Tuesday, January 6, 2009
The list-maker's crisis
It's only Day Two, and I already need your help.
Ever since I saw the amazing Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days last week (that's a lot of time periods, but please follow the capitalization and italics), I've been struck by the 2008 version of my annual quandary:
How does a film get fixed with a definitive release year?
If that seems like a rather esoteric thing to get hung up on, read on and I'll explain why it's bothering me.
You see, ever since 1996, I've been keeping a year-end list of my favorite films released each year. It's not like most year-end lists, which stop at 10. In this case, "favorite" is a relative term that also encompasses "least favorite." I rank all the new releases I see each year -- from #1 to all the way down to #82 (or so it was last year, besting my previous high of 80 set in 2002). I also see plenty of other films from other years, though that probably goes without saying.
When I first started, I would wait until the end of the year to take a hard look at everything I'd seen, and then try to make some kind of sense of it. But in the last ten years or so, I've decided it's both easier and more fun to rank as I go. Which system produces a truer representation of my feelings about these films is hard to know -- but I like this system better, so I'm sticking to it.
Naturally, I have to set a deadline by which I stop ranking these films, otherwise I'd continue to obsessively shuffle my rankings forever. By tradition, I give myself until the morning the Oscar nominations are announced -- which this year, in a break from Oscar's own tradition (nice to know that Oscar is less anal-retentive than I am), will be on a Thursday rather than a Tuesday. Thursday, January 22nd, to be exact. I assume they are still sticking to the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. PST. (Yes, I get up to watch.)
Unlike the full-time critics who see everything, I don't get invited to all the special screenings (nor could I attend many of them anyway, since they tend to occur during the day). So I have to allow myself a few extra weeks more than their editors allow them, to catch up on late-year releases -- trying to stick more to the Revolutionary Roads and the Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons than the Marley & Mes and Bedtime Storieses. (Those titles don't really pluralize, do they.)
Anyway, that gives me a less than two-and-a-half more weeks to see everything I'm planning to see this year, or forever hold my peace. I may see another 2008 movie the very next day, but it'll be too late -- the "official record" will be sealed.
Over the years, these year-end lists have been fun to revisit. Not only do they give a good snapshot of who I was at that time (and in most cases I'm proud of it, my #1 ranking of Titanic in 1997 notwithstanding), but a lot of times they show me how wrong I was (though I do refuse to throw Titanic under the bus). I don't generally berate myself for the things I ranked really highly -- in most cases I still think those films have exceptional merit. Rather, it's the films I didn't know would endure so well that I laugh at. Let's take the excellent year of 1999. Who could have known that I would rank the cult favorite Office Space a lowly #42 out of 57, below such classics as Varsity Blues, Outside Providence and Ed TV? Not I. That ranking is probably the best example of the flaws inherent in the rank-as-you-go system -- I saw that film early in the year, and by the following January it was getting elbowed aside by schlock. Funny, because even now I remember how hard we laughed in the theater. Then again, that could have been a release -- a group of grad students and I had just come from the funeral of a classmate's father. In fact, we were all still dressed in our funeral attire. Quite surreal.
That, my friends, is what you call a digression.
So as I write this, I'm at only 66 for 2008, which puts me on a pace to see one a day from now until the 22nd if I want to break last year's record total. And though I've been cramming lately, let's say it's probably not going to happen.
And now we get to the crisis. That number may actually be as high as 69 ... or as low as 65. That's right, I have four films of indeterminate vintage, and as of right now, I've only assigned one of them to the year 2008. And only tentatively at that.
Here's my problem: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was sure as heck a 2007 film in Romania. But it wasn't released in the United States until January 25, 2008 -- three days after the Oscar nominations came out. There simply would have been no way for me to include it on a year-end list for 2007. Short of flying to Romania, that is.
I used this logic to convince myself to include it on my 2008 list. It's no small decision, as I currently have the film ranked at #2 for the year. Doesn't a film this good deserve to be recognized in my own "official records," especially since I saw it in the first year I was realistically eligible to see it?
But just when I'd decided to wash my hands of the affair, I came across moviefone's year-end movie list. Quite a strange list to be sure. But who am I to criticize? Anyway, as I was going through the rankings, I came across 4 Months -- it was ranked a lot lower than it deserved to be, but its mere inclusion convinced me that I'd made the right decision.
This certainty lasted all of about two minutes. Soon afterward I came across The Counterfeiters, another film I'd recently seen and quite enjoyed.
Which just so happened to win the Oscar for best foreign film of 2007.
How could it be more cut-and-dried that a movie belongs to 2007, than to have it win a 2007 Oscar? In fact, when I saw it in August, I used that same logic to exclude it from consideration. Yet it was released even later, stateside, than 4 Months -- not until February. In fact, its very nomination for the Oscar was probably a factor in its US release (forgive whatever minor liberties I'm taking with cause and effect in the process of distributing foreign films). That's quite a paradox for my own personal ranking system.
My reasoning for keeping The Counterfeiters on the sidelines for now, yet including 4 Months, is that The Counterfeiters was nominated for an Oscar and 4 Months was not. That's quite flimsy reasoning, especially since the Romanian film was nominated for numerous other awards last year, including a Golden Globe. In fact, the very reason it was even on my radar is that I saw it on some critics' top 10 lists last year. I guess those critics had the money for that ticket to Romania (or to Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or).
Foreign releases are tricky. I so want to shower praise on 4 Months -- however privately, in the confines of my blog and a Microsoft Word file called "2008 Film Rankings" -- that I can't believe it would be ineligible for such praise under any of the rules I've established. But those rules also make a certain amount of sense, don't they?
So I'm asking you, dear reader, to weigh in on this issue. What do you think I should do about these two movies? Do you qualify them, or disqualify them? Or do you observe a distinction between them? And don't just tell me what you think I want to hear. I'm not looking for a Yes Man. (Especially if it's Jim Carrey). I'm looking for a real dispassionate, academic consideration of this. Or at least, the best you can give me with the morning's first cup of coffee.
Remember when I said my current number of films for the year could be as high as 69? (Heh heh). Well that brings up another issue. I've seen two movies this year that haven't been released yet. And in fact, they don't even have a future release date.
You see, my wife is one of the judges for a horror film festival called Shriekfest, which takes place in Los Angeles in October. Her own short film played the festival in 2006, and this year she became one of the judges, who would help decide this year's slate. Naturally, I watched some of the films with her -- both shorts and features.
The three features were pretty sketchy in terms of quality: Midnight Movie, iMurders and Shadowland. The best of that bunch, Midnight Movie, appeared at Shriekfest as well as the possibly more acclaimed Chicago Horror Festival a week earlier. (The Chicago Horror Festival is mentioned on IMDB -- Shriekfest is not). According to IMDB, Midnight Movie also got a limited release starting October 24th. Done and done.
But what about the others? iMurders played Shriekfest, I'm sure in part because it had a name cast that included the likes of Billy Dee Williams, Charles Durning, Gabrielle Anwar and William Forsythe. But as mentioned earlier, this appearance is not noted on IMDB -- though something called the Downbeach Film Festival is. And then the thing that really throws things into chaos: IMDB suggests that iMurders will have a 2009 release, but offers nothing more in terms of specifics. Does that mean I have to save iMurders until next year? (Shadowland, by the way, has yet to materialize in any shape or form, though at least it finally has an IMDB page).
When I first moved to LA, I used to accept those invitations you'd sometimes get to see a film that was basically complete, but didn't have a release date yet. Awaiting audience feedback to see if any tweaking was needed. That's how I saw the Kevin Costner thriller Dragonfly and Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (then called something like Introducing Warren Schmidt). I don't do this anymore because I don't want to see an unfinished movie any more than I'd want to see the first day's work on the Mona Lisa. But I did do it then, and it wasn't such a worry because I knew both films were sufficiently high-profile to get releases the following year. But what if Shadowland never turns up anywhere? Is it now or never? In this case, I ask it more as a philosophical question than out of any concern for this particular film.
I've prattled on and on, and if these are the only two postings I've made at the time you read this, you'll think I want you to bunker in for 20 minutes every time you come to my blog. Nah -- most of the time I'll ask for no more than 15. ;-)
But in any case, if you want to answer my question, I'd love to hear what you think.