1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)

1. Happy New Year! It’s 2020 and we’re kicking things off with a bang: the latest edition of Film Comment features not one but two special sections dedicated to end-ofs, putting both the year and the decade in review. Featuring all the lists, essays, and opinions you need to carve out a canon of your own, keep an eye out for reflections from Dennis Lim, Amy Taubin, Devika Girish, and R. Emmet Sweeney. Though we’ve already published our top 20 films of 2019 (as well as those that, at the time, still lacked distribution), we’ll be publishing our top 50 of the decade soon, as voted on by our panel of critics, programmers, academics, and experts. To have your say on the year that was, vote in our annual reader’s poll here, coming soon. (The issue also features Nick Pinkerton on Golden Globes-winner 1917, online soon. For now, don’t miss Jonathan Romney’s take on the WWI epic.)

2. Also featured in our January-February issue is Jordan Cronk’s extensive interview with Pedro Costa, where the two discuss the intensely personal nature of Costa’s post-Ossos filmmaking. For another great Cronk interview, check out his recent addition to MUBI Notebook, where he and former Cahiers critic Luc Moullet discuss just about everything that happened after the nouvelle vague (and how it feels to see that cohort slowly fade away). One completely random but hilarious anecdote on the making of Anatomy of a Relationship: “I had a little more money for that film, which came from a bank transfer that accidentally deposited money into my account . . . Around 1975, there were many computer problems among the bank institutions, and a lot of films were made possible thanks to computer errors!”

3. One print-only spoiler we’ll give away here: Amy Taubin’s best film of 2019 was the story of a Macedonian beekeeper, Honeyland, by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. Earlier this year, the documentarian duo sat down with Filmmaker’s Daniel Eagan to discuss the ethics of observation: “it’s a choice: to be a filmmaker or a human. In our case we always felt like guests in their lifestyle. When you enter somebody’s home, you don’t tell them how to behave, you don’t shout at them. We are just observers.” And something more recent from Filmmaker: Mike S. Ryan on how the indie industry fared through the 2010s. “Indie seems to have morphed into a minor-league farm system for the streaming services, whose feature-film content looks more like TV movies of the week while their TV shows strive to be more cinematic.”

4. A few more writers celebrating the year and decade in interesting ways: Adam Nayman over at The Ringer picks his best images (including one of High Life’s most “formally ingenious” frames) as well as his top 25 foreign films; over at MUBI Notebook, a number of contributors (including FC regulars Ela Bittencourt and Adrian Curry) have chosen their ideal double feature, pairing one 2019 film with a past favorite; and lastly, the BOMB contributors have each conjured up their own thoughts on the decade, including this from Amy Jenkins: “In this decade audience has evolved to become penetrable, inherently reachable, and roles have merged so that every viewer has also become a maker. With so many virtual tools, apps, platforms, and evermore content to create and consume, the agony is in the choosing.”

5. One more noteworthy piece from Adam Nayman, this time coming from the new issue of Cinema Scope: the Safdie brothers sat down to discuss the decade-long making of Uncut Gems, including the total rewrites that came with casting each potential NBA player: “It started with Amar’e Stoudemire when he was on the Knicks in 2010 and that run he had, where had these stretches where he was just, like, possessed, which was important to the story . . . You have to understand the nuances of each guy. What’s his relationship to money? What’s his relationship to capitalism? What’s his relationship to superstition? So each time there was another player potentially involved in the project, it affected the plot of the movie.” And keep your eyes on this site for more Safdie brothers, coming to a podcast near you.

6. And while we’re covering great longform interviews: a little New York-based rag just published this conversation with Martin Scorsese, meditating on death and The Irishman. In it, Marty quotes Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” with regard to a fate worse than death: “They wind up wounded, not even dead.” If that sounds a little familiar (coming from Scorsese, that is), you may be remembering Nick Pinkerton’s excellent interview from 2017, where the director reflects on Silence and his obsession with exile via the Born to Run closer: “Ostracized seems worse than [killed] . . . That’s related to the end of Mean Streets. They’re not dead, but they can never go back.” (And as Pinkerton rightly points out, related also to The Wolf of Wall Street, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino—“Everybody winds up in Florida, or in the land of Nod.”)

7. Jonathan Kahana, Professor of Film & Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz, passed away recently. Kahana previously taught at NYU and had an enormous impact on the study of non-fiction films. His breakthrough book, Intelligence Work, is considered a key work in the field—Dana Polan writing in her obituary: “with a sharp understanding of the political economy behind the documentary industry, Jonathan basically revolutionized the study of this important area of cinema.” A great example of Kahana’s incisive work is available via The Brooklyn Rail (on the films of Kagawa Productions), and Film Quarterly recently posted this essay in his honor—“Can Documentary Make Space?”—which looks at the documentary form as a kind of party.

8. Another sad passing: Syd Mead, “visual futurist” and the conceptual artist behind Blade Runner, Alien, and TRON, died in late December last year. Over the course of his career, Mead designed cars, houses, restaurants, and, most famously, the future itself: “Mr. Mead had a reputation for doing thorough research and making educated guesses about what was to come. A good Mead design looked amazing, but it also looked plausible.” A brief documentary of Mead’s work is available on YouTube, and on the artist’s website you’ll find many of his most famous designs—including Deckard’s car and gun, as well as some early sketches of the TRON light cycle

9. For all ye New Yorkers looking for something to do next-next Saturday, January 18, Anthology Film Archives are playing host to a 1990s movie marathon. No titles will be announced until they show up on screen—“it’s more fun that way”—but for just $30 you’ll get access to six features in 35mm. “Are we showing Titanic? As if! These six movies are guaranteed to blow your mind while wallowing in day glo colors, deconstructed suits, raving ‘til dawn, and X-treme edginess.” Organized by FC contributor Grady Hendrix, Anthology has previously hosted marathons for the Seventies and Eighties (twice, actually), so if you’re struggling to wrap your head around whatever the 2010s were (the… Teenies?) grab a seat and soak in the magic of a decade when, famously, “nothing happened.” 

10. Finally this week, some more sad news: legendary acting coach and director Jack Garfein has passed away at 89. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1930, Garfein was a Holocaust survivor whose influence was felt by some of Hollywood’s biggest names—James Dean, John Ford, and Elia Kazan among them. Garfein founded the Actors Studio West in Los Angeles with the help of Paul Newman (which he talked about at a recent Film at Lincoln Center panel), as well as New York’s Strasberg Institute and the Jack Garfein Studio in Paris. He directed two films, Something Wild and The Strange One, and in 1987 starred in Brian McKenna’s film A Journey Back, which retraces Garfein’s experience in Auschwitz. 

We leave you this week with McKenna’s film in full, courtesy of Canadian documentary collective The Fifth Estate: