Sunday, February 2, 2020

Mati Diop's “Atlantics” at The Beacon Cinema: Jan 31 - Feb 6 | Bertrand Bonello's “Zombi Child”, Kantemir Balagov's “Beanpole”, Céline Sciamma's “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, Patricio Guzman's “Cordillera of Dreams” and Pedro Costa's “Vitalina Varela” at SIFF Cinema: Feb 7 - Mar 5

In last year's cinema overview, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody tackled what is probably the most significant factor in the contemporary landscape of moving pictures; “It has been a banner year for movies, but you’d never know it from a trip to a local multiplex, or from a glimpse at the Oscarizables. The gap between what’s good and what’s widely available in theaters is wider than ever,“ he wrote. Continuing the argument in his "The Twenty-Seven Best Movies of the Decade" selection Brody asserted; "Not only do a small number of blockbuster movies dominate the industry’s economy, but the sheer fact of popularity is multiplied and amplified online. Crowding out coverage of less-popular yet ultimately more significant movies at precisely the moment when, because these movies get scant distribution and are often virtually hidden on streaming sites, critical attention is all the more essential to their recognition." For evidence, the skeptic needs look no further than the work from hundreds of writers, critics and programmers seen in Film Comment's 50 Best Films of The Decade selection, which go some way to form what can be considered a global critical consensus. The mechanics of this gulf between the consensus described in the pieces above, and what's widely available in domestic theaters and the dominant streaming platforms, is precisely surmised in Dennis Lim’s excellent supporting article, Films of The Decade: “The Termite's Return”.

Lim observing; “While distinctive work is emerging all the time, especially on the margins, and therefore easy to overlook, many of the institutions that determine what gets made and shown still function as forces of homogenization, from film schools to the funding bodies and development labs that are sometimes attached to the very festivals that serve as showcases for the end results of this often highly professionalized process. Ours is an age of fatiguing overload but also of numbing sameness: too many movies, too many film festivals, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many lists, too many hot takes and think pieces that turn complicated issues into cultural talking points and empty posturing - all of which amount not to a lively discourse but a reinforcement of conventional wisdom (or worse). The abundance of the age is deceptive and it masks both structural limitations and systems of control," He writes. "The brave new world of digital streaming promises instant access, but choice is a pernicious myth when entire swathes of cinema are conveniently forgotten or actively suppressed (as is happening with Disney’s continued withholding of 20th Century Fox titles from repertory theaters). Everything is market-tested, only for us to be told that what people want is more of the same. The late-capitalist logic is seamless: what we get is not, as advertised, plenitude, but its precise opposite, a narrowing of options to an algorithmically determined menu and a simultaneous impression that no other options exist.” Evidence to the wider abundance, and richness of the content on offer globally that is not seen represented within such an environment, is reinforced by the hundreds of contributors to The British Film Institute's own annual affair that is Sight & Sound's 50 Best Films of 2019. Look also to Cahiers du Cinéma's Top 10 Films of 2019, The Guardian's 50 Top Films of 2019, Film Comment's Best Films of 2019, and Best Undistributed Films of 2019.

An image begins to come into sharper relief. One of a international cinema culture which the dominant commercial exhibition and streaming entities do not participate. Or when they do, it is nominally, and only with the tried-and-true as with this year's Academy Award-winning film from Bong Joon-ho. By contrast, our local independent cinemas are to be hailed for choosing to engage in this cultural consensus, and having faith in audience's willingness to seek out films that have garnered attention at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Venice, and Toronto. This next month sees a continuously satisfying run of features, beginning at Columbia City's recent addition to the city's cultural landscape, The Beacon Cinema. Their programming of Mati Diop's ruminative, supernatural and poetic post-Colonial love story "Atlantics", with it's vantage into issues of class, duty and servitude in the developing world is to be championed. As is the fact that the film was briefly freed from the confines of it's US distributor, Netflix. Another equally supernatural grappling with Colonial legacy can be seen in Bertrand Bonello's “Zombi Child” at SIFF Cinema. Bonello's film screens for three short days before their programming of Kantemir Balagov's “Beanpole" and it's depiction of the trauma of war, and the price of survival in 1945 Leningrad. Shifting time periods yet again, Céline Sciamma’s 18th Century story of a doomed love, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", demonstrates a new mastery of a classical, almost Hitcockian style (and the channeling of classic Greek poets) which like "Beanpole", brought in another five star review from Peter Bradshaw at Cannes. Lastly for the month, SIFF has programmed two works bridging the worlds of personal essayist documentary, and the richly experimental. The most recent entry in Patricio Guzman's revolutionary cinema, “Cordillera of Dreams” envisions the Andes as a metaphor for Chile's political history. And this year's Locarno Film Festival winner from Pedro Costa is deserving of being seen for it's exquisite visual palette alone. “Vitalina Varela”'s story of mourning and rebirth continuing the Portuguese director’s observations on the impoverished Lisbon neighborhood of Fontainhas, with Ventura, and now Vitalina, as Costa's primary creative partners and subjects in a deeply saturated dramatic portraiture.