your name in the URL? That you’re desperately trying to brand yourself as some sort of online destination? That you beat a squatter to the punch? That this is the first step of an ego trip that will end in the colonisation of Pandora?

In my case, it’s all about consolidation. I’ve been spreading myself across the internet like some sort of cinema-themed bacteria, and I have trouble remembering where I put everything, so this is Ground Zero for Things I Do. No need for me to trawl through bookmarks or Google things I might have written in order to find a piece of work; it’ll all be here.

It’s also going to serve as an outlet for the things I write that sensible editors don’t want to publish. A “web log” of sorts. A “wlog”.

So, welcome to my new website. It’s mostly for me, but you guys can totally use it too.