A Whirlwind Month

When I began this blog seven years ago (!) I had two thoughts in the back of my mind. First, I assumed I would be blogging almost daily. Second I figured I could keep doing this for maybe five years at most.

I would say something about turning it into a source of occasional income, but that would be three strikes and out.

On the positive side, one of the major reasons I have found it hard to keep up with even a weekly schedule recently is that I have so much paying work as a film critic and lecturer that the fun stuff -- and make no mistake about it, this is fun -- has suffered. No apologies. Just an explanation of sorts.

That said, it has been a turbulent month of film news and releases, made more complicated for me by minor surgery and its after-effects (something good, I promise). It has been a month in which the film world Les Blank, Roger Ebert and Bigas Luna, among others. It has been a month in which the Tribeca Film Festival has opened, and the 38th annual Iras have taken place. I've been up to my fanny in speaking engagements about which more momentarily, and there have been some interesting movies to be seen.

Let's get to work.


 Speaking of paying work lecturing on film, let me pull your coat to a couple of my upcoming appearances. As frequent readers of this blog will know, one of my occasional gigs is as a speaker at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival. The final weekend of that estimable event is coming, and I will be introducing a screening of an excellent Israeli feature, Naomi, on Saturday night, April 20. You can find all about it here.

I'm even more excited about my next upcoming gig. I'll be teaching my film appreciation class, "How to Watch a Movie" at the 92nd St. Y, beginning in early May. The Y's website is a tangled maze, so you might be better off phoning them at 212-415-5500. It's a seven-session class and I'll be showing some great films, including Griffith's True Heart Susie, Renoir's The Crime of M. Lange, Sirk's Written on the Wind, Hitchcock's Psycho and Welles's Touch of Evil. Nothing ground-breaking perhaps, but how can you go wrong with the classics?


About two-thirds of the way through Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City, 1900-1922, an historian recounting the terrible atrocity in which hundreds of the city's Greek residents were forced into the waters of the harbor by the burning of the city and violence of the Turkish troops rampant there adds a vignette of Turkish boys swimming amongst the corpses, cutting off ears and fingers in order to steal jewelry. It is a chilling detail, but one that I found as I watched the film just one step too far from what had been, up to that point, a compelling and comprehensive documentary film about a tragedy about which I knew very little. The story may very well be true, but in a context that is fraught with controversy, claims and counter-claims among Greek sources, Turkish sources and many others, it feels like the infamous images of the Boche bayoneting Belgian babies, Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti babies to their deaths in order to steal incubators, and countless other manufactured atrocity stories. There is virtually no gainsaying the tragic truth of what happened to Smyrna, that the city, once a citadel of cosmopolitanism, was reduced to ashes by Turkish troops and its substantial Greek population killed or driven into exile. And Maria Iliou's documentary film recounts this story briskly, effectively and movingly. But this one detail seems to raises a warning flag for me, a warning flag that could easily disrupt the power of this otherwise admirable piece of filmmaking.

 Smyrna's harbor in happier times

Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive, with my natural sympathies being infiltrated by the cyncism that is bred by the antics of pernicious PR liars like Hill & Knowlton, who were responsible for the incubator story, in case you've forgotten. At any rate, I offer this cautionary tale as a caveat. Otherwise, Smyrna is an excellent example of how a filmmaker can recreate an historically significant moment through the judicious use of source materials, highly intelligent and engaging historians and period photos and footage. Thge story is a profoundly tragic one and, with that one little proviso, well told. The film is playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City.

Also playing at the Quad are a pair of Jewish-related films, one documentary, the other a rather fizzy but insubstantial comedy, which I reviewed in Jewish Week. The Revolutionary is well worth a look, Paris-Manhattan rather less so.

While we're on the subject of Jewish Week reviews, let me draw your attention to a new documentary by Marian Marzynski, the director of Shtetl. His new film, Never Forget to Lie, is having a sneak preview at the Museum of Jewish Heritage next Sunday and will be shown by PBS on Tuesday, April 30. It isn't as ambitious as the three-hour Shtetl, but much more personal and quite lovely.

And, as noted above, the Tribeca Festival opened this week. My first piece in Jewish Week on the event can be found here. I'll be blogging from the festival intermittently over the next couple of weeks. Each year the event gets a little bit better but the one thing that has been consistent in the time I've covered it is the graciousness with which the festival staff treats working journalists. It may mean nothing to my readers but, understandably, it matters to me. (Actually, it should matter to you; these nice people make it easier for us to see movies, which means I can tell you more about what's playing, etc.)


A few quick links to bring you up to date on events I mentioned at the outset.

My friend and colleague Ed Sikov has one of the best of the many appreciations of Roger Ebert right here.

Speaking of fellow Ira voters, we held our celebration of all things cinematic in Provincetown last month,and a good time was had by all, of course. As I have noted in earlier posts, we selected our 100 best films of the 1950s this year, in addition to the 2012 awards, and the results were certainly interesting. You can read all about it, thanks to Michael Giltz, with whom I share tabulating duties on the decade lists (he supplies the math genius, I contribute the mistakes). Michael has been good enough to post a veritable history of the Iras, well, all the winners anyway, on his own blog, Popsurfing. He also lists our 1950s choices in order of group preference.(Hey, it's not my '50s list, but it's pretty good.)

Speaking of my lists, at long last here's my 2012 list, based 88 new films seen (one of my slower years, admittedly).

The stark beauty of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the best film of 2012

  1.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – Nuri Bilge Ceylan
  2.  This Is Not a Film – Jafar Panahi and Mohjtab Mirtazeh
  3.  The Miners’ Hymns – Bill Morrison
  4.  The Kid with the Bike – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
  5.  Abendland – Nikolaus Geyrhalter
  6.  The Loneliest Planet – Julia Loktev
  7.  The Forgotten Space – Allen Sekula and Noel Bűrch
  8.  Habemus Papam – Nanni Moretti
  9.  Footnote – Joseph Cedar
 10. The Rabbi’s Cat – Joan Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux

Honorable Mention: Amour (Michael Haneke),  Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari), Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman), Bernie (Richard Linklater), The Deep Blue Sea (Terrence Davies), Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), Hitler’s Children (Chanoch Ze’evi)

Not a great year, perhaps but a year with some great films. I like to approach that question in the spirit of Marty Blake, the former NBA head of scouting who died a few weeks ago; when I was still a sportswriter and interviewing him in a year of a "weak" pro draft, he told me, "There are Hall of Famers in this year's draft; there always are. We just don't know who they are right now. Take another look in ten or fifteen years."